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Collecting in the Dragoon Mountains, Arizona

Last Updated: 19th Dec 2015

By Rolf Luetcke

Collecting in the Dragoon Mountains, Arizona
By Rolf Luetcke

The Dragoon Mountains in Southeastern Arizona have a rich history. Mostly because it was a place the Apache Indians had a stronghold with the large rock formations that gave them lots of hiding place. This is where they hid when making raids on the early prospectors to the Tombstone area. Cochise and his band of Apache Indians used the Stronghold in the center of the mountains as home base.
The Dragoon mountains are not as high as some of the other mountain ranges in the area but have pine and juniper trees toward the tops.
There is a major dirt road that leads from near Tombstone and winds its way through Middlemarch Canyon and over the top of the pass and down the other side to the town of Pearce on the east side. The dirt road is usually in good condition and there are many places to drive side roads and explore. Many of the side roads are very rough and require four wheel drive at the least. Views from the pass are wonderful to the East and one can see for over a hundred miles.
There is a road near the western beginning of Middlemarch canyon that goes to the north. Near this small dirt road are several prospects called the Gordon Springs Prospects. They were small and have few minerals worth picking up. Near here is where the road to Gordon Camp goes off. The locals call Gordon's Camp China Camp but there is China Peak and I think this is where the names got mixed up. The road starts for the first half mile in decent condition but quickly becomes a real challenge for many vehicles. It doesn’t take long before the road is on rock, mostly limestone that makes it necessary for a vehicle to have high ground clearance. Talking to some weekend campers near Gordon Springs we talked about the wonderful views from the Gordon Camp road. They said they had attempted the road a year before and after the first mile had found it too rough and turned around.
I remember a number of years ago when the forest service kept the dirt roads in a passable condition but that stopped more than twenty years ago when the new policy was to let the back roads go “back to nature” and not maintain them. When the road was kept up by the forest service I drove my Volkswagon to the top of the road but not anymore.
The Gordon Camp road quickly shows this by becoming rougher and rougher. For much of its way the road is only a one lane road with few places to turn around for most vehicles. We have taken only an ATV up the road in the last years and it has just the right capability to make the trip a pleasure and not a big chore. The road is certainly not for the faint of heart with steep drops to the valley below. From the Middlemarch road below one can barely see the road cut winding its way along the steep slope and then disappearing into the huge rocks at the top. From below it appears to be access to an interesting part of the mountains and one wonders who in the world would built a road there. When one is actually driving the road one wonders this even more.
The mineral deposits of the upper China Peak area where discovered in the early years of the 1900’s. The San Juan mine up high on the slopes of China Peak was begun about 1913. China Peak got its name from the Chinese laborers that were brought in to build the road. I am still amazed how they were able to build the road which practically along the whole distance goes through solid rock. It must have been quite an achievement to finish the road.
Depending on the time of year the road is full of wildflowers. The main plants are full of thorns and typical of a desert mountain range. Flat tires can be a problem because of all the thorns and spines. Nearing the top of the road one sees the large granite rocks and wonders how the road goes through this area. Right at the top the road goes through a big gap in the boulders. Views from the road are spectacular and one can see south into Mexico and many of the other mountain ranges in the area. Tombstone is visible in the distance to the SW.
Once through the rock pass you enter a small bowl in the upper mountains. The vegetation is different here with mostly oak, pine and juniper. When you reach the small valley floor there are a number of cement foundations of what once was Gordon’s Camp. Nothing else remains of the original structures. This spot is one a number of the locals came out to get out of the summer heat below.
The dirt road continues up toward China Peak and one can see the San Juan mine up on the slope above. A couple of side roads lead off to the east and go up and up toward the higher peaks above. The roads end at small prospects with small mine dumps. Lead-zinc ores are to be found with iron here and there and lots of quartz.
The main dirt road nears the San Juan mine with a small canyon leading off to the right and at the base of the hill is a small seep that was dug out and now holds a small pond. This may have been used at the time of mining for water for the mine and people working it. This is nice for the wildlife since there is no running water up in this area. A short way up and there is a pullout to the right at the base of the San Jaun Mine dumps. We parked here since the road that continues up from here is quite bad. I did take it farther up one time with the ATV and turned around when one could see the road ending up above with no more mine dumps visible. You cross the dump of the mine about half way up and the road has erroded a lot here and wide vehicles are in danger of falling off the dump. The road is also off camber and a heavy vehicle is in danger of sliding and there is no place to go but about fifty feet down the mine dump. The road then goes steeply up and there is one spot with a rock one has to climb and this is difficult since the road surface is very loose. Even the ATV has to be in low range four wheel drive to make this spot. Since Mary doesn't like near death experiences I park and we walk. Having raced motorcycles as a youth I tend to traverse obstacles she finds extremely dangerous so now I follow my older age and park and walk. At least a little bit of wisdom has come with age.
Where the road crosses the dump is a mine that is open and supported at the front by large timbers. It is more scenic than a place to enter the mine. There are three levels of tunnels that enter the mountain and the mid level is at the top of the largest dump. The mine has many small holes that work their way up the steep slope. Continuing up the old dirt road there is a large hole just at the edge of the road that is barely visible. When you approach you notice it was a place that the ceiling had fallen into the mine below. There is a large hole here and a drop of about 15 or 20 meters to the mine workings below. When the ceiling collapsed it took with it the plants that were growing before and a couple are still growing now down in the ground. They get enough sunlight to continue growing.
