Coronado National Memorial

Arizona > Coronado National Memorial

A small area of the Coronado National Forest adjacent to the Mexican border is given over to the Coronado National Memorial, which commemorates the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540, the first known excursion of Europeans into the United States. Francisco was a Spanish governor who arrived in Mexico in 1535 and was chosen to lead a large group of settlers charged with exploration of the then unknown territories to the north, suggested by rumors of the time to include major cities decorated with gold and jewels - the 'Seven Cities of Cibola'. Coronado entered what is now Arizona along the San Pedro River valley, a few miles east of the memorial, then continued north along a route marked today as the Coronado Trail, though there is no trace of his passage remaining today. Instead, the site offers several hiking trails through the wooded foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, excellent views over the river valley and south into Mexico, a cave, and an interesting variety of plant and animal life. All could be seen in less than one day and the area is quite isolated and not well known hence does not get many visitors. But there are many other hiking possibilities in the national forest to the west and north, and it is close to other historic sites like Tombstone and Bisbee.


The Coronado National Memorial is reached by driving 40 miles south along AZ 90 then AZ 92, starting from exit 302 of I-10 at Benson, then 5 miles west along Coronado Road (FR 61). It is not well signposted. The drive is along the west side of the San Pedro valley, between two rather barren mountain ranges; the immediate surroundings are empty grassland at first but become quite built up around the Fort Huachuca Military Reservation and the dispersed town of Sierra Vista, where much new housing development has taken place. En route, AZ 90 passes the Kartchner Caverns State Park, containing a beautiful cave system whose discovery was only reported as recently as 1978, though tours are very expensive ($24 per person), and no photography is permitted.


PDF format maps of the Coronado National Memorial, from the National Park Service:

PDFPark map (88 kb)
Coronado expedition route map (1540-1542) (2.1 mb)

The Memorial

Most unusually for an NPS location, there is no entry fee at Coronado. After the park entrance, the approach road climbs gradually, into oak woodland, and soon passes the visitor center. From here, a 0.7 mile path leads up a hillside to Coronado Cave, a small cavern with limestone formations.
To control the number of visitors, (free) permits to enter the cave need to be reserved in advance. The memorial road continues through the forest up Montezuma Valley, becomes quite narrow and twisting, then unpaved at the far end of the valley where it ascends sharply with several tight turns and past precipitous drop offs; no vehicles longer than 24 feet are allowed. The road reaches a fine overlook at the top of a ridge (Montezuma Pass), close to the western edge of the memorial, a point with excellent views down the canyon and west over more desert and mountains towards Nogales, to where the unpaved road leads after another 50 rough miles. A short trail leads to the top of Coronado Peak (6,864 feet), with even better views, including south to distant mountains in Mexico.

Holiday Inn Express Sierra Vista
Holiday Inn Express Sierra Vista, 15 miles from the national memorial


There are two main hiking trails in Coronado National Memorial - one is Joe's Canyon Trail, descending 1,350 feet from Montezuma Pass Overlook along a side canyon back to the visitor center, initially through bushy grassland then into the oak woodland. This is best hiked downhill as a one-way trip, if a car shuttle is available. The second is the Yaqui Ridge Trail, just over 1 mile long but also quite steep, this drops 500 feet down a ravine, right to the border with Mexico, and international boundary post number 102. The path itself is unremarkable but it is worthwhile to stand at this very remote spot at the edge of the country, or even step over the fence into a different land. The course of the border is visible a long way west, as a barbed wire fence running dead straight over the uninhabited grasslands. This point is also the southern terminus of the Arizona Trail, a cross-state route spanning 790 miles that ends in the north at the Utah border in Coyote Valley, near the Paria River.
Highlights: Scenic, mountainous area bordering Mexico, commemorating the first known excursion of Europeans into the United States. Several trails and viewpoints
Nearest city with hotels: Sierra Vista, 21 miles
Management: NPS
Location: 31.348, -110.224
Seasons: All year, though conditions are rather hot in summer
Hills to the south, in Mexico
View east, along the border

Obelisk marking the US-Mexico border
Nearby places Similar places

Chiricahua National Monument (80 miles) - eroded rocky pinnacles and unusual wildlife

Patagonia Lake State Park (70 miles) - desert lake in the hills above Nogales

Tombstone (49 miles) - famous old silver mining town
Nearby places Similar places

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas - isolated mountain range with diverse climate zones, surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert


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