dos cabezas: two peaks, one incredible destination
by matthew j. nelson
a balanced rock sits on top of the 8,354-foot summit of dos cabezas mountains.

back in 1880 the town of dos cabezas was booming. the lure of gold and silver in the mountains south of willcox encouraged hopeful prospectors to construct about 50 buildings, a hotel, post office, three saloons, a blacksmith shop and a massive stamp mill for the bounty that would flow forth from the hills. like most mining towns, dos cabezas crumbled almost as quickly as it was erected. the last 120 years has seen little change within this tiny town, where rattlesnakes outnumber residents. most people recognize it as an interesting sight on the way to chiricahua national monument, if they even take notice at all.

the real treasure of the dos cabezas can be found high within the mountains, somewhere between the prominent twin summits that rise 3,200 feet above the valley floor. it's not silver or gold, but the kind of wildness that can only be found in a remote mountain range that rarely sees human visitors. i don't know anyone who has ever been up the dos cabezas, and i'd be willing to bet that migrating peregrine falcons are far more common than hikers near the tops of these craggy domes.

the adventure begins just east of the town of dos cabezas, along mascot mine road (see "finding your way" for specific directions), which winds higher and higher into the mountains. the stamp mill is the first of many historic buildings you'll encounter during your hike, located just east and south of where you hit the dirt. there is a locked gate at 6,100 feet elevation, and shortly thereafter the real beauty of the canyon reveals itself. due to perennial water, sycamores, netleaf hackberries and alligator juniper trees grow to unbelievable size, and the canyon supports a rich diversity of flowers. with each step you take into the upper regions of the dos cabezas you'll discover plants and animals from both the sonoran and chihuahuan bioregions.

the road becomes increasingly steep over the next few miles, and it's easy to find your way. just stick to the main road climbing higher into the mountains, and avoid the many spurs that all dead end into mining sites and homesteads. about an hour beyond the locked silver gate you'll crest a hill and get your first sweeping view to the south. the chiricahua mountains and distant ranges in sonora, mexico, may cause your jaw to drop. not far from here is an old wooden house that is slowly deteriorating into the earth, with a deep mine shaft nearby supported by a concrete tunnel. instead of walking toward the house, turn left at the big locust tree and continue uphill on the road.

follow the winding road uphill until the radio towers and the dos cabezas fill the skyline to the east and north, respectively. take the second dirt road to the north (at 7,200 feet elevation) and walk directly toward the twin peaks that look much more intimidating than they actually are. after a minute you'll cross a primitive barbed wire fence supported by a healthy grove of alligator juniper trees. after a few minutes an unfamiliar tree will appear. this is mountain mahogany (cercocarpus), and quickly becomes the dominant species at this elevation. i've seen this tree occasionally in the mountains of arizona and northern mexico, but i can't recall seeing it in abundance like here in the dos cabezas. traditionally, natives used the roots of mountain mahogany to dye wool and other textiles a rich red color.

the road heads north, then west toward a lone radio tower. the road appears to terminate at a small saddle near a power line. this is an excellent spot to rest, relax, and enjoy the amazing views of the san simon valley to the northeast. if you're not inclined to scramble up steep rock ledges and bushwhack through dense foliage, consider this your turnaround point. you could also walk west along the fence line to the radio tower a few hundred feet above you. the view here is breathtaking, and doesn't require any technical skills. but if standing on the cabezas is your goal, and you're feeling strong and adventurous, continue walking northwest toward the dos cabezas on a faint remnant of a road. it gets increasingly steep and rocky, and as the oak forest thickens you'll lose sight of the peaks. follow the road until you're approximately halfway between the north and south peaks, then head west into the forest.

the dos cabezas mountains offer solitude and adventure in a remote corner of southeastern arizona. there is no trail from here, so your route finding skills will be put to the test. walk through the dense forest, aiming for the narrow gap between the two cabezas. the higher up you get, the narrower the canyon becomes. although it's difficult to lose your way, it's steep, slow, and difficult to navigate through the thick canopy of trees. decades worth of leaves have accumulated here, and the canyon is so choked with branches, roots and vines that it's rarely flushed out by rain. the farther you get into this tiny canyon the farther you seem to get from the desert environment you've been hiking through all day. giant walnut trees grow in abundance, dripping with wild grapevines and scarlet creepers. coral bells, penstemon and other wildflowers flourish here as well. the earth is pungent with the scent of humus. a thick network of tree trunks, many of which grow like elephant trunks in search of sunlight, makes forward mobility a serious challenge. it's microclimates like this one that give arizona's "sky island" mountain ranges their unique character.

