The Chiricahua National Monument is an isolated mountain range, in southeast Arizona, surrounded by a sea of grasslands. As you leave the grasslands and begin driving up the canyon you see meadows dotted with cactus, mesquite and soon you are into oak, juniper and sycamore trees which make up a typical basin-range landscape that is common in this area. Soon the rock pinnacles loom in the distance.
The Chiricahua Apache called these pinnacles “standing up rocks”. Their origin was 27 million years ago when the Turkey Creek Volcano erupted and spewed superheated ash, that melted together to form the layers of gray rock called rhyolite. Eons of erosion from wind, water and ice cracked and sculpted this material, leaving only remnants in the strange pinnacles found here today
This is the land where chiefs Cochise and Geronimo evaded government troops after their numerous raids. The National Monument was formed in 1924 to protect this fragile environment and in 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps took on the job of building roads, structures and trails into this area. Today there are some 17 miles of hiking trails in the Monument, giving visitors a close up experience of this amazing place. Here is the web page for the National monument: http://www.nps.gov/chir/index.htm
On Thursday, March 31st, I did a 10.5 mile perimeter hike with the Green Valley Hiking Club and was astonished with the beauty of this place. Although very different, it rivals the Grand Canyon for the spectacular scenery found here.
As there was no one to man the entrance booth, visitors were instructed to go to the Visitor Center to pay the day use fee and pick up a copy of the map. You can view the map on their website and follow the hike. (look for the View Map tab on the web site) From the parking lot of the Visitor Center you can already see the rock looming up the nearby canyons. The drive from the Visitor Center to the road end at Massai Point is stunning on its own.
We left our cars at Massai Point (elevation 6870 and the high point of our hike) and walked a few yards down the hill to an observation deck that gives you a breathtaking view of the whole valley. From Massia Point we took a short spur tail down to Ed Riggs Trail and began a clockwise loop around the outer tails of the park. We dropped elevation quickly and by the time we reached the junction with the Hailstone Trail we had dropped to 6400 feet.
We traversed back to where we had left the Mushroom Trail and started down the Big Balanced Rock Trail. The scenery for the first ¾ of a mile with a mixed pine, fir and juniper forest that was pretty but not spectacular. Near the end we came to the Big Balanced Rock area and this was very cool.
We left the perimeter trails again and this time took a one mile Heart of The Rocks loop. This is a section that you just have to see. The trail winds through the pinnacles and some tower 200 feet or more above you. There is no end to the unusual shapes. Around every bend you see spires that wow you.
After the Heart of The Rock Loop we took the Sarah Deming trail a mile and a half down along the canyon to where it meets the Rhyolite Trail at the creek. This trail drops elevations fast and provides excellent views across the canyon of the pinnacle along the north side of Rhyolite Canyon. The creek crossing was the low point of the hike and was elevation 5980.
From there we followed Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail along the creek for a half mile or so before it started climbing steeply to where it met the Echo Canyon Trail near the top of the ridge. The views, as you climb out of the canyon, are pretty spectacular and give you a moment to catch your breath. By the time we hiked to the intersection of the Echo Canyon Trail we were at elevations 6330.
Echo Canyon trail is a “must–see” Place. It was written up in the last Arizona Highways magazine in the hiking section. You can read it at: http://www.arizonahighways.com/outdoors/hiking/hike_month.asp
This trail just keeps getting better: from the view of Echo Canyon itself, to the grottos where the trail narrows and squeezes through the monoliths like a slot canyon, to windows arches and all kinds of exotic shapes and forms. The trail is only 1.6 miles long and could be done in a loop, going back on the Hailstone Trail. One could easily write a book on just the Echo Canyon trail and it still wouldn’t compare to being there and seeing it first-hand.
We completed the loop with a half mile walk back to Massai Point from the Echo Canyon parking area. This, without a doubt, was the most spectacular hike I’ve done with the Green Valley Hiking Club and one I won’t forget soon.
If you are ever in the area, I would highly recommend visiting the Chiricahua National Monument. At any time of year, it won’t disappoint you. I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I did hiking it. Keep looking for the wonder and beauty in your world.