Many people think of Arizona as a vast, open desert without vegetation, but Apache and Navajo counties encompass the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest.

Eastern Arizona's Apache & Navajo Counties

Snow drapes Arizona’s White Mountains Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
Photographer: Judi Bassett

Apache and Navajo counties encompass the world's largest ponderosa pine forest

In 1879, the Tenth Territorial Legislation hewed off the eastern edge of Yavapai county and formed Apache county. In 1895, as their final governmental act, the legislators split the single county to create Navajo county and parts of Graham, Greenlee, and Gila counties. Navajo county lay to the west and Apache to the east along the border of New Mexico.

The two counties remain today as they were established and though they account for the entire northeast corner of Arizona and 9,959 and 11,218 square miles, respectively, even combined, the area has only a small, sparse population of about 70,000.

St. Johns is the county seat of Apache county—though both Snowflake and Springerville have held the honor in the past—and Holbrook is, and always has been, the county seat of Navajo.

Early settlers foretold of success in agriculture, cattle, and sheep that would be brought to the area to graze upon the wild grasses found in the broad mesas and fertile valleys.

The Aztec Land and Cattle Company had already been established by the time the counties were formed and for more than a decade, the railroad had crossed the land. Backed by easterners, the owners of the cattle company purchased 1 million acres from the railroad and hired the Hashknife Outfit to bring in from Texas 33,000 longhorn cattle and 2,200 horses.

In 1922, the U.S. Army abandoned Fort Apache—a stronghold built on Navajo county reservation land in 1870—and shortly thereafter the Bureau of Indian Affairs converted the abandoned fort to the Theodore Roosevelt Indian Boarding School. The school was designated a National Historic Landmark, and today is a middle school for Indian children.

Nearly 66% of Navajo county is Indian reservation land. Individuals and corporations own 18%, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management control 9%, and the state of Arizona owns the remaining 5.9%. The entire county is a designated enterprise zone, and the principal industries are tourism, coal mining, manufacturing, timber production, and ranching.

When Major Green scouted the area in 1869 for a location to establish a fort, he wrote to his commanding officer, ““I have selected a site for a military post on the White Mountain River which is the finest I ever saw. The climate is delicious, and said by the Indians to be perfectly healthy, free from all malaria. Excellently well wooded and watered. It seems as though this one corner of Arizona were almost its garden spot, the beauty of its scenery, the fertility of its soil and facilities for irrigation are not surpassed by any place that ever came under my observation.” It is a description that holds true today.