French Joe Canyon: Where the wild things remain


The pull-out to French Joe Canyon and the Whetstone Mountains looking east just off State Route 90. Notice the older red rock layer with the gray limestone on top in the background.

There’s always has been an air of mystery to French Joe Canyon.

Located about 40 miles southeast of Tucson, take Arizona State Highway south toward Kartchner Caverns State and Sierra Vista. 

The canyon is just under 1.5 miles after Kartchner Caverns State Park. The turnout is hard to spot approaching but it’s well marked. A vehicle with high clearance is needed; and four-wheel drive is recommended especially if the dirt road is wet. 

However, if your vehicle is not up to that task, hiking in will add a couple of extra miles with minimal physical exertion. 

The Whetstone Mountains don’t have any roads into the higher elevations, but dirt roads into its lower canyons. 

“You can disperse camp, there’s no developed trails into it but it’s a popular site for backcountry touring,” said Zac Ribbing with the Forest Service’s Sierra Vista Ranger District.

The drainage system makes for an excellent path to follow and for navigation in the absence of muted trails.

For the more experienced hikers, French Joe Canyon provides a route to hike to Apache Peak the highest peak of the range at 7,711 feet. You’ll be gaining over 4,000 feet in elevation and hiking close to 13 miles round trip to complete the adventure but rewarded with outstanding panoramas.  


French Joe-Miner-Lumberjack-Legend

Named after a prospector who came to the Whetstone Mountains in the 1870s, little is known of the life of the eponymous French Joe. He was a longtime resident who has largely passed into legend. Yet little is known about his death. 

According to Scott Dyke of the Green Valley News in an email, Joe was killed in the canyon by bandits. 

Other versions of the story have Joe becoming wealthy by finding several gold nuggets, only to be taken hostage by bandits and dying in the ensuing shootout between his captors and the law. Still another version has him disappearing after his mine partner was killed  

Curly Bill gets cut down 

On Oct 28, 1880, several drunks on Tombstone’s Allen Street were shooting at the moon. Curly Bill was among those revelers. Tombstone’s marshal Fred White, along with Wyatt Earp, showed up to disperse the proceedings. 

White ended up taking a bullet and died a few days later, the mantle of sheriff was passed to Virgil Earp until elections were held. 

Curly Bill was cleared of wrongdoing when White, before his death, stated that in Bill’s drunken stupor he didn’t realize the pistol was cocked when he was handing it to authorities. 

Bill’s fortune to not go to the gallows for the incident didn’t cause him to change the course of his life. His outlaw ways would get him in several gunfights before crossing paths with Wyatt one last time at a nearby spring. Earp fired his double-barrel shotgun at Curly, nearly cleaving the outlaw. 

The Tombstone Weekly Epitaph reported on the incident as “Battle of Burleigh” on March 27, 1882: “The town has been full of reports for that last two or three days as to the whereabouts of the Earp party.” 

No sooner had one report got underway before another was started that contradicted it. This, like the many other reports, was as baseless as the fabric of a dream.” 

“It has been learned that during the night the friends of Curly Bill went out with a wagon and took the body back to Charleston where the whole affair has been kept a profound secret, so far as the general public is concerned.” 

Much of the information in this initial report by the press has a viel of confusion even as it had just occurred. Further, sourcing much of it is a challenge as The Epitaph cites their informational source as “our informant.” The line between fact and legend often gets fuzzy out this way. 

Looking forward 

Photo courtesy of Conservation CATalyst and The Center for Biological Diversity

Sometimes ghosts, legends and the ethereal will still find you in French Joe. 

“The famous jaguar El Jefe, the only jaguar in modern times to be detected in the Whetstones, was treed by a lion hunter in 2011,” said Randy Serraglio, with The Center for Biological Diversity, in a recent email. 

“Also, the first-ever live ocelot detection in the state of Arizona (they historically lived here for centuries, but no one ever shot a photo before) occurred in the area of French Joe Canyon. 

“We’ve had about five ocelots photographed in Arizona over the past several years. There is also a very small breeding population of maybe 50 in extreme south Texas, centered on the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near the Rio Grande.”

“If we protect the habitat they need to survive, it’s only a matter of time before female ocelots and jaguars are detected in Arizona, too,” he said. 

If you’re more inclined to spend your time looking down at the ground than looking up at the landscape, French Joe Canyon affords opportunities to get a glimpse of the residents of Southern Arizona in the distant past.

Looking back

Fossilzed crinoid stem looking like a stack of coins in the rock.


The gray layer of rock on the upper slopes of the canyon is a 320-million-year old remnant of the Panthalassa Ocean: The one world ocean to Pangea’s one world continent. Your geography class at Pima would have been streamlined.

Global temperatures were higher at the time the rock was formed. The poles lacked ice, allowing global sea levels to be higher, but Arizona’s elevation was much lower at that time. Sea life at this time might look similar to your marine biology textbook. Crinoids, a relative of the starfish, were common in Arizona at this time as were honeycomb coral. Most were colonial and relied on their neighbors to help anchor it and support themselves.

These fossils are great indicators of what their environment was like in Arizona during their lives.

 They were filter feeders relying on the movement of waves to carrying their meals to them then they strained plankton or algae out of Panthalassa. Filter feeders require clear water, otherwise those filters will become clogged. Based on this, no rivers were nearby to bring in new sediment. 

The limestone in French Joe is mostly composed of the mineral calcite. The calcite itself was formed from all these various ancient sea critters to build up their anatomy. Eventually enough crinoids and coral lived and died, lived and died to make enough calcite to form the limestone of the canyon. 

The limestone of French Joe also makes up Kartchner Caverns, and limestone of the same age extends to the Black Hills of South Dakota to being the type of rock that forms the largest cave network on the planet, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. It also makes up numerous caves in the Western United States.

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