Within the vast Chiricahua Mountains of Southeastern Arizona lies the 11,985-acre Chiricahua National Monument, a truly remarkable physical and visual experience.
Numbering in the thousands, balanced rocks, pillars, posts, spires, totems, hoodoos and columns stand throughout the heavily-forested mountains. Cochise and Geronimo, Chiricahua Apache leaders who often sought refuge in these mountains, knew the formations by their Apache name — "standing up rocks."
Turkey Creek volcano erupted 27 million years ago, depositing hot ash over 1,200 square miles. Melting ash built up layers of gray stone called rhyolite and the forces of nature over eons of time created the formations standing today.
About 40 miles south of Willcox, State Highway 186 passes through the foothills of Dos Cabezas Mountains and across open grasslands of the upper Sonoran Desert. State Highway 181 leads the last six miles east, with a lush narrow canyon sheltering the final two miles before the first indications that something special lies ahead.
Rhyolite Canyon Trail departs the visitor center parking lot to the east, a smooth, easily-negotiated path comfortably shaded by oak, juniper and Apache pine, unique for their long needles. A creek babbles over boulders to the left.
A short gentle climb soon transitions to a more moderate incline as the trail rises above the forest canopy. The wonders of Chiricahua National Monument can now be seen along the north slopes and far up the canyon to the east.
From the 5,300 foot altitude at trailhead, 200 feet have been gained in the first half mile, a condition that will continue throughout the day as the 7,050 foot elevation is ultimately reached. The first 1.5 miles travel along a ridge skirting the south slopes of Rhyolite Canyon. At just under 6,000 feet, this trail divides into Upper Rhyolite Canyon trail and Sarah Deming trail.
Legend tells that in the 1920s, visiting dignitary/stateswoman Sarah Deming was staying at Faraway Ranch, then a guest lodge and now an historic site, located near the canyon entrance. Owners Ed and Lillian Riggs led guests on horseback through the narrow canyons, sharing the magnificent sights with outsiders. At some point along the trail the britches Deming wore either split or were torn by a branch, leaving her in an embarrassing condition. Using his shirt, Riggs quickly rectified the situation. Honoring Deming for being so stoic, her name graces the next 1.6 miles of trail.
Looking north across the deep canyon, a hillside of "standing up rocks" can be seen. More stand sentinel over the land to the right in Upper Rhyolite Canyon.
Over 20 miles of a superbly-developed trail system wander into various areas of the monument, and virtually all the trails are within the designated wilderness area, which encompasses 85 percent of the park. Trails were constructed in the mid 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps crews, and observing current trail maintenance technology of controlled drilling and blasting, the efforts of those earlier crews, earning $30 per month, are absolutely extraordinary.
Sarah Deming Trail climbs beside massive boulders, some large and flat as a kitchen counter. The canyon below is choked with the same. Crossing the canyon to the east side, the trail heads up several long, heart rate-increasing switchbacks, the end of which finds hikers walking among the lichen-encrusted pinnacles.
Passing over a crest, the trail levels and a welcome breeze whispers through the trees. Reaching 3.1 miles and close to 6,900 feet elevation, Heart of Rocks Trail splits to the left. A 1.1 mile loop path meanders through one of the most visually enjoyable areas of the park. Hiking clockwise through this labyrinth of formations provides the best viewing. Climbing a steep set of carved stone steps, Pinnacle Rock appears trailside, with a perfect backdrop provided by 10,000-foot snowcapped peaks of the Chiricahua Mountains 10 miles south.
Other named formations include Old Maid, Camel's Head, Thor's Hammer, Punch and Judy, Duck on a Rock and Kissing Rocks. Let your imagination name others. This park highlight is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Exiting Heart of Rocks, Big Balanced Rock Trail travels east a short distance before passing its namesake. One marvels to understand how this massive boulder remains perched atop a small point. It's as if a 1,000-ton, 22-foot diameter, 25-foot high top ceased spinning and refuses to topple over.
While marveling at this inspiring sight, a few moments were shared with Jim, a hiker visiting from the small northern California community of Yreka. Loving the outdoors and having visited Arizona often, he shared information on other hikes to enjoy. It's a gift sharing experiences with others met along the trial.
For adventuresome hikers, Inspiration Point lies 1.5 miles farther along this trail, which crosses a high plateau dominated by Manzanita and scrub oak.
At one mile, Inspiration Point Trail departs to the north — a one mile roundtrip adventure. Ending at several outcroppings, a vast panoramic view extends over Upper Rhyolite Canyon. Thousands of formations line both sides of the canyon, standing as if guarding the land below.
Returning to the Big Balanced Rock Trail, the visitor center sits four miles west and 1,700 feet lower. Though mostly downhill, a hiker's feet, ankles, calves and thighs will suffer. This six-hour, 10-mile adventurous day on a strenuous trail has been a blessing, rewarded with extraordinary sights and sounds.
A shuttle, available to those arriving before 8:30 a.m., covers the paved eight miles along beautiful Bonita Canyon Drive from the visitor center to Massia Point. A system of trails departs there, leading to an extensive network of trails, all of which return hikers to the visitor center.
To learn more, contact Chiricahua National Park, (520) 824-3560 or go to www.nps.gov/chir. Entrance fees are minimal and camping is available.