The Otherworldly Wonderland of Rocks: Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument is recognized by its whimsical rock gardens with pinnacles that reach hundreds of feet skyward. This is the homeland of the Chiricahua Apache who relied on the natural resources in the area as far back as the 1400s.

A Wonderland of Rocks is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025 acre site.

About 120 miles east of Tucson, Arizona lies a sea of monolithic wonders forged in volcanic fury. Here, thousands of rocky hoodoos twist skyward under a vivid blanket of stars. The Martian-like landscape is crawling with rare creatures and abstract natural phenomena unlike any you’ve ever seen.

The Chiricahua Mountains stand shoulder to shoulder rising over 6,000 feet in silent solidarity from the surrounding Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Driving south from Willcox, Arizona, Highway 186 is sun-faded and snaked with cracks. Beyond barbwire fences, cattle graze on what grass they can find. A solitary pickup passes us, heading to town.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We are entering Chiricahua National Monument named for the Chiricahua Mountains, homeland of the Chiricahua Apache people who lived here for generations.

Driving down the monument’s main road, I glimpse green and shady Bonita Canyon Campground at the base of a redrock wall. This is my first view of the area’s stone columns and pinnacles. The Apache reportedly called this region, The Land of Standing-Up Rocks.

Twenty-seven million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions rapidly covered 1,200 square miles with ash. The hot ash deposits (tuff) compressed into rock—welded tuff—and as it cooled, it contracted and cracked allowing wind, water, and freeze/thaw cycles to erode these towering cylindrical shapes.

Dubbed the The Land of Standing-Up Rocks by the Apache, Chiricahua’s iconic rhyolite pillars earned it national monument status back in 1924. These otherworldly oddities—reminiscent of the orange-hued hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon—number in the thousand and were formed millions of years ago by a volcanic eruption 1,000 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens. Adding to the mystique, Chiricahua is one of Arizona’s sky islands, a prodigious mountain range that emerges from the desert like a hazy mirage.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The unique geological features of sky islands result in some pretty unpredictable climate conditions; think t-shirts at the lower elevations and winter coats closer to the highest peaks. And as the elevation changes, so do the ecological communities.

Located at the convergence of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madres, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert, Chiricahua is home to five world biomes that range from deserts and grasslands to chaparral, deciduous, and coniferous forests. It’s basically the Grand Central Station of ecosystems and it’s teeming with innumerable desert-dwelling critters and creepy crawlies.

Here’s how to best experience the starry skies, ancient lava flows, and wildlife of this Southwestern dreamscape.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cruise through Bonita Canyon

Seeing the best of Chiricahua doesn’t necessarily mean lacing up your hiking boots: Bonita Canyon Scenic Drive serves as the perfect gateway to adventure. This eight-mile drive provides access to scenic pullouts, trailheads, and Bonita