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Tucked into Cochise County in eastern Arizona, Chiricahua National Monument is a land of hills and valleys filled with beautiful and grotesque rock formations, the result of ancient lava flows and the forces of erosion over the centuries. When hiking over the extensive system of trails you will experience claustrophobic moments under huge boulders poised as if to fall on you at any second. And then you will emerge onto a plateau and look out at a vast panorama of scenic ridges and distant forests.
How do you pronounce Chiricahua?
The Chiricahua (pronounced cheer-i-COW-ah) Mountains form one of the “sky islands” in the region, so called because they rise up from the desert floor much as islands rise up out of the ocean. Four environments come together and merge into each other at this location – the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Madre, Chihuahua Desert and Sonora Desert – bringing into the area a rich diversity of plant, bird and animal life including many Mexican species. It is visited and studied by botanists, zoologists and, of course, geologists.
The area is an attraction principally because of its fanciful and dramatic rocks. Many are formed .into pinnacles and spires similar to those found in Bryce Canyon National Park, but many are left in ungainly poses that leave us wondering why they don’t just fall down! A huge boulder may be just barely balanced on a tiny little spire, and may have been in that position for centuries. Of course, over the years these rock sculptures have been named by explorers and visitors and the names have stuck down to this day. In a section of the park named Heart of Rocks, we can easily identify Punch and Judy, Duck on a Rock, and many others.
Construction on the extensive 17-mile trail system was begun by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1939. The trails were built using dry stone masonry with walls, ramps and steps, and were designed to give access to as much of the terrain as possible, not just the easiest to reach. This means that today walkers with somewhat limited mobility can enjoy large areas of the park, while experienced and expert hikers can find plenty of challenge. There is enough interest and scenery for all levels of ability.
An example of an easy hike is the one-mile long Echo Canyon Grottos trail which allows one to walk among the rock formations and view the grottos. Another is the Massai Point Nature Trail which is partly paved for wheelchair accessibility. Moderate hikes are described as lasting one to four hours with an elevation change of 500 feet or less. And the expert can take on the challenge of The Big Loop, an all-day hike of 9.5 miles, that covers most of the principal areas of the park.
This region was the home of the Chiricahua Apache who called it “Land of the Standing-Up Rocks.” Cochise County takes its name from the famous Apache Chief Cochise who fought the white settlers and U.S. military until he surrendered in 1871, to be succeeded by Geronimo who continued the fight until he too finally surrendered. This history comes to life at nearby Fort Bowie National Historic Site and Apache Pass.
Chiricahua National Monument is located 120 miles southeast of Tucson. Take I-10 east from Tucson to the first exit for Willcox. Travel 3 miles into town to the stoplight and turn right. Follow Arizona State Highway 186 for 32 miles to the junction of Arizona State Highway 181. Turn left and 4 miles later you will be at the Chiricahua entrance station. Obtain gas in Willcox; gasoline is not available at or near the monument.
Highly recommended is The Dreamcatcher B & B (Warning: this website plays music when opened), located on Highway 181 at milepost 51.5, 12 miles from the entrance to the park. It offers four rooms with private baths, each individually and attractively decorated, a central large and comfortable living room with dining area, and is surrounded by lovely gardens. A full breakfast is served, and a trail lunch is available on request. Full gourmet dinner is available if ordered ahead, and one is advised to do that as the food is excellent and there is very little else in the immediate vicinity.
For more information
13063 East Bonita Canyon Rd.
Willcox AZ 85643