X: Chiricahua National Monument


On the 2014 Memorial Day weekend (I know, it’s July already!), Patrick and I decided to visit Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona, a little over two hours away from Tucson. The park, nicknamed the “Wonderland of Rocks,” is famous for its tall, precariously balanced rock formations. The scenery is likely the result of a volcanic eruption that has been eroded away over millions of years. Parts of it seemed very similar to Bryce Canyon; however, this park is much more of an often-overlooked, hidden gem. We were treated to a delightful variety of scenery along our nine-mile hike.

When my dad mentioned that Chiricahua National Monument was his favorite hiking area around Tucson, we put it on our list of places to visit. While we were originally hoping to spend Memorial Day weekend in northern Arizona, this option worked out much better. The park was very sparsely populated and we had large sections of the trail to ourselves.

A long, winding road traverses the park with many scenic overlooks, and there are many hikes of varying difficulty. See a list of Chiricahua hikes. As we only had one day, we wanted to see as much as possible. Kind of on a whim, and at the advice of the park ranger at the Visitor Center, I talked Patrick into doing the “Big Loop,” which combines multiple trails into one long hike. The real goal is to get to Heart of Rocks, which is at least three miles away from the nearest parking area no matter how you approach it. This is where some of the best rock formations can be seen.

Chiricahua National Monument trail map - "Big Loop" outlined in purple.

Chiricahua National Monument trail map – “Big Loop” outlined in purple. (Image Credit: http://hikearizona.com/decoder.php?ZTN=1297)

The trail to Inspiration Point is often included in this hike, but the park ranger didn’t seem to find it very inspiring, so we skipped that.  When all was said and done, we probably hiked about 9 miles. Thankfully, the elevation gains and losses weren’t too bad. We did very well on our water supply, but probably should have brought more food. Even though we did this hike in late May, the higher elevation meant that it was a perfect, partly cloudy day to do this hike. I can’t imagine the weather being any better than it was. We parked at the end of the road at Massai Point Nature Trail. It was a pretty small parking lot, but nowhere near full when we were there.

We followed the above trail in a clockwise fashion, starting with some nice overlooks before we descended into a valley and hiked along a riverbed.

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Like most of Arizona, the landscape was very deserted and rocky. However, along the riverbed everything became more vibrant and green. When we walked through this patch of flowers, the sound of buzzing bees was overwhelming.

This poor tree had several termite nests.

This poor tree had several termite nests.

Shortly after passing the turnoff to Inspiration Point, we came to the southern edge of the park, which provided outstanding overlooks to the surrounding mountain ranges. Unfortunately, a wildfire must have passed through a couple of years ago, because this section of the trail was mostly dead trees.

After passing the Inspiration Point turnoff, we found our first exciting rock formation. We took a break here to do some climbing and exploring.

After passing the Inspiration Point turnoff, we found our first exciting rock formation. We took a break here to do some climbing and exploring. This is looking back toward the center of the park, not off toward the southern edge.

Continuing along the southern edge, we approached Big Balanced Rock and the Heart of Rocks area, our halfway point for the hike. Looking back, we hadn’t seen anything truly amazing quite yet, but we were still thrilled with the moderate trail and excellent weather.

One of the first truly impressive overlooks we came upon. This view reminds me of Bryce Canyon in Utah.

One of the first truly impressive overlooks we came upon. This view reminds me of Bryce Canyon in Utah (more trees I guess).

Again, before approaching Heart of Rocks, we took the opportunity to do some climbing amongst the rock towers.

Again, before approaching Heart of Rocks, we took the opportunity to do some climbing amongst the rock towers. The trail can be seen to the bottom left.

After about 3.5 miles, the time came to enter the Heart of Rocks loop. As I mentioned before, this is where all of the secret gems are. The trail was a bit confusing here, but eventually we found our way. We went clockwise around this loop, and started by climbing up a steep set of rock stairs.  The rest of the loop was gradual.

One of the views from within Heart of Rocks.

One of the views from within Heart of Rocks.

Four of the named rock formations within the park:

Four of the named rock formations within the park: (counter-clockwise from upper left) Big Balanced Rock, Camel Rock, Duck on a Rock, and Thor’s Hammer

Big Balanced Rock, the top left photo in the above set, seems to be one of the park’s biggest and best formations. It has a diameter of 22 feet, weighs 1000 tons, and stands 25 feet tall. Quite a precarious balance!

After finishing the Heart of Rocks loop, we were about halfway through the hike. We took this opportunity to munch on some pretzel rolls and candy (not the best planning in the world). Protein bars and sandwiches would have been more ideally suited to this hike.

Another scenic overlook from along the trail.

Another scenic overlook from along the trail.

We then continued along the trail, this time into Sarah Deming Canyon. Here we got yet another outstanding set of views, this time of many rock formations at a distance. The trail again changed to become more foresty as we descended toward another riverbed.

Heading into Sarah Deming Canyon.

Heading into Sarah Deming Canyon.

The scenery and surrounding landscape in Sarah Deming Canyon were lovely, although different from Heart of Rocks. The trail seemed to perfectly segue between landscapes, giving you just enough time to hike through one area, and transitioning before it got boring or dull. It truly felt like a nine-mile hike, not as if we hiked the same one mile nine times in a row.

Sarah Deming continued into Echo Canyon, which Patrick dryly noted seemed to be absent of any echoes.

A beautiful formation seen when entering Sarah Deming Canyon.

A beautiful formation seen when exiting Sarah Deming Canyon.

Probably my favorite picture from the entire hike. It's hard to believe these formations are all natural - I imagine this is what it must be like to look up at the impressive manmade statues on Easter Island. Threatening clouds were rolling in at this point, meaning it was time to finish up and get back to the car.

Probably my favorite picture from the entire hike. It’s hard to believe these formations are all natural – I imagine this is what it must be like to look up at the impressive manmade statues on Easter Island. Threatening clouds were rolling in at this point, meaning it was time to finish up and get back to the car.

As we finished the climb up from Echo Canyon we spotted this rock, slumped against a nearby formation. This rock looked about how I felt by this point.

As we finished the climb up from Echo Canyon we spotted this rock, slumped against a nearby formation. This rock looked about how I felt by this point in the hike.

The last half-mile of the trail from the Echo Canyon Parking lot back to the Massai Point Nature Trail was probably the dullest part of the day. It parallels the road though, so it was at least a nice reminder that we were approaching civilization once again. On the way back to the car we stopped at one more eastern-facing overlook along the nature trail.

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This little overlook had something similar to the telescopes you can put coins in to look around. It was free, but didn’t magnify anything. Underneath the spotter was a round table with notches in the edges where you could balance the spotter. When balanced in these notches, you could read which mountain or city you were looking toward. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before but it was very nice. The clouds continued to roll in so we high-tailed it back to the car and headed home.

It was obviously a long time ago, but I would guess we spent about 7 hours doing this hike, from 10:30am-5:30pm. Keep in mind, we go slow with many stops for pictures and climbing. I’m sure serious hikers could do it in much less time.

This hike through Chiricahua was probably the best one I’ve done in the past six months of being back in Arizona. It was well worth the two-hour drive and full-day hike to experience what this park has to offer. The wonderful weather and low population of hikers just added to the enjoyable day. I highly recommend this hike and hope anyone else who tries it gets to experience the enjoyable day we had!

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “X: Chiricahua National Monument

  1. Nice comparison to Bryce, much of which is viewable from above or from below. Wonder how long before the Balancing Rock will no longer!

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