while wallowing around the nearly impenetrable forest i discovered a madrean alligator lizard (elgaria kingii) wiggling through the leaves. this uncommon reptile is often found along the mogollon rim, but it's also at home in the sky islands of southern arizona. the dos cabezas are also home to collared lizards, golden eagles, mountain lions, and in 1986 a jaguar was seen here.

the only clue that you're on the right track is an old shovelhead at the base of a large overhanging rock. from here, climb up and to the left higher into the canyon. this is one of the more difficult moves on the approach to the peaks. soon the angle of ascent will decrease, and you'll notice near-vertical rock faces to the north and south. this is the gap between the cabezas, and is the gateway to both summits. since the north summit is slightly easier to ascend i recommend scaling it first. continue walking through the forest and angle toward the north. there are a few huge walnut trees growing alongside the cliff face, and it's near here that you can find a low angle ramp to scramble up. continue the ascent around the west side of the cabeza and look for a vegetated crack on the northwest side. this is the easiest path to the top, but still requires some confident rock climbing skills. once you get to an oak tree at the top of the crack, climb directly east up and over the blocky rock face. within a few minutes you'll be standing on top of the north summit.

the author enjoys a clear view of arizona, new mexico and mexico from the north summit of dos cabezas. it's always exhilarating to climb to the top of a mountain, and look out over hundreds of miles of desert, but there is something extraordinary about the summit of dos cabezas. perhaps it's the dramatic willcox playa to the west, the mountains of mexico to the south, or the innumerable peaks and ridges that make southern arizona unlike anywhere else on earth. it's certainly a view that very few have experienced, and likely very few ever will.

descend the same route you came up, and if you're still feeling adventurous, consider climbing the south summit as well. after all, dos cabezas are better than una, que no?

walk along the north face of the south summit's massif until you come to a debris chute, easily identified because it's the only major weakness splitting this giant rock. carefully scramble up the chute, which soon becomes a chimney. angle up and to the west as the chimney becomes increasingly steep. at times you have to wiggle your body up the chimney itself, and other times it's wise to get out of the chimney to make upward progress on the rock face itself. you must be confident with your skills, and very careful not to kick loose rocks down on your partner, in order to make it to the top. the route is fairly obvious once you're there.

the south summit is three feet higher than its northern twin, which has been measured at 8,357 feet elevation. if you're one of the few who enjoys the view from this memorable and rewarding vantagepoint, congratulations. now you know why this is among my favorite peaks in the state.

the abundance of raptors on the peaks is incredible. on a single hike earlier this summer i saw a red-tailed hawk, zone-tailed hawk, cooper's hawk, peregrine falcon, and a pair of golden eagles soaring high above the sonoran desert.

access issues

the dos cabezas mountains are located on bureau of land management (blm) property, so they're public land. you used to be able to drive up mascot mine road, about 2.5 miles east of hwy. 186, but a few years ago a private landowner blocked the road with a locked gate. the blm took the issue to court, and the judge ruled that they had the right to lock the gate however they must provide a key for public access. if you roll down there unannounced, chances are you'll have to walk up the road. however if you're planning your hike in advance, the numbers to call for access are (520) 384-3045 or (520) 507-3047. you might be able to arrange a way to get the key. be warned that the road becomes increasingly steep and washed out, so a four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended. if you have any questions about access to the dos cabezas mountains, call the blm office in safford at (928) 348-4400.

finding your way

from tucson, head east on i-10 toward el paso. at willcox (exit 336), exit the interstate and follow the frontage road into the town of willcox. turn right (south) on highway 186 toward chiricahua national monument. if you need baked goods or espresso for your early morning adventure, stop by bucko's coffee across from the historic train depot. drive south on hwy. 186 for 15 miles into the tiny town of dos cabezas. just �-mile south of the dos cabezas sign, look for muddy's mine on your left. this is the turn for mascot mine. turn left (east) on mascot mine road. if you have the key to the red gate, continue for 2.5 miles up mascot mine road until you reach a solid silver metal gate blocking the road. if you don't have the key, park across from muddy's mine and walk up the road. it's about 12.5 miles roundtrip, with a 3,300 feet elevation gain. the key will save you about 5 miles if you're able to drive all the way to the silver gate.

more than one way to the top

there are a few other ways that people have ascended dos cabezas, and you would be wise to do a little studying before setting off on your own. two great online resources with trip reports, photographs and route descriptions are: and

matthew j. nelson is a nature writer, professional outdoor guide and sonoran desert devotee.

this article was originally published in the october 2008 issue of the desert leaf.