Inspired by Spires – The Wonderland of Rocks

I had never heard of Chiricahua National Monument prior to reading about it on my hiking buddy Mark’s blog back in 2015.  I couldn’t even spell it, let alone pronounce it or find it on a map, but one look at those gorgeous canyons full of towering columns, and I quickly added it to my wish list..   Then one by one, my favorite bloggers all posted their own account of hiking “the big loop,” causing my anticipation and determination to visit this otherworldly place to heighten.

The quiet, intimate Bonita Canyon Campground, only 25 sites.

The quiet, intimate Bonita Canyon Campground, only 25 sites.

The Stafford Cabin, a 110-year-old log and frame homestead cabin on the grounds of Chiricahua National Monument.

The Stafford Cabin, a 110-year-old log and frame homestead cabin on the grounds of Chiricahua National Monument.

Faraway Ranch was at first a homestead in the late 1800's, but became a guest ranch in 1917.

Faraway Ranch was at first a homestead in the late 1800’s, but became a guest ranch in 1917.

Ranger tours offered twice daily inside Faraway Ranch.

Ranger tours offered twice daily inside Faraway Ranch, where most furnishings are original.

But visiting Chiricahua National Monument is not easy.  Located in far southeast Arizona just 60 miles from the Mexico border, remoteness is just one aspect that adds to Chiricahua’s charm.   The nearest services (not even a roadside market) are back in Willcox, a 37 mile drive one way.   This keeps the crowds down, as the only real attraction is the scenic drive and 17 miles of gorgeous hiking trails where the “crowds” are made up of rocks.  Even though the campground was full during my stay, I rarely encountered more than a couple of people per hour while hiking.

Massai Point, top of the 8 mile scenic drive.

Massai Point, top of the 8 mile scenic drive.

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Although Chiricahua NM is known as a good place to see wildlife, including foxes and the coatimundi who migrated all the way from South America, this was my only "wildlife" sighting.

Although Chiricahua NM is known as a good place to see wildlife, including javelina and the coatimundi who migrated all the way from South America, this was my only “wildlife” sighting.

The little Bonita Canyon Campground is tight…tight on availability and tight on fit.  There are only a few sites that will accommodate RVs, and none over 29 ft.  I tried weeks in advance to get three consecutive nights in the same spot, then worried for the remaining weeks leading up to my visit that I would be able to fit.  While reserve.gov does describe the sites by length, there is always the factor of overhanging tree limbs and crazy terrain requiring Lego-like construction to reach some semblance of being level.   I got lucky and nabbed a site for 3 nights during their March-April peak season, that ideal window after the weather warms up, before the summer monsoons.

Mushroom Rock

Mushroom Rock

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It was a tight squeeze backing in.  Between the big boulders marking the entry way, the curved driveway, and the large limb overhead, opposed by the drop-off on the opposite side of the pavement, it was a high anxiety challenge even though I had left the Tracker a half a mile back down at the Visitor Center. I rarely need to accept offers of help backing in, but when a kind passerby asked if he could help, I jumped at his offer with relief.   I could not have done it without him, as the wrap-around fence and tree limbs hugged the Winnie on both sides, while the boulders behind stopped her from encroaching on the big “back yard.”   By some fluke, I had enough sun on my front panel to keep my house batteries above the 90% range.

The campground was mostly filled with tenters, so I was glad I would not be “the campgrounds most hated,” running the generator during breakfast and Happy Hour. (That title belonged to the guy in the travel trailer who stored his generator in the amplifying, reverberating metal bed of his pick-up truck.) I only saw one other rig larger than mine in the campground. He was pulling a 28 ft fifth wheel. He actually drew an audience while trying to navigate the two deep dips in the campground road designed to accommodate runoff.

Echo Canyon Trail

Echo Canyon Trail

This is how you will feel after doing the 9 mile hike!

This middle column is how I felt after doing the 9 mile hike!

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IMG_4168Chiricahua is a hikers paradise, even offering a one way Hiker’s Shuttle.  Every morning at 9:00am, the park service leaves from the visitor’s center and drives through the campground, collecting a total of 14 hikers to ferry up the eight mile Bonita Canyon scenic drive to Massai Point.  This one way shuttle allows visitors to enjoy hiking the length of the canyon without having to climb back up.   Still, even with a one way shuttle, the shortest hike is five miles back to the campground down through Echo Canyon…nine miles if you start at Massai Point and hike the longer trail around Inspiration Point, looping through the Heart of Rocks.  I did both, though the latter took me the better part of a day.

