On the sunlit January day we visited Chiricahua National Monument, we lingered too long in the Arizona town of Wilcox before starting our 35-mile drive south on Arizona Highway 186 across flat, brown scrub desert, facing a distant mountain. Winter sunlight had already begun to drop in the mid-afternoon sky when we made a left turn onto Highway 181 toward the entrance to the monument. Immediately, we went into mountains with oak and pine trees. While the green landscape surprised us, the rock pinnacles and stone columns that appear like guardians of the forest created a mysterious and magical backdrop that differentiates this land of the Chiricahua (pronounced “cheer-a-cow-wa) from other desert rangeland in the Southwest.
Boulders were strewn like the ruins of an ancient city in the basins of the foothills and columns wrapped the vertical tilt of the mountains like organ pipes. It all began 27 million years ago when the Turkey Creek Volcano spewed hot ash over 1,200 square miles. The sizzling ash particles melted together, forming layers of gray rock called rhyolite. As the rock cooled, joints and cracks formed. Centuries of weathering with ice wedging into the crevices and rain and wind battering the hardened rock enlarged the cracks, allowing fragile material to be washed away. Spires, pinnacles, columns, and balanced and stacked rocks emerged from the debris. The Chiricahua Apaches called these puzzling shapes “Standing Up Rocks.”
At the visitor center, we learned that in this 12,000-acre corner of Southeast Arizona bordering Mexico, four ecosystems come together. The Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Madre ranges meet. The sky island rises from a grassland sea dotted with cacti and scrubby mesquite trees. Higher on the mountain range, sycamore, juniper, and oak trees take root. Farther up, cypress, pine and fir woodlands cover the slopes.
As blue-gray shadows crept down the steep canyon walls, we climbed a winding narrow road up Bonita Canyon Drive to Massai Point, 6,780 feet in elevation. We walked a short trail at the top of Massai Mountain, stopping to read signage about the isolated landscape surrounding us. In 1964, our nation’s lawmakers passed an act defining wilderness: “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, and where man himself is only a visitor who does not remain.” According to the act, “designated wilderness” protects the land from human development such as roads, buildings, utility lines and mines.
While the Chiricahua National Monument was established in 1924, the U. S. Congress in 1976 designated 9,440 acres of the monument as “Class I, pristine wilderness.” From Massai Point as far as our eyes could see, the Chiricahua wilderness stretched before us, obliterating a busy world less than 50 miles away. Standing on a natural rock landing and looking out on a forest of stone spires standing tall among the evergreens, tensions and concerns melted away.
Reluctantly—because of the sun quickly dropping in the blue sky—we left Massai Point to backtrack on the Bonita Canyon Road to the Echo Canyon Loop Trail built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936-1937. Three separate trails make up the Loop: Echo Canyon Trail, Hailstone Trail, and Ed Riggs Trail. Together the three trails form the loop that winds down to Bonita Creek before circling back to the parking lot. Parts of the narrow trail had hard-packed ice patches. In the valley below, we saw light snow on the ground among the trees and tall rocks. Slabs of stacked stones along the trails appeared ready for the slightest nudge to create a domino-effect landslide. The Grottos, only a half-mile walk down the trail, are testament to the incredible power of water erosion—the force that helped the winds and baking summer sun to shape the strangely beautiful formations of the Chiricahua Mountain Wilderness.
Wall Street, a long narrow passage framed by vertical walls of volcanic rock, is farther down the trail. Near the base of Echo Canyon, the trail enters Echo Park, a grove of stately Arizona cypress and Douglas fir trees. Across Bonita Creek and around a corner to a warmer, drier, south-facing slope, desert plants such as yuccas, agaves, and prickly pear and hedgehog cactus abound. Totem Pole, the tallest, thinnest spire rising 300 feet from the ground, is viewed on the opposite side of the canyon. The Ed Riggs Trail, named for the engineer who designed the Loop Trail back in the days of the CCC, is forested and cooler on warm days. However, heat was not a factor on the day we visited. We stayed on the trail and squeezed out the last rays of sunlight before returning to our Jeep in the parking lot. Regretting that we had not given a whole day to exploration of Chiricahua National Monument, we drove to our motorhome parking space in Benson in nighttime darkness.
Arline Chandler and her husband, the photographer Lee Smith, are dedicated RVers who live in Heber Springs, Arkansas.
IF YOU GO:
Chiracahua National Monument is 120 miles southeast of Tucson. From the town of Wilcox, follow State Highway 186 for 32 miles to State Highway 181, turn left and you will arrive at the monument entrance four miles later. For information, visit nps.gov/chir
There is an eight-mile scenic drive, but RVs longer than 29 feet are not permitted beyond the visitor center.
The monument includes the Faraway Ranch, which was established by Swedish immigrants Neil and Emma Erickson in 1888. By the 1920s, the Erickson’s oldest daughter, Lillian, and her husband, Ed Riggs (the same Ed Riggs who engineered the Loop Trail) had turned the old homestead into a guest ranch. The peach and green house welcomed visitors from 1917 until 1973. Lillian and Ed built trails and led guests on horseback through the “Standing Rocks.” They also lobbied for the area’s protection. We owe this couple a debt of gratitude for making Congress aware of the beauty and uniqueness of the land that is now set aside for future generations.