Brake for Nature

Exploring Chiricahua National Monument

March 2017

Chiricahua National Monument has been on our sightseeing list since we first visited southeastern Arizona. The name, which comes from the tribe that once lived in the region, is unique and fun to say, the way that it rolls off the tongue. The landscape of this monument matches its name.

With a dizzying variety of canyons and rock formations to choose from in the Southwest, you might not have even heard of this one or you thought you’d skip it in favor of the Grand Canyon or Bryce or Zion. All are impressive and special for different reasons. If you attempt to drive through too many of these canyon lands at once, you might overwhelm yourself and miss the opportunity to be awed by each one. However, if you take it in slowly, one trip at a time, you can enjoy being blown away by nature, and the unbelievably artistic features created by plain old ordinary erosion.

Our Campsite

Although our RV is not considered a “big rig,” we are still too long to fit into some of the national park campgrounds, and Chiricahua turned out to be one of those. The limit there is 29 feet, and our trailer is 30 feet long, tongue to bumper. We also have to consider that we have to fit our truck somewhere in or near our campsite in addition to our trailer.

Chiricahua is located in the middle of one of the sky islands of southeastern Arizona, isolated mountains within the lowland deserts and grasslands. This mountain range is surrounded by rangeland, mostly privately owned, so camping opportunities nearby are limited.

We ended up choosing to make Sagebrush RV Park in Willcox our base camp. The rates were reasonable, and at 45 minutes from Chiricahua, it had the shortest drive of all our options. Mostly a mobile home park with permanent residents, some spaces in the center of the park were left open for travelers like us. A simple gravel lot with full hookups at the edge of town sums up this place, but the management is friendly, and the laundry facilities were clean and reasonably priced. We endured a couple ferociously windy and rainy days at this park, but these were welcome days of rest.

The two-lane road stretching out through the Arizona grasslands scattered with mesquite and mountains in the distance

The road to Chiricahua

Sign on an old yellow truck for Sagebrush RV Park

Dark, stormy clouds over Sagebrush RV Park, an open lot with several RVs surrounded by mobile homes

Sagebrush RV Park

The Big Hike

We made the trek out to Chiricahua National Monument three times. On our first day, we wore ourselves out completely with an all-day hike deep into the heart of the monument, but WOW, it was a stunning landscape!

We arrived at the Visitor Center at 9 am and were a bit confused by the women ahead of us who were rushing to sign a waiver and jump on a Park Service shuttle. After some Internet research the day before, we had selected a hike up through Rhyolite Canyon and into the Heart of Rocks to see the best of the pinnacles that make Chiricahua so special. The volunteer at the Visitor Center convinced us to start our hike from the top of the park at Massai Point to avoid the intense elevation gain of Rhyolite Canyon. “Same distance, but less elevation gain,” she informed us. Plus, we would see even more of the pinnacles. We were glad to have received this advice.

Chiricahua NM road and trail map provided by the National Park Service

On our way up to Massai Point, following the Park Service shuttle, we started to piece together what the shuttle was all about. The visitors inside the shuttle were being dropped off at Massai Point, where they could hike down through the best trails of the park, through the Heart of Rocks, and finally down through Rhyolite Canyon back to the Visitor Center where they parked their vehicles. They would see more of the park and avoid the intense elevation gain required to see the Heart of Rocks without the shuttle. Bummer! If only we had known about this shuttle! Tip to future visitors of this monument: inquire about hiker shuttles before you start hiking!

The park road through the pine forest up to Massai Point

The road to Massai Point

We ended up hiking 8.4 miles round trip with a cumulative elevation gain of 2,200 feet! In addition, a good portion of our elevation gain occurred at the end of the hike when we were worn out from the accumulated miles. This was equivalent to the hike we originally planned up Rhyolite Canyon, except that we would have been traveling downhill at the end of that hike.

