In Pursuit of Wildness: Chiricahua National Monument

Jan 17, 2019 View Comments by

In Pursuit of Wildness: Chiricahua National Monument

I’m on my motorcycle, heading west on I-10 back to California, when I see the sign for a destination totally unfamiliar to me: Chiricahua National Monument. Just the name sparks my interest. Although best known for being the home of the Grand Canyon, Arizona is rich with more than a dozen less-frequented national park areas, and in my experience these out-of-the-way treasures are the crown jewels of America.

“Why not?” I ask myself. “It’s only 35 miles and I could camp there tonight.” Decisions like this one are easy when traveling alone, and without anyone to discuss the matter with further, I exit the interstate without a second thought.

I stop along the quiet two-lane road leading to the monument and snap photos of vast grasslands swaying in the breeze. In the distance, huge mountains stand beneath blue skies and white clouds. Only a few other vehicles pass on this middle-of-nowhere road in southeastern Arizona. Back on the interstate, I was half-asleep under the warm desert sun. Now I feel invigorated.

At the entrance of Chiricahua National Monument, a ranger greets me with a warm “Howdy” and offers me a brochure of the park. She directs me to the Bonita Canyon Campground, and while looking at the Indian Roadmaster, she adds, “Nice bike.” After setting up camp, I take a short walk from the grounds to the visitor center and along the way I spot a coatimundi scampering up a nearby tree. I’ve never seen one of these curious, raccoon-like creatures before, and at this dimming hour of day it startles me.

The campground is full, yet surprisingly quiet after sunset. The night sky is brilliant with stars and I am grateful to have found this monument. Exhausted after the day’s ride from southwest Texas, I locate my campsite in the dark and fall asleep quickly.

The next morning, while still inside my tent, I open the park brochure and read: “As you enter Chiricahua National Monument you are climbing up a sky island, an isolated mountain range rising above the surrounding grassland sea…” Further down the page, my imagination is captured by the words: “The Chiricahua Apache called these pinnacles ‘standing up rocks.’ ” No sooner have I read that phrase than I am out of my tent, ready to start exploring.

The Chiricahua National Monument Visitor Center is full of exhibits about the geology, natural history, archaeology, and cultural history of the surrounding area. The visitor center itself was built in the late 1930s by stonemasons from the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). Inside, I buy my older sister, Paula, a handcrafted porcelain pendant depicting her favorite bird—not coincidentally, the roadrunner. I know it will put a smile on her face. She has never ridden on a motorcycle, but she travels with me on my adventures through my stories.

Outside again, the cool morning breeze feels refreshing as I ride along the scenic Bonita Canyon Drive. There are many pull-offs, and the vistas at each offer sweeping views of the immense landscape. Massai Point is the end of the road, so I do some light hiking to stretch my legs. The rock formations are mesmerizing, and I spend considerable time simply gazing out at the endless variety of spires and precariously balanced boulders. Tomorrow I’ll take a longer hike from the visitor center along the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail, to Big Balanced Rock and other formations listed on the map, like Mushroom Rock. From there, I’ll join the Hailstone Trail and finally head back along the Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail: between 7-9 miles total. These paths reveal spectacular rock formations at every turn. It can get warm in the open spots, however, so carry water. The return-leg of the hike is in shaded oak woodlands following a cool stream.

After camping two nights in Chiricahua, it’s time to get back on the interstate and continue my journey home—that is, until the next impossible-to-ignore side road comes along.
“While living, I want to live well.” —Geronimo

Planning a Visit
Chiricahua National Monument is one of the US National Park Service’s hidden gems. You will discover wooded mountains, wildlife, and large expanses of volcanic rocks eroded into dramatic balanced rocks and towering pinnacles. Rising to 9,763 feet, the Chiricahua mountains form a so-called “sky island” that is home to 1,200 species of plants, a diversity of birds, the elusive coatimundi, and the Chiricahua fox squirrel (found only in these mountains). Bonita Canyon Scenic Drive winds 8 miles to Massai Point (5,400 – 6,870 ft). The overlook provides an amazing 360-degree view of Rhyolite Canyon and surrounding mountain peaks. Remember: always carry water and the park map! At least one quart of water per anticipated hour of hiking, according to the National Park Service website.

TO DO
Sightseeing, hiking, ranger-led campground programs, visitor center, biking, stargazing, picnicking, camping, birding, nature photography, and visiting the historic Faraway Ranch and Stafford Cabin. A free hiker shuttle leaves the visitor center at 9 a.m. and takes hikers to the Echo Canyon or Massai Point trailheads. Consider visiting nearby Fort Bowie National Historic Site.

HOURS
Chiricahua National Monument is open year-round. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

COST
Chiricahua National Monument is free to enter, but charges $20 per night for a campsite ($10 with applicable pass) at the Bonita Canyon Campground. Busiest months are March and April.
For more information, visit www.nps.gov/chir

 

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