Picture Easter Island. Imagine thousands of those stone pillars, taller, faceless, and fashioned by nature; legions of tall rock monoliths. Picture a mountainside and valley filled with an army of stone sentinels, gathered by some unknown force and standing at attention for all eternity. This is Chiricahua.
The Chiricahua National Monument occupies a 5 x 6 mile area in the Chiricahuan Mountains in Southeastern Arizona. The area was known as “The Land of The Standing Up Rocks”* by Apaches living in the area in the seventeen- and eighteen-hundreds and as “A Wonderland of Rocks”* by later pioneers. In 1924, it was established as a national monument. Beginning in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps spent six years constructing over seventeen miles of trails, which wind across the mountain ridges and through the canyon. The Monument is fairly remote; it is located two hours east of Tucson, approximately two hours from Sierra Vista, fifty miles north of the Mexico border, and forty miles away from the town of Willcox. (The name, by the way, is pronounced Cheer-re-KOW-ah.)
Visitors come to Chiricahua to view the spectacular rock formations—dramatic pinnacles and spires up to ten stories tall, balanced rocks, stone columns and pillars, a natural bridge—a veritable gallery of nature-made sculpture, mostly formed from pinkish rhyolite. The formations are a result of volcanic activity in the area 25-40 million years ago, which deposited layers of pumice and ash on the mountain. These materials bonded (in varying degrees of stability) into a rock known as rhyolitic tuff. Block faulting uplifted sections of the Chiricahuan Mountains over the last ten million years, and erosion by water, wind, and ice carved the tuff into columns and grottos.
In some areas of the park, notably the Echo Canyon Trail, “volcanic hailstones” can be found. These small, grayish-white marbles of rock, officially called accretionary lapilli, were formed by violent volcanic eruptions. Bits of rock caught in strong updrafts would become coated in layers of ash, begin to fall to earth, get caught in another updraft and accumulate more layers, and eventually drop to the ground. Such hailstones are easily found by hikers, but because this is a national monument, they cannot be removed from the area. So for god’s sake, if you’re going to smuggle some out, don’t show them to a ranger to find out if they’re really hailstones. They will be confiscated.
Chiricahua’s relatively high elevation (5000 to 7800 feet, within monument boundaries) results in a climate very different than that of the surrounding Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts; this habitat supports a wide degree of biological diversity. Apache and ponderosa pine, oak, Douglas fir, aspen, Arizona cypress, and alligator juniper all grow in riparian forests on the mountain or in the valley; Apache plume, prickly poppy, and agave plants are also found here. The predominance of lichen, ranging in color from dull grey to lime green, gives many of the rocks their distinctive color. Lizards are everywhere on the rocks; whitetail deer, coatimundi, javelina, bears, hog-nosed and hooded skunks, mountain lions, Chiricahua fox squirrels, peccaries, and ocelots have also been sighted here.
The Chiricahua National Monument is a birder’s mecca; there are more than 200 species of migrating and seasonal birds, including quail, Elegant trogon, Mexican chickadee, Magnificent and Black-chinned hummingbirds, Scott’s orioles, Hepatic tanagers, Painted redstarts, Yellow-rumped warblers, Red-faced warblers, and Black headed grosbeaks.
Once the home of the Chiricahuan Apaches and a stronghold of the tribes under Chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, this area was later settled by Swedish pioneers Neil and Emma Erickson. Their farm and cattle ranch (named Faraway Ranch, because it was so “god-awful far away from everything”*) is located in a meadow in the canyon, is furnished with historic artifacts, and is open to the public. It was the Erickson’s daughter Lillian and her husband, Ed Riggs, who suggested that the area be made into a national park.
Chiricahua National Monument is open daily to the public. A visitors’ center provides information, exhibits, and a slideshow; detailed hiking maps are available for purchase. Guided walks and talks are offered in the spring and summer. If you’re planning a trip, keep in mind that there are no gas stations, restaurants, or stores near the monument. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you, and wear sturdy hiking shoes. You won't regret bringing a camera; panoramic-style cameras are particularly nice for these vistas. Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis, but there are no electrical hookups or showers. See http://www.nps.gov/chir for a travel guide, weather conditions, and contact information.
While in the area, check out:
This has been brought to you by: U.S. National Parks and Monuments.
Chiricahua Official Map and Guide, GPO: 1999—454-767/60466
Sue Lebrecht, “Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona” http://www.lebrecht.com/travel/chiric.html 4/14/2002