We don’t regret starting at Massai Point, because we saw a lot more of the pinnacles than we would have in Rhyolite Canyon. However, we were misled. We keep learning the same lesson over and over at each park we visit. When the National Park Service describes elevation gain, they tend to only consider the difference between the lowest and highest point of the trail. Since the Rhyolite Canyon trail steadily ascends, this calculation describes it well, but when a trail goes up and down over and over, this calculation fails to describe the challenge that your body will actually experience.

On a side note, sometimes I wonder if I am completely crazy. I am very limited on energy these days. The best way I can describe it is that I have lost my bounce. Whatever those chemicals are inside the body that propel your legs forward with ease and give you a rush when you reach the plateau have been missing inside of me since the gut problems intensified. My vision has also been somewhat blurry with no way to correct it, so I am not seeing all of these magnificent landscapes in the same way that I would have in the past. However, I am still standing and I am not blind, so I put one leg in front of the other and continue to experience all that I can in life. While I regularly have my doubts about my decision to continue traveling, I also realize that I have no idea what my future holds. I might as well seize this opportunity to travel and experience some of these amazing places that we are so lucky to have inside the borders of our Country.

Back to the big hike to the Heart of Rocks! We started off fresh in the morning at Massai Point, the highest point in the park. If you are unable to hike, the view from Massai Point will give you a good look deep into the maze of pinnacles. Our hike started by walking around half of the Massai Point nature trail and then descending into the canyon on the Ed Riggs Trail. We then climbed Mushroom Rock Trail and across the ridge on Balanced Rock Trail to the Heart of Rocks Loop.

The pinnacles were amazing right from the start of the hike, but the Heart of Rocks area really blew us away. I can honestly say that it was worth the pain of this really long hike. Here, you can look down into a dizzying array of rock formations, marvel at large, awkward boulders balanced on top of tall, skinny pinnacles, and get close enough to touch these incredible results of erosion.

View and viewing scope at Massai Point with the Chiricahua pinnacles in the view

View from Massai Point

Trail through some of the shorter pinnacles approaching Heart of Rocks

The trail to Heart of Rocks

Up-close to some of the pinnacles with bright yellow lichens growing on them

Pair of pinnacles at Chiricahua

Big Balanced Rock in the Heart of Rocks at Chiricahua NM

Tall rock precariously balanced on top of a pinnacle

Peering between some of the pinnacles at a twisted juniper in the distance

Window in the rock looking out onto the pinnacles

Christina sitting on a rock eating lunch at Chiricahua

Lunchtime in the Heart of Rocks

View into the sea of pinnacles at Heart of Rocks

Twisted shrub growing from the rock between a couple of pinnacles

Michael and Christina in a "selfie" with the Heart of Rocks behind them

Christina standing on a rock ledge looking out over the sea of pinnacles at Heart of Rocks

 

Lizard on the rock with shiny, metallic-looking back and tail and black collar

Yarrow’s spiny lizard

Pinnacles stretching out into the distance at Heart of Rocks

View between a couple of pinnacle to a pair of pinnacles in the distance that look like friends

A pair of pinnacles that look like they are kissing in the Heart of Rocks

Michael standing in front of and mimicking the kissing pinnacles

The kissing pinnacles!

A row of six pinnacles that appear to be a group of siblings or friends of various sizes

Michael on the trail at Heart of Rocks

The hike back up to Massai Point was extremely difficult for me. At least it was cool that day, and especially during this last part of the hike when the clouds started to build along with a strong breeze. I don’t regret pushing myself to see the Heart of Rocks, but I used up all my energy for the next week or so on this one hike. It took some time to rebuild my store of whatever it is that is deficient in my body.

Christina leaning against a twisted tree on the Heart of Rocks trail

View of the pinnacles from Massai Point late in the day under stormy skies

View from Massai Point at the end of our hike

Echo Canyon Grotto and Bonita Canyon Trail

On our second day in the monument, I was exhausted and felt like I weighed about 1,000 pounds. Although I really needed a day of rest after the big hike to Heart of Rocks, some nasty weather was on its way, and we wanted to take advantage of the last of the good weather. We had heard that Echo Canyon Grotto was a worthwhile part of the monument to see, and the trail down to it was only about one-half mile. I felt like I had used up all the energy I had the day before, and I barely made it down and back from the Grotto. However, it was a fun place to explore and eat our packed lunch.