The San Juan mine has another entrance around to the NE of the road. This dump and entrance is not visible from the road and I first learned about it on a satellite photo of the mines. I walked up to this entrance on the second trip and found little of mineral interest. The mine tunnel is still open and in good shape. I went in a short way but the tunnel is full of flies and the air is stale.
At the main dump there are about a dozen minerals to be found. Many of the rocks are full of garnet and epidote. There is a lot of hedenbergite and hematite. The mine was a lead, zinc and silver mine with a small amount of copper. We collected some rock here to examine at home and I found about 14 mineral species in all, mostly microscopic.
Exploring some of the side roads that went high up toward the tops of China Peak we found much of the same kind of ore. Most of the dirt roads here are accesible by ATV but they are not for the faint of heart. Since none of the roads have been maintained, errosion has taken its tole.
The San Juan mine area is a fun place to visit not only for the mineral but also for the views. The road is one of the roughest we have driven on but it still seems to get plenty of use by adventure seekers.
Back on the main dirt road up Middlemarch Canyon there are other mines to visit. One mine on the SW slope of the Dragoon Mountains is the Silver Cloud and we have visited that mine a few times. The mine has many dumps but the rock here is mostly barren of mineralization. Most of the rock is calcium based but the small amount of color did prove to be interesting. I found the best crystals of chlorargyrite I have collected. They are microscopic but well crystalized with blue-green rosasite and white calcite in limonite. This mine also has numerous tunnels and the main mine is very overgrown now but has a very high ceiling with a large bee hive when I visited it last time. The bees were active but not numerous. Since the bees of the area are mostly africanized it is best to stay away. I did enter the mine one time and found everything coated with dust and bat droppings. The mines here are used by many animals to get out of the heat in summer and cold in winter. There were evidence of larger animal droppings also, javalina, fox, coyote and more. It is always wise to be careful entering the mines since they are great places for wildlife, including rattlesnakes.
Farther up Middlemarch Canyon are several other small mines that have some minerals to collect. The road goes to a pass and there is a smaller road leading to the tops of the mountains but this road is a crank case buster. I don’t say this lightly since I had parked below some bad places and walked but another vehicle had gone by and as we walked on we saw lots of fresh oil. As the vehicle came back down I told them of the oil leak. The couple said they didn’t have tools but lived at the bottom of the mountains and even if the leak proved to be trouble they could nearly coast home. There was also quite a bit of old oil and I assume the leaks were a common thing to happen on this rocky road. Even high ground clearance was sometimes not high enough. At the top is another mine called the Abril Mine but the last hundred yards of road is nearly impassable. The road here is not only off camber but cut by deep ruts. Even with an ATV I decided to turn around. I later found that the ATV we had purchased used was sold by the man who owned it after rolling it at this exact spot. My wife said it would likely have been his wife telling him to sell it after rolling it here. I never did talk to the actual owner, it was sold by a friend.
On the other side of the pass, the east side, is another group of mines with one being called the Middlemarch Mine. This mine has a number of copper minerals that can be found on the dumps. There are also post mine minerals in the dump material and a small smelter had once been used here and in the slag I found minerals as well. The mine entrance has water in it and one time I braved the muddy water and went in to see what it was like inside. The tunnel is a straight shot in and one can walk on some old water lines in places where it was muddy and wet. A mineral chalcomenite had my interest peaked but where the mine tunnel diverged in several directions the tunnel leading down was completely under water. The water was glass clear and the wooden steps leading down were easily visible. The rare species chalcomenite I had been interested in had been found in the lower tunnels of the mine, now under water. It was possible that with all the water, more minerals were forming in the old mines below.
Going up one could climb ladders and there was another entrance where you could see light. It was quite a climb but I went out this way one time to see if it was possible. In one of the worked out rooms of the mine were numerous places where chalcanthite grew on the ceiling. This bright blue mineral is post mine and usually unstable once removed from the mine but this material was quite stable after removal. One would need something to get at the chalcanthite since it was high on the ceiling, maybe 20 feet up. I was able to pick up some from the floor. I think people had thrown rocks at it since I saw no sticks of poles that could reach it. There was also no place to set up a ladder so I was only guessing at how the material got onto the floor. The other thing which came to mind was that since there was chalcanthite on the ceiling there must be ore still above but no way to get at it. One thing we also found inside the room with the chalcanthite was a part of the wall with a seam of wollastonite. I found this out when I broke some off and took it home and found what it was then when it also fluoresced nicely.
My wife had been introduced to the fluorescence of minerals in Arizona by her father when she was young and got me to check all the minerals we collected under UV when we got home. Just about all the mines in Southern Arizona turned out to have fluorescent minerals. The minerals of the Dragoon Mountains of this area are no exception and many are fluorescent. They have calcite, smithsonite, fluorite, wollastonite, powellite, scheelite, hydrozincite and more that fluoresce.
There are a number of other small prospects I have visited in the mountains and found helvine at one that we stumbled upon by accident. I had looked for a small prospect also that I had purchased a wulfenite specimen one time but have not been able to find this prospect. Looking for the wulfenite location is when I stumbled upon the mine with the helvine. There is helvine at the Abril Mine and it is imbedded in calcite and must be etched out. The material I found at the small prospect was free standing crystals in vugs in the host iron ore but many of the crystals were iron coated. I suppose there would be a way to remove the iron staining but I have left the crystals as I found them.
The Dragoon Mountains were extensively explored in years past because of all the mineralization in nearby Tombstone. There were discoveries here but none turned into the bonanza that Tombstone or Bisbee had.
The Dragoon Mountains still afford mineral collecting for those willing to get off road or do a bit of hiking. Most of what can be collected is the fluorescent material and for those interested in collecting small and micromount minerals.

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