Hiking amidst these giant towers of wind-carved rocks was magical.  Although alone on the trail, I couldn’t  contain my enthusiasm not to exclaim expletives around every corner, shouting my amazement and appreciation for the astounding beauty throughout “Echo Canyon.”

Balanced Rock, but not the "Big Balanced Rock."

Balanced Rock, but not the “Big Balanced Rock.”

Okay, so this is the "Big Balanced Rock."

Okay, so this is the “Big Balanced Rock.”

Pinnacle Rock, another iconic landmark in the park that graces posters from the National Monument.

Balanced Pinnacle Rock, another iconic landmark in the park that graces posters from the National Monument.

What makes the trails at Chiricahua even more endearing is to know that most of them, along with the scenic drive and Visitor Center, were constructed by the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The 180 CCC enrollees came primarily from Texas and Arkansas, and earned a wage of $30 a month (plus room and board and a uniform) for what had to be back-breaking work equivalent to the “rock pile.”   Several conversations with others affirm “We need a CCC today!”  It would be interesting to see what kind of salary it would take to attract someone to work that hard in today’s world.  The camp remained from 1934 to 1940, while they built trails around the canyon, lending imagination and giving names and personality to features throughout the canyon, like “The Old Maid” and “Punch and Judy.”

Just some of the 180 men of the CCC that built trails throughout the park from 1934 to 1940. Note signs to indicate landmark rocks.

Just some of the 180 men of the CCC that built trails throughout the park from 1934 to 1940. Note signs to indicate landmark rocks.

Though the signs have been upgraded, many of the names still remain today. This is Thor's Hammer.

Though the signs have been upgraded, many of the names still remain today. This is Thor’s Hammer.

"Punch and Judy" can be found on the Heart of Rocks loop.

“Punch and Judy” can be found on the Heart of Rocks loop.

Diving duck, or duck laying an egg as some have suggested.

Diving duck, or duck laying an egg as some have suggested.

Thankfully, in 1976, the US Congress protected 9,440 acres of Chiricahua National Monument as “Class I, pristine wilderness.”   The information placard along the trail explains, “According to the law, the ‘designated wilderness’ is protected from human developments which alter the land such as roads, buildings, utility lines, and mines.”   I am turning into one of those old people who say repeatedly, “Those were the good ole days.”

View of Massai Point from the opposing Observation Point

View of Massai Point from the opposing Observation Point

View from Observation Point.

View from Observation Point.

Contemplating "Lunch with a View" by Pam whose boots have gone before me....

Contemplating “Lunch with a View” by Pam whose boots have gone before me….

But Chiricahua history goes way beyond that time, as it was once part of the Apache Nation, who named it “The Land of Standing Up Rocks.”  The Chiricahua Apache were among the most tenacious of warriors, made up of some of the most legendary chiefs during the Apache wars; Geronimo and Cochise, who maintained a stronghold and is believed to be buried in the Dragoon mountains within the monument.  Though his body has never been found, one of the nearby mountains bears an eerie resemblance to his profile, ergo the name “Cochise Head.”

In the distance, the mound known as "Cochise Head" for its resemblance of the legendary warriors profile.

In the distance, the mound known as “Cochise Head” for its resemblance of the legendary warriors profile.

But this is still “modern history” by Chiricahua standards.  These rocks sculpted by time from 27 million years go from an eruption of the Turkey Creek volcano.  Pinnacles are composed of fused volcanic ash called rhyolite from that eruption.   Although the rhyolite is tougher than one would imagine given that it’s volcanic ash, I don’t remember a time when my boots and legs were covered in more dust from a hike.  Known as a “sky island,” the long extinct volcano created an isolated mountain range in a grassland sea.

"The Grottos" section of Echo Canyon.

“The Grottos” section of Echo Canyon.

More grottos...don't get caught here in an earthquake!

More grottos…don’t get caught here in an earthquake!

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"Wall Street" along the Echo Canyon trail.

“Wall Street” along the Echo Canyon trail.

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Chiricahua National Monument has a fun challenge in play called “I Hike for Health.”  They challenge hikers to cover five miles of the park, snapping “selfies” along the way to prove their progress, then stop back by the Visitor Center to collect your “Rock the Rhyolite, I Hike for Health” pin.  Though I am not a fan of the selfie, I wanted the pin to add to my Junior Ranger badge collection.  😉

Hiking five miles wasn't the hard part...taking the selfies as proof was.

