Chiricahua National Monument's "Wonderland of Rocks" Is Also a Hiking Smorgasbord
Tucked away in southeastern Arizona is an off-the-beaten-path destination often described as a "Wonderland of Rocks." The nickname for Chiricahua National Monument is certainly appropriate, but this area offers a lot more than interesting geology, including a fine variety of trails that could be called a hiking smorgasbord.
When the temperature starts to rise in the desert, savvy Arizonans know the higher elevations in Chiricahua offer a pleasant combination of cooler climes, interesting scenery and something for just about everyone looking for a fine spot to spend some time on the trail. The elevation in the park ranges from 5,124 feet at the entrance station to 7,310 feet at the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, so this is an area that can claim a true four-season climate.
That means many days from now through May—and again in the fall—can offer some of the best weather of the year in the park, but March in the mountains can also be highly variable. Recent weather has ranged from sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s to a winter storm warning and snow to start this week, a reminder why it's always important to check the latest forecast before any park trip.
Colorful Names to Fit the Scenery
The weather can change from day to day, but it's those timeless rocks that make this place special.
Even a quick look at a map of this "island in the desert" offers some intriguing hints at what you'll find in these rocky clefts, and the names of local features even include a a tip of the Stetson to some colorful western history: Echo Canyon, Sugarloaf Mountain, the Grottos, Mushroom Rock … and Jesse James Canyon. There are also several impressive examples of geology holding gravity at bay, including Big Balanced Rock and Pinnacle Balanced Rock.
I spent a day at Chiricahua in late January, and although that's far too little time for this park, it offered a chance to sample some of the park's fine network of trails. Here's an overview of opportunities for everyone from strollers to serious hikers. You can also download a copy of a park map at this link to help visualize the trails and locations described below.
Valley Floor Hikes
The road into the park follows the floor of a high desert canyon and generally parallels the often dry Bonita Creek. If you're looking for an easy leg stretcher (and a "comfort" stop) after your drive, watch for the Faraway Picnic Area on the left, less than a mile after you enter the park. An easy quarter-mile short stroll from the picnic area takes you through trees and grassy meadows to the historic Faraway Ranch and a glimpse at pioneer life, Arizona-style.
If you want a slightly longer but still easy hike, the Silver Spur Meadow Trail continues past the ranch for about a mile to the Visitor Center and Campground, passing several points of interest in the Faraway Ranch Historic District. Be aware that stream crossings on Bonita Creek can occasionally be hazardous during spring snow-melt or after summer rains.
Whether or not you pause at Faraway Ranch, your next stop should be the Visitor Center for a trail guide and updates on trail and road conditions. That's also your last chance to top off water bottles—this is still Arizona!
For the best views of the interesting rock formations that are the signature feature of this park you'll need to head up—literally—into the center of Chiricahua. The six miles of scenic drive that wind and climb past the visitor center provide access to several trailheads, but for long-range vistas, just go all the way to the top—and the end of the road. Before you continue your drive, however, be sure the park's vehicle restrictions don't apply to your mode of transportation.
Vehicle Restrictions and Free Hikers Shuttle
If you're driving an RV or towing a trailer and plan to use the campground or drive beyond visitor center, it's important to read the park's vehicle length policy . The scenic roadway was originally "improved" by the CCC in the 1930s, and is correctly described as "a narrow, winding road with deep canyons, hairpin curves, and overhanging boulders." It's a great drive…but no place for a trailer or extra-long vehicle!
The park staff realizes those restrictions might limit activities for some visitors, so they've made provisions with a free hiker's shuttle, which departs the visitor center and campground area once each day at 8:30 a.m. The shuttle can accommodate 14 people and makes the trip uphill to Echo Canyon Trailhead and the end of the road at Massai Point. Shuttle riders must register in person at the visitor center; no telephone reservations, but you can call 520-824-3560 (ext. 302) to confirm availability of space.
Whether you drive yourself or take the shuttle, the scenic drive provides access to the best hikes in the park. The road ends at sweeping vistas from Massai Point—but before you hit the trail, don't forget that the elevation here is 6,870 feet! Unless you're already acclimated to those heights, it's important to pace yourself, even on a short hike.
