Mule Pass: Not Quite the Continental Divide – Bisbee, Arizona - Atlas Obscura

Mule Pass: Not Quite the Continental Divide

A mistaken marker makes an erroneous claim along the historic Old Divide Road. 


There is a Continental Divide marker in the small town of Bisbee. Its high and lonely spot along Old Divide Road seems like it should be the top of Arizona, but its placement doesn’t tell the whole story of Mule Pass.

When the road over Mule Pass was built in 1913 and 1914, it was done by prison labor. The stubby concrete obelisk that marks the pass was placed here partly to proclaim that fact, as well as memorialize the triumph of pavement over nature. But for some reason the marker added another claim: that Mule Pass was right on top of the Continental Divide, the invisible line separating the watersheds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  

That line, however, lies about 120 miles to the east, along a low rise in New Mexico. Whether they flow west into the San Pedro River or east into Whitewater Draw, the rains that fall on Mule Pass both eventually empty out into the Sea of Cortez, and onto the Pacific Ocean.

Bisbee, Arizona, is a former boom-town that nearly went bust, just down the road from the more famous Tombstone. This small mining community once pulled millions of dollars out of the ground, and until the Mule Pass Tunnel (which runs through the mountain down underneath the marker) was completed in the 1950s, the ride up and over the winding switchbacks of the Mule Mountains was the only way into town from Tucson or Tombstone.

History hasn’t preserved how or why the erroneous Continental Divide claim came to be memorialized at Mule Pass, but the roadside pull-off is still worth a stop—whether you are looking to the east at Bisbee’s Tombstone Canyon, gazing west out over the San Pedro Valley toward the Huachuca Mountains, or simply contemplating geography errors. 

Know Before You Go

Bisbee is 90 miles southeast of Tucson, and 7 miles north of the border with Mexico. The Mule Pass tunnel runs along AZ-80 heading north out of town, but to get to the Mule Pass marker take West Boulevard and turn up N. Old Divide Road. About a mile up the marker and overlook pull-off will be on your left.

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