Coronado 3

A Phoenix Day trip to Coronado National Memorial

One of the least visited National Park units of Arizona, Coronado National Memorial is in southeastern Arizona. A wilderness area near the Mexican border, Coronado features pinion and juniper-filled mountains, besides oak woodlands and grasslands. But its most spectacular feature is a dry cave.

A three-hour drive from Phoenix, the area makes a good day trip destination. Or, combined with several other destinations, it makes a great stop along a longer Southern Arizona road trip.

What’s in a Name? Why Coronado?

The park is named after the Coronado expedition from 1540, although fortunately it doesn’t have any memorial set up in Coronado’s honor. he expedition is known in history not only for its exploration, but for the cruelty towards indigenous people they encountered.

The expedition, led by Coronado, set off in search of the famed cities of Cibola, and, naturally, gold. European soldiers, their Aztec allies, several Franciscan priests, and their servants and enslaved people set off on an armed expedition in search of riches and gold. Naturally. And, anyone who has ever been in the Southwest, understands why they haven’t found any. However, this didn’t stop them from trying to conquer the land they walked through.

The park has no evidence of the expedition, but it offers views of the San Pedro River they used to travel by on the way to he mythical Cibola. The story is common, similar to the Cortez stories, and many others who came to the “New World”. Spaniards all seemed to have come following stories of riches and gold.

The (Awful) Story of the Coronado Expedition

The Spaniards were notorious for their insatiable lust for gold and their expeditions in search of it. After conquering the area of today’s Mexico, they heard more stories of “cities of gold”. So, in 1540, an expedition led by Coronado set off in search of these cities. It really is just another expedition story in search of gold, but taking over new lands and hurting hose who lived on them.

In this case, the expedition in search of the fabled cities of Cibola brought Spanish soldiers, priests, and their servants with sock animals, besides an army of Aztec allies. Besides gold and riches, Coronado was to claim all the land he might “discover” for Spain.

His expedition came up from Mexico through Sierra Vista and the area that is now the Coronado National Memorial. hey marched north through he Hopi villages, eventually reaching the villages of the Tiguex (now Tewa) people. Instead of he gold cities they expected to find there, they found traditional native villages. But that didn’t stop them to think “hey, maybe we should just return home, leave these people in peace, they have no gold”. Instead the logical thing to do, they attacked the villages, killed natives, and started a war with the Tiguex.

The Park as a “Site of Conscience”

According to he National Park site, Coronado National Memorial was created to commemorate the lasting legacies of the first interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in the American Southwest. Unfortunately, most of these interactions were violent.

In this regard, the park serves as a site of conscience, a place where visitors can reflect on the past and the trials the Native Americans endured.

On a more positive note, eventually, the interactions changed and resulted in cultural exchanges, and a unique combination of traditions, music, arts, and architecture specific to the area.

Though named for the Coronado expedition, the Park shows no evidence of it

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona
View in Coronado National Memorial

The park shows no evidence of the Coronado expedition. However, the views from it shows a much more recent conflict area: the border wall. Like an ugly scar on the face of the otherwise beautiful scenery, the border wall crosses the land.

As I turned around after hiking up to the cave in the park, I expected a gorgeous scenery. Which it was, except a long, dark line passing through it. It took me a while to realize what it was: a monstrous wall, separating people, hurting the fragile desert environment. Stretching as far as I could see, it sands witness of humanity’s divisive nature, mistrust towards “others”. It’s ironic how the “strongest nation” in the world feels the need to build walls…

Just as the park commemorates and awful moment in history, with no physical evidence of it, I hope that some day our children or their children might only know about this awful wall from stories, but see no evidence of it. I am sure that some day walls will be broken – by the children or grandchildren of same humans who built them. It happened before…

But we didn’t visit to see the border wall or think about it. The park is far enough from this monstrosity to offer a pleasant visit away from crowds.

The Coronado Cave

The Coronado Cave entrance
The Coronado Cave entrance

We really drove down to this National Park land for the cave, and well, because in close to three decades of living in Arizona, I haven’t been there yet.

One of the few undeveloped limestone caves in Southern Arizona, the Coronado Cave, is about 600 feet long and 70 feet wide, and has several cave formations, according to the National Park site. Though they have found no artifacts in the cave, archaeologists think people through the ages used it as a shelter. Middle-archaic people used it around 6,000 BC. More recently, the Chiricahua and other Apache tribes, Mexican and European miners, and settlers also used it intermittently.

The Trail to the Cave

Coronado trail
The trail to the Coronado Cave

The cave is at the end of a half-mile trail. And since we were unprepared to explore the cave, the trail itself was the highlight of the day trip.

Though short, it kept ascending through several switchbacks on often rocky terrain. In city sneakers and jeans, carrying no water, I was not ready for this hike. Still, the surrounding natural beauty and the perfect autumn weather made it all worthwhile.

The best part of our little “expedition” was being alone in the green desert environment of Southern Arizona. The mountain, green with vegetation, showcasing the reason the Sonoran Desert is the greenest desert on the planet, offered a short, but enjoyable hike. Gorgeous views (except the ugly border wall), and a dry cave were a bonus for this day trip.

View from the trail to Coronado Cave
View from the trail to Coronado Cave

After reaching the cave, a peek inside was enough for me. At least during this trip. The entrance is tricky to navigate, and since I had no light other than my phone, I knew I could not go far once inside.

The Rest of the Day Trip

On the way back to Phoenix, we stopped at Tombstone, Bisbee, and eventually Tucson for dinner. Though we did it all in one day, the trip could be a great long weekend destination.

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