High Country Hikes
Massai Point Nature Trail, which makes a loop from the parking lot at the end of the road, offers considerable variety in only a half mile of trail, and there's something for every level of activity and interest. Part of the route is paved and handicapped accessible, and leads to an enclosed shelter and observation point, with exhibits that describe key features visible from this lofty perch.
The remainder of the trail, although suitable for most families, does have numerous stone steps, uneven footing in spots, and some steep drop-offs alongside the trail. The park Trail Guide's description of "grand vistas of the surrounding valleys and mountain ranges" isn't overstated, so if you have time for only one short hike in this park and want to get a sense of what makes the area unique, this is a fine choice.
Although you can access an extensive network of trails with ratings ranging from "easy" to "strenuous" from a junction on the Massai Point Nature Trail, I chose to drive back down the scenic road for about a mile, to the spur road for Echo Canyon and Sugarloaf Mountain.
A Different Kind of Wall Street
From the parking lot for the Echo Canyon picnic area you have access to an extensive network of trails leading into the interior of the park, but one of the best, the Echo Canyon Trail, leads to another highlight, the Echo Canyon Grotto. A round-trip of only about a mile takes you right into the midst of the unusual rock formations.
Rated as "easy" by the park, this route does have some steps and uneven footing, but minimal elevation gain.
For a longer hike, the Echo Canyon Loop covers about 3.3 miles, beginning and ending at the Echo Canyon parking lot. It includes three trail segments through and alongside spectacular rock formations, including Wall Street and the Grottos. That trail guide and map you picked up at the visitor center when you arrived at the park will prove very useful in sorting out the navigation.
Into the Wilderness - and Back - in a Day
The term "wilderness" often concurs up images of long-range trips in vast tracts of land, so Chiricahua offers another surprise. Eighty-six percent of the park's 11,985 acres are designated as wilderness, and the majority of trail miles are located in those areas, so it's easy to have a true wilderness experience on any number of day hikes.
All hiking in the park will be day trips, since the only overnight stays allowed in the park are in the Bonita Canyon Campground, located near the Visitor Center. Backpackers looking for longer hikes in the area aren't out of luck. The park is surrounded by the Coronado National Forest and the 87,700-acre Chiricahua Wilderness. Information about that area is available from the Douglas Ranger District Office (520-364-3468).
Longer Trails for Serious Hikers
If you'd like to spend more time on the trail, or just enjoy a more challenging hike, the park has plenty of opportunities that the staff rates as "strenuous"—defined as requiring three to eight hours with elevation changes of 500 to 1000 feet. Examples include the 7.3- mile trek from the Heart of Rocks area to the Visitor Center and back, or you can make this same hike as a loop, beginning at the Echo Canyon parking area.
According to a park publication, the trail "for folks wanting to do everything" is Heart of Rocks: The Big Loop, which covers 9.3 miles. "Up and down and across the canyons, the Big Loop combines the best of the wilderness scenery. Be sure to start early, take snacks, and drink plenty of water on this ALL day hike."
Hiking After the Horseshoe Fire
During several weeks in June 2011, the Horseshoe Two Fire burned across 223,000 acres in the Chiricahua Mountains, and most of the park's nearly 12,000 acres were affected to at least some extent. As we mentioned in the Traveler earlier this year, visitors will certainly see impacts of the blaze, but there's no reason to avoid a trip to the park—or a hike.
The landscape after a major wildfire is different, and there are a few extra things to keep in mind when hiking in such areas. The park has posted some helpful information about "Traveling and Hiking Safely in a Burned Landscape," and it would be useful to review that before a visit.
Trail Guides and Other Information
You can download a trail guide for the park at this link, and you'll also find very useful information in the newspaper-style handout, The Explorers – A Visitor's Guide to the Southeast Arizona Parks. Pick up a copy at visitor centers at Chiricahua, Coronado National Monument or Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
Another outstanding resource is the Hike Arizona website, which has numerous photos, detailed trail descriptions and trip logs, a link to the local weather forecast and plenty of other useful information. Unless you're camping overnight at Chiricahua, an early start for your trip to the park will be helpful. It's about 40 miles to Wilcox, the nearest town with food, lodging and gasoline; Tucson is a 120-mile drive.You'll find details to help plan a visit on the park website.
The Apaches called this area "The Land of Standing-Up Rocks." It's an apt description, and many present-day visitors are likely to modify it only slightly: Chiricahua is also a place where the rocks are ... simply outstanding.