The name “Chiricahua” conjures up images of the wild west in my mind, formed by Saturday matinee westerns when I was a kid back in the 1950s in the small town of Glasgow in northeast Montana. I finally had the chance to hike and photograph in the Chiricahua National Monument in the southeast corner of Arizona during my six-week trip to the southwest in January-February, 2011.
The most prominent feature of the Chiricahua National Monument are the many rock pinnacles and spires that rise up like a dense forest made of stone. To the Chiricahua Apaches, these were the “standing up rocks.” The area began to form 27 million years ago when the nearby Turkey Creek Volcano deposited ash over many hundreds of square miles. The hot ash melted together and formed layers of rock called rhyolite. But there were cracks and joints in these layers of rock, and over millions of years the forces of ice, water, and wind gradually eroded the softer portions, leaving behind the relatively harder columns of rock that we see today.
Neil and Emma Erickson were Swedish immigrants who settled in this area in 1888. Their eldest daughter, Lillian, and her husband, Ed Riggs, opened up the area to tourists by converting the original homestead into a guest ranch. Faraway Ranch, as they called it, operated from 1917 to 1973, and during that time Ed Riggs laid out a marvelous system of trails that were then constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The ranch and surrounding area became a national monument in 1924 to help protect its natural values for all who want to visit. Today, the monument is managed by the National Park Service.
I stayed at the Bonita Canyon campground, just a short distance past the visitor center on the single paved road that enters the park. It was late January, and there were a lot more vacant campsites than occupied sites. While there were small patches of snow in some of the shaded areas and ice on the highest trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, I found the weather to be relatively mild and the days very pleasant.
I hiked to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, nearly 2 miles roundtrip, where a fire lookout is maintained, but I didn’t find the views any more spectacular than could be seen from the trailhead and other roadside viewpoints. Much of the trail was in the shadow of the mountain, and ice was a problem in many areas. The fire lookout was locked, of course, but it was of interest to me because I spent two months on a lookout tower in northwest Montana during the summer of 1967 — perhaps the best summer I’ve ever had.
I stayed a week, and most of my time was spent on the loop trail that begins at Echo Canyon near the end of the road at an elevation of 6780 feet. In my initial walk down the trail, I was struck by how well-designed it was — the trail took a hiker to so many interesting formations and views. It was clearly laid out with great care, and I later learned it was designed by Ed Riggs, and he considered it his life’s greatest achievement.
The Echo Park Canyon trail (1.6 miles long) connects with the Hailstone Trail (0.8 miles long) that travels along the lower reaches of a canyon below the rock columns. The views up the hillside provide a different perspective.
The third leg of the loop trail back to the trailhead was, for me, just a walk back to the starting point. It’s unfortunate, I think, that this least interesting portion of the loop trail is named after the trail designer, Ed Riggs. It is 0.7 miles in length, and the elevation gain is modest.
On successive days, I would usually stay on the Echo Park Canyon trail at a very slow pace, going as far as the light would allow. When the sun got too high in the sky for “good” photography, I just turned around and enjoyed the sights from the other direction while looking for compositions that I might try the next day.
I also varied my photography by taking a different camera system each day. I used a Canon digital, a Pentax 645 film camera, and a Hasselblad 501cm square format film camera. It was quite interesting how the camera I had in my hand helped shape my mind’s eye for different compositions. On these trips, I looked for more unusual compositions and the smaller elements that make Chiricahua so unique.
There is a longer trail system that begins at the end of the road, loops through some of the most interesting rock formations in the monument, sends a spur to “Inspiration Point” for a view down the valley to the west, and then continues down through the trees to the Visitor Center. One very nice aspect of this trail and of the National Park Service itself is that a shuttle is provided to take hikers to the top for a one-way, largely downhill trek through these areas. The length of this trail varies from about 7 miles up to about 10 miles, depending on the various trail options. My artificial joints start talking back to me on hikes that exceed about five miles, so I didn’t get to see the sights in this part of the monument.
However, I did set out very early one morning with flashlight in hand to Inspiration Point. I managed to make it to the point just as the sun was cresting the horizon. Unfortunately, the sky was clear blue and the entire scene was fairly bland. No photos were to be had. The high point for me happened on the way back. As I looked ahead on the trail, I spotted a Chiricahua Fox Squirrel, a species that is found nowhere else in the world but in these small mountains.
The Chiricahuas are “islands in the sky,” and some species inhabiting them are not able to cross the lowland deserts to reach other high-altitude areas. They have become isolated on these “islands.” Over time, they begin to differentiate genetically (i.e., they evolve), and the lack of genetic exchange eventually leads to the formation of a new species. I didn’t even try for a photograph; just the experience of seeing such a rare animal for a brief moment was enough to make the hike worthwhile.
Even though the sunrise at Inspiration Point was less than inspirational, the next morning I drove to the end of the road at Massai Point before sunrise. I watched the earth’s shadow slowly descend with the first light of the sun following it.
I also spent a long morning at the Faraway Ranch that was the cherished home of Lillian and Ed Riggs. It is now maintained by the National Park Service as an historic site. On this day I just wandered around the grounds, imagining the decades spent here by the Riggs and their many guests.
A final word about the National Park Service staff at the monument: One of the staff was a photographer, and she was very helpful in suggesting the best places and times for photography (Echo Canyon Trail in the morning!). Other staff I met in the campground, on the trails, at the pullouts, at the Visitor Center, and at the ranch were equally pleasant and helpful. They have recently upgraded the facilities throughout the monument, and that made the stay all the more pleasant.