“I Rocked the Rhyolite,” (and unlike the women at the Visitor Center, you have been spared the selfies to prove it!)

I thoroughly enjoyed my three days in Chiricahua National Monument.  The weather was perfect, the campground peaceful, and it had to be some of the best hiking I’ve done in a good long while…and in today’s environment where our wilderness and public lands fall under increasing scrutiny, I am able to appreciate it all that much more.

“Our lives need the relief of the wilderness where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.” ~ Henry David ThoreauIMG_4097 IMG_4102 IMG_4112

Driven by the View

I didn’t think I would blog again.   Once I stopped and looked at it from “the 30,000 ft view,” it seemed like just more social media servitude that seems to have taken over much more of my life than I like to admit.   I began to question was I still being honest with myself that I blogged solely for the sake of preserving memories?   Or had it become a social crutch to keep me from feeling isolated in my chosen nomadic lifestyle?    An excuse to spend time on the laptop that could be better spent outdoors or reading a book? Continue reading

Bourbon Mash and Birthday Bash

Getting myself down from the skinny green branches of the “tree” that is New England did not come easily to me.  As I sat on the edge of Maine’s Long Lake pondering my next move, I changed my mind almost hourly as to which direction I would take.  My overwhelming urge was to make a B-line back to the comfort of the Great Southwest as quickly as possible…almost as if I felt guilt from two-timing on a summer fling. Continue reading

“October”

Continuing on south down Hwy 100 through the long sliver of the state of Vermont, October begins to redeem itself.  For all the autumnal splendor that Montpelier and Stowe were lacking, I find in the Green Mountain National Forest of southern Vermont.  Seems the further south I drive, the more beautiful it becomes…completely contrary to my expectation for New England. Continue reading

Chlorophyll Climate Confusion

I’ve often read “If you want to learn about yourself, TRAVEL!”  But it seems the opposite is true for me.  I learn most about myself when I am immobilized.  Sitting stationary at my friend Deb’s beautiful lakeside cabin for a month spending mornings watching the waterfowl and evenings sitting on the dock listening for loons brought about a lot of introspection…a little glimpse of what my life would be like if I were to ever stop my perpetual motion.  Continue reading

Hut to Hut with the Presidents

During my years living in New York, I always felt like my life as a Manhattanite was a little different than others.  But then that’s what makes Manhattan so great! EVERYONE is “a little different.” 😉 Unlike most of my friends, my closet contained more camping and hiking gear than it did designer shoes. That should have been a clue.

I was also a proud card-carrying member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Continue reading

At Home with the Loons

First and foremost, thanks to everyone for their very kind comments regarding my “Canadian Summer Series.”  There is nothing so gratifying to one who loves writing and photography than for someone to say “You took me there.” Every last one of your comments were a welcome companion as I charted my solo course through unfamiliar territory.

On a recent visit to the local Chinese Food take out joint, I received an amusing question in my fortune cookie Continue reading

Maritime Wrap-up: New Brunswick

So at last….it’s finally here. After thirty blog posts of my summer travels up, down and around the Atlantic side of Canada, this is my last installment…My final stop before crossing the border into Calais, Maine.

Of all four provinces visited this summer, I spent the least amount of time in New Brunswick. I feel like I slighted it in my haste. But have no regrets, for in doing so I dedicating the most time to Newfoundland. Although filled with beautiful spots, New Brunswick didn’t feel all that different than Maine. Continue reading

Maritime Wrap-up: Prince Edward Island

As I see it, there are four areas of interest in visiting Prince Edward Island. First, they are known the world over for their mussels…any seafood restaurant or raw bar worth its seasoning will at some point feature “PEI Mussels” on the chalkboard as a special of the day. The second reason is for the long expanse of beautiful red sand beaches, some of which make up PEI’s one and only National Park. The third reason to visit is if you have an odd curiosity about potato farming, as PEI produces 25% of Canada’s potatoes. And the fourth reason would be “All things Anne.” For those who may not know (myself included up until now) the 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables, which sold 50 million copies was based on Prince Edward Island. A large museum complex bears the title. I had mild curiosity, but no one attraction was calling to me. Okay, well, maybe the mussels. Continue reading