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Visiting the Historic Town of Portal, AZ, in the Chiricahua Mountains

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Post Office in Portal, Arizona

Post Office in Portal, Arizona

Where Is Portal, AZ?

Portal is an unincorporated town located in the foothills of the Dragoon Mountains in the southeastern corner of Arizona in Cochise County. Cochise County was named for the famous Chiricahua Apache Chief Cochise, who lived in the Chiricahua Mountains. Portal is located on the eastern side of the Chiricahua Mountains, which is also called the Cochise Stronghold and the Wonderland of Rocks.

The area has long been, and still is, known as an area of cattle ranching and mining. But during the last 20 years, Cochise County has also become known for excellent birding and other wildlife watching. It is also a good camping and hiking recreational area. It's a quiet place to rest and recharge.

Portal Lodge, Cafe and Store

Portal Lodge, Cafe and Store

Portal was supposedly named for a prospector named Duffener who discovered a cave at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon. As with many settlements in Arizona, wherever there was a good source of water, the population grew. While the buildings in Portal mostly date before 1940, there are new homes being built in the surrounding area.

What's the attraction to visit Portal? Cell phone use is spotty and the Portal Lodge and Cafe doesn't have television. (Not sure about the cabins or bed and breakfasts in or near Portal.) Gas isn't available, although the old gas station is really neat. To me, the biggest attraction is the beauty of the canyon area, stargazing, watching the birds, and leaving the bustle of the big city behind. Not to mention the friendly people that make their home there.

Looking West from Portal Lodge

Looking West from Portal Lodge

Birding and Wildlife Near Portal

Birders who visit Portal and the Cave Creek Canyon have the chance to view the Elegant Trogon, the Mexican Chickadee, burrowing owls, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, warblers, hawks, golden eagles, and other varieties of birds, depending upon the time of the year.

The Southwest Research Station (under the direction of the American Museum of Natural History in New York) in the area provides opportunities for scientists, conservation biologists, and wildlife researchers to attend seminars on how to preserve environmental biodiversity. In addition to studying birds and animals, seminars are given on ants, butterflies, moths, bees, and herpetology.

Sometimes, individuals are permitted to stay at the Research Station. Naturalist Journeys is a Portal-based company that offers birding tours through the area. During our visit, we were treated to view a diligent woodpecker that was hard at work drilling holes into a tree trunk.

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Portal in the Winter

Portal in the Winter

Relaxing in Portal

We took a walk up the Canyon road and ate dinner at the Portal Lodge, Store and Cafe. The store was built in the 1920s and still remains a true "general store." The merchandise included basic food staples, wine and ice cream, snacks, books on the area, souvenirs, and general "stuff."

The eight-table cafe's menu had a variety of options, and the prices were reasonable. The food was good. In the morning, we enjoyed a walk along the creek where we looked at several stone houses. We also saw the Myrtle Kraft Library and enjoyed a visit with Joan at the Portal Post Office. She was a wealth of information on the area. Reading, walking, and napping were a treat to us.

Nearby Museums to Visit

On our way home from Portal, we stopped in at a couple of fabulous museums.

Chiricahua Desert Museum

We also visited the Chiricahua Desert Museum close to Rodeo, New Mexico, which is a "sister" town to Portal. The museum offered a huge selection of Native American jewelry and an impressive variety of books on the wildlife and history of the area. The Museum was an odd mishmash between an art gallery and a collection of desert reptiles.

Rex Allen Museum

On the way home, we visited the Rex Allen Museum in Wilcox, which houses a collection of the memorabilia of both Rex Allen the singing cowboy and his son Rex Allen Jr. We enjoyed a fine lunch at the local favorite Big Tex BBQ, which is housed in an old railroad dining car (on Railroad Ave).

Old gas station in Portal. Note the Shell sign and gas pump.

Old gas station in Portal. Note the Shell sign and gas pump.

I've crossed Portal off my Arizona bucket list, but I'd love to return next fall or summer to view the surrounding beauty in another season.

How to Get to Portal

To reach Portal from Northern or Central Arizona, travel on I-10 east of Wilcox. Then, if you don't mind traveling about 20 miles on a dirt road before crossing into New Mexico, take the exit marked Portal.

If you prefer a paved road, take the exit at Road Forks, NM, that is marked Rodeo Portal South. Alternate travel would be to visit Bisbee, AZ, to Douglas, and then drive north on 80 through Rodeo, NM, to Portal.

Another forest road travels from the west side of the Chircahua Mountains to Portal, but we were told that the road was unpaved, curvy, and narrow.

© 2012 mactavers

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