This week we’re taking you to an undiscovered gem – Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona. This will be a relatively short post, but don’t let brevity suggest the destination doesn’t deserve your attention.
Never heard of Chiricahua? You aren’t alone. Only 51,000 people found their way here last year. But if you like spectacular scenery, great hiking and some of the clearest skies in North America — all in a pristine, uncrowded setting — Chiricahua should be on your road trip bucket list. Consider it your own little secret.
That said, it does involve some effort to get here. The monument is a two-hour drive from Tucson. When you leave, you’ll have to backtrack 34 miles to get back to Interstate 10. It’s a great side trip if you’re road-tripping on I-10, headed to or from Texas. Or, combined with Tombstone and Bisbee, it’s part of a very nice two-day excursion from Tucson any time of year except summer.
An island in the desert
The Chiricahua Mountains form an island in a sea of desert in the southeast corner of Arizona, close to the New Mexico and Mexican borders. Elevations range from just over 5,000 feet to almost 10,000 feet. Here, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption 27 million years ago resulted in several square miles of pumice and ash, which was fused into rhyolite tuff. That, in turn, was eroded by water into hoodoos and other fanciful shapes.
It’s a bit like Bryce Canyon in Utah without the reddish color. Chiricahua’s rocks are dark gray, flecked with orange and chartreuse lichen.
The remote location and rugged terrain enabled raiding Apaches, led first by Cochise and later by Geronimo, to evade capture back in the 1860s and 1870s. If you’d like to know more about the Chiricahua Apaches, go to www.desertusa.com/desert-people/chiricahua-apaches.html
Great bird viewing
The environment has also made the Chiricahuas a biologically diverse sanctuary. It’s considered a world-class birding location. You can tell the birders by their camera lenses that cost more than your car.
Just east of the monument entrance is a small stone visitor center, where you’ll find displays and helpful rangers. The visitor center is open 8:30-4:30 MST. Paved Bonita Canyon Road climbs 8 miles from the visitor center to Massai Point at 6,800 feet. From there, trails ranging from easy to strenuous will get you up close and personal with the formations. Warning: No RVs over 29 feet are permitted on Bonita Canyon Rd. There are also hiking trails at lower elevations.
Start your visit with the monument’s web site: www.nps.gov/chir. There, you’ll find details on hiking trails, camping, ranger programs and so on.
Bonita Canyon Campground is just up the road from the visitor center. It has water and flush toilets but no RV hookups. RVs must be no longer than 29 feet. It’s a bargain at $12 per night — $6 if you have a senior pass. You can make a reservation; the web site has a link. The high season at Chiricahua is March through May. Even then, the campground only fills up on weekends. A big benefit of camping here is the chance to see the stars – it’s one of the clearest night skies you’ll find anywhere.
The campground isn’t the only bargain. Chiricahua National Monument did away with its entry fee fairly recently.
One tour that might interest you is Faraway Ranch. This is an original homestead that became a guest ranch. The National Park Service bought it in 1979. Ranger-guided tours are given Friday through Sunday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
When you visit, please remember this is a remote location. The nearest gas, stores, overnight accommodations and restaurants are 34 miles away in Willcox. Bring what you need.
If you’re a hiker, you could easily spend a full day or two here. For most people, a stop at the visitor center, drive to Massai Point, a short hike and a tour of Faraway Ranch will take 4-5 hours.
Thanks for visiting Road Trips with Tom. I’ll be traveling May 13-23 but will program new destinations to appear on May 14 and May 21.