The Chiricahuas

In the desert of southeastern Arizona lies one of the best-kept secrets of all our national parks and monuments: Chiricahua National Monument. Jodie & I discovered this gem about 20 years ago, but did not have the time to explore it, or even scratch the surface. This past week we returned with two of our best friends to explore, photograph, and discover…and we were blown away by the awesome and unusual features that are abundant on this desert island.

Not far from Mexico, this 12,000 acre park is well-known among the birding community, because of its reputation for having birds found nowhere else in the U.S., birds that are usually found in Mexico and southward, and find their way here, the northernmost tip of their range. But, if you are not a “birder,” there is much more to discover here. The geology of the Chiricahua Mountains is one of “hoodoos” and fossils, and the flora is mixed, ranging through 4 different ecosystems, from Sonoran desert to sub-alpine, from 5124′ up to 9763′ in altitude. Perhaps the most spectacular sights are found in the hoodoos, or as the Chiricahua Apaches called them, the land of “standing up rocks.” The ryolite formations, made up of volcanic ash, have eroded to form thousands of pinnacles, spires, and balanced rocks…a “poor man’s Bryce Canyon” as my friend David referred to it. Come along and share some of the highlights of our recent trip.

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Bonita Campground, small and by reservation only, is nestled between canyon walls, among oaks, cypress, pine and fir trees. No frills, but there is a public restroom and water at intervals around the campground. Our site was clean and provided a picnic table and a grill for a wood fire:

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David, Marcia and Jodie enjoying a campfire to break the chill in a mile-high campground:

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The first settlers, the Swedish family Neil and Emma Erickson, built a home here in 1888, just two years after the Chiricahua Apache bands led by Cochise and Geronimo had surrendered. Their children developed the home and surrounding land into a guest ranch that operated here from 1917 until 1973. The house and ranch buildings are open to the public within the park:

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The tack room, with saddle horses and the horses’ names painted on tin cans along the wall:

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At the end of the eight-mile-long Bonita Canyon Drive lies Massai Point, at 6870 feet, where the visitor can get a 360 degree view of the “standing up rocks” of the canyons, designated official wilderness areas. This shows why it is referred to as a “poor man’s Bryce Canyon”:

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David and I caught the free shuttle at the visitor center and rode it to the trailhead on Massai Point, then started the 7.25 mile trail down Ryolite Canyon, through the park’s most spectacular pinnacles and balanced rocks. The trail descends 1700′ through the canyon, but along the way we climbed a total ascent of nearly 1000′ while descending 2400′ before reaching the Visitor Center where we left a vehicle. Here are some of the pinnacles, hoodoos, and balanced rocks encountered along the trail:

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A panorama of the “standing up rocks” along the opposite canyon wall, with the Chiricahua Mountains looming behind:

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Balanced rocks and hoodoos abound on a 1-mile loop known as Heart of Rocks:

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Estimated at over 40 tons, this rock stands “balanced” on a small, seemingly impossible remaining area:

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David winding his way with camera in hand through the maze of “Heart of Rocks” area:

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From the reserve, we made the 26-mile drive across the Chiricahuas to the settlement of Paradise, then on to the little town of Portal:

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Nearby, the Fort Bowie historical monument bears witness to the soldiers who, under Cooke, tracked and ultimately forced the surrender of the fierce Chiricahua Apache warriors Cochise and Geronimo, who established a stronghold in these Chiricahua Mountains to make their last stand against the encroachment of the westward expansion. Ruins of walls and buildings remain as testimony of the difficulty of life in this harsh land 130 years ago. Jodie and Marcia used their time to explore the site while David and I were out hiking the trails:

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Finally, we made a detour over to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge to see if we could catch the sandhill cranes before their return to Canada. We found some cranes, and a few other critters, including a gray Hawk:

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The cranes in the marsh, some flying in, and a few ducks still hanging on with the coming of spring:

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So much more to see in this part of the state…historic towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, many other wildlife refuges and birding sites, wineries…all sprinkled throughout with quaint B&B’s of all types, many specializing in birding with bird sanctuaries…enough to keep us coming back for many years to come.