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.
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.
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.
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.
Chiricahua 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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. 😉
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.