04 Mar Arizona park features mountains, canyons, history
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Chiricahua National Monument near Tucson
I’ve visited Bryce Canyon 10 times, Yellowstone six. And some places just once – I enjoyed the opportunity to experience the destination but probably won’t return.
After my first visit, Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona is already calling me back.
Pronounced “Cheer-ih-cow-ah,” this national park unit is located about two hours east of Tucson. No one recommended it to me – I learned about Chiricahua by studying a map for possible stops during my autumn desert trip throughout New Mexico and Arizona.
I explored the monument during early November and plan to return in spring sometime to experience a greener park along with wildflowers. Temps were great for hiking in November, mornings in the 30s and afternoons in the 70s. Like most parks, services were limited because of the pandemic or time of year; exhibits were closed and the hiking shuttle was discontinued. However, I didn’t mind because the monument was less crowded in late autumn. In addition, a ranger staffed an outdoor information table – I appreciated chatting with her, since rangers have been elusive in many parks I’ve visited during the past two years.
Hike Echo Canyon
If you can only do one hike in Chiricahua, I recommend the Echo Canyon Loop, trekking counterclockwise in the morning for the best photo opportunities. I’ll forego the written description of this hike and let the photos with this article communicate the beauty of the trail and the monument’s fascinating geological formations of rhyolite.
One spot along Echo Canyon deserves a special shout-out. It’s a location that many hikers miss if they don’t take the time to investigate it. The Grotto. This interesting rock garden isn’t large but I loved climbing up into the formations and photographing the sun peering through the ceiling cracks and openings. A trail sign announces that you’ve reached The Grotto, which is slightly hidden if you’re too focused on just traversing the trail.
Other trails meander through Chiricahua National Monument. Most include elevation gain but nothing too strenuous for an active hiker. I also walked the flat Silver Spur Meadow and Bonita Creek trails, which were both dry this time of year, with dormant plant life. So why did I walk these trails twice?
My search for coatimundi
The ranger I talked with indicated that coatimundi frequent the two trails. And my adrenalin spikes at the opportunity to encounter a creature I’ve never seen before. Coatimundi look like athletic raccoons (they’re related) with a longer snout and much longer ringed-tail. They travel in bands and often swing from trees and eat suspended upside down. They’re cute but they smell awful according to the ranger. I wasn’t lucky on these two hikes – no coatimundi. I’ll need to return to the southern border region and try again.
Despite the time of year, I did see other wildlife: acorn woodpeckers, Mexican jays, deer, turkeys and a few lizards soaking up some of the year’s final, warm sunny afternoons.
Small monument with a little bit of everything
Chiricahua is a relatively small national park unit but it contains a variety of sights and destinations. Rising to 9,743 feet, the monument showcases four ecosystems that meet in this mountain and desert region.
Hiking trails lead to a natural bridge, mountain tops and unique geological formations such as Duck on a Rock, Punch and Judy, and Big Balanced Rock. During normal operating conditions, Chiricahua offers historical tours of Faraway Ranch and Stafford Cabin, giving visitors a glimpse of farm life back in the 1880’s and early 1900’s.
Pick your season, with tradeoffs
I stayed overnight in Willcox, AZ, a small town with basic services and accommodations. But I wasn’t looking for a wild night out at dance clubs or fancy rotating restaurants. I just needed sleep. And I found a great local eatery – La Unica Restaurant and Tortilleria.
My visit to Chiricahua National Monument was just one of seven destinations during my fall desert tour of Arizona and New Mexico. Overall, I’d rate the vacation a B+. On the positive side, I liked the cool temps, fewer visitors, the autumn skies and the amazing migration of Arctic snow geese and sandhill cranes to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, their winter feeding grounds. I timed my entire trip to coincide with the opportunity of seeing these flocks of thousands. On the downside, I saw fewer songbirds and reptiles and hardly any wildflowers. There’s always a tradeoff when you pick a season to visit our nation’s wild places.