We saw a video describing Chiricahua National Monument at the Kartchner Caverns visitor’s center, and it piqued our interest. We had not previously heard about “The Land of Standing up Rocks” as referred to by the local Chiricahua Apaches, and the “Wonderland of Rocks” by later pioneers. After seeing it, we simply call it the “Gorgeous giant rock concert.” We opted to stay in Arizona a couple extra days to check it out and moved Betsy over to Willcox, a little closer and still on our way.
Chiricahua (pronounced CHEER-IH-COW-AH) National Monument, established in 1924, is described as a sky island – an isolated mountain range rising above a surrounding grassland sea. The unusual rock formations here were caused by a massive volcanic eruption some 27 million years ago by the nearby Turkey Creek caldera, which covered the land with white-hot ash. As the ash cooled, it fused into dark volcanic rock known today as rhyolite. The continual natural erosion via water and wind has sculpted these rocks and split them into tall columns, pinnacles and unlikely balancing rocks. We have seen many rock formations in our travels (like the ones at Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California), but here in the Chiricahua Mountains the outcroppings are something to behold!
The eight mile scenic trip along Bonita Canyon Drive made a fairly steep ascent through oak, cypress and pine forest until we arrived at Massai Point, where the road terminates and several hiking trails begin. Along the way there are pull outs where we could stop to view and photograph some amazing formations, such as the Organ Pipe Formation, Sea Captain and China Boy.
Hiking is the best option for getting up close and personal with the extensive outcrops of the eroded volcanic pinnacles. We thought about taking the Heart of Rocks Loop, where a group of impressive and unusual rock formations can be viewed. But due to recent snow and the trail being classified as strenuous, the park ranger did not recommend it at this time. Instead, we settled on the Echo Canyon Trail, and tackled the 3.3 circuit which begins at Massai Point at 6780′ elevation.
The Echo Canyon Trail is the second most popular path in Chiricahua National Monument. It follows a rocky ridge past many huge eroded boulders, balanced rocks and at this time held a lot of snow and ice! The trail was slick and slippery, and it took us about 3 hours to complete the loop. But it was well worth it! We walked amongst the grottoes and balanced rocks, which is actually a bit unsettling, as you realize these massive boulders over your head could come down and smash you like a bug if there was even a small earthquake.
At one point we passed through a narrow, sheer-walled passage called Wall Street.
Then the path descended to the forested floor of a sheltered valley called Echo Park, which was at this time covered with snow and very beautiful.
Continuing on the trail we rounded a corner to a grand viewpoint high above two deep ravines, and on to a junction with the Hailstone and Upper Rhyolite Canyon trails. On this north-facing side of the trail the snow had melted so we picked up our pace, walking along the base of the pinnacles lining the Rhyolite Canyon.
Along this trail we stopped and admired the many eroded boulders that are seemingly ready to fall. The lichen-covered columns and pinnacles were colored green and/or orange.
There are 17 miles of hiking trails that intersect in the park, but the best option for an all day hike is known as the Big Loop, a 9.5 mile trip to all areas of the various formations. The Chiricahua mountains was worth our change of plans, what a fantastic place!
We discovered while in Willcox that there are a few vineyards that grow and bottle yummy wines, and they are seriously good! Two have tasting rooms in town – Keeling Schaefer and Coronado Vineyards. We missed the wineries at Patagonia, so went tasting here and were surprised by the quality of these southwestern wines. It was a fitting end to our Arizona wanderings.
Farewell, Arizona, until next time!