Rock in the shape of a tree or mushroom on the Echo Canyon Trail

Echo Canyon Grotto - a cave with several "rooms" formed by rocks

Echo Canyon Grotto

Echo Canyon Grotto - a cave with several "rooms" formed by rocks

Echo Canyon Grotto - a cave with several "rooms" formed by rocks with Christina standing against one of the rocks

Christina sitting back on a rock after lunch in Echo Canyon

Resting after lunch in Echo Canyon

Echo Canyon Grotto - a cave with several "rooms" formed by rocks with Christina walking through

Later that day we walked along the Bonita Creek Trail, hoping to run across a coati. The coati, short for coatimundi, is similar to the raccoon and ringtail. We read that you are likely to first encounter them by seeing a line of tails marching through tall grass or shrubs. Coatis are found in parts of southeastern Arizona and southwest Texas (e.g., Big Bend National Park). Unfortunately we never did get to see a coati.

Bonita Canyon - grassland with scattered oaks and a rocky outcrop topped mountain

Bonita Canyon

Coati below the raccoon in our Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America

Here’s the coati – below the raccoon – in our Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America

Natural Bridge

After some rain and wind gave us a day of rest, we returned to the monument to hike to the natural bridge there. One of Michael’s friends (Carl) who previously worked at Chiricahua National Monument informed him that this trail was a good place to spot coatis. The trail climbs the side of the canyon and then descends into a meadow dotted with junipers and pines. The “natural bridge” at the end is not all that prominent or spectacular. The bridge is simply a long rock that appears to have fallen on its side, forming a bridge over two other boulders. However, the meadow is worth the effort. It’s a lovely, peaceful spot surrounded by canyon walls and the Chiricahua pinnacles. We were all alone with only the sounds of the breeze and the birds, and we ate our lunch under the pine trees.

Michael's selfie on the Natural Bridge Trail before descending into the meadow

Michael on the Natural Bridge Trail before descending into the meadow

Michael standing on a flat rock in the meadow on the Natural Bridge Trail

The meadow on the Natural Bridge Trail

Michael walking on the Natural Bridge Trail through the meadow

The natural bridge, difficult to pick out in the jumble of rocks and pinnacles

The natural bridge, hidden in that jumble of rocks

View from the top of Natural Bridge Trail, looking out over some of the pinnacles and out into the expansive grasslands and mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona

View from the top of the Natural Bridge Trail

Local Pasture-Raised Meats

Back when we were on our way to Tucson, I did some research online to find a local ranch that sold pasture-raised meats directly at farmers’ markets. I won’t go into the details here, but after my last elemental diet to treat SIBO, I had decided to try the Autoimmune Protocol diet to see if it might help with my chronic health problems. Finding sources of good meats, especially grass-fed and organ meats (I decided I was willing to try liver), is an important part of this diet.

I ended up finding a ranch in Willcox, Arizona – Chiricahua Pasture Raised Meats. When we arrived in Willcox, I put in an order online to be picked up at the ranch. On our last day exploring Chiricahua, we picked up our order from the ranch: fresh eggs, some grass-fed meats, and bratwurst – the very best bratwurst we have ever had! One of the problems with traveling is that when you find something good like this, you can’t become a regular. If you live near Willcox or travel there someday, I highly recommend them. They make regular deliveries in the Tucson and Phoenix areas as well.

Crossing Cowboy Country

As we headed east across the rolling grasslands, listening to the local old-time Country station out of Willcox, it was clear that we were in cowboy country. The native bunchgrasses here seem to be meant for grazers. We were glad to have finally experienced Chiricahua, and now we were headed straight across New Mexico to El Paso to meet my dad and head for Big Bend National Park.

New Mexico welcome sign on the freeway

Metal roadrunner statue at the rest stop overlooking Las Cruces, New Mexico

At the rest stop overlooking Las Cruces, New Mexico

Texas welcome sign on the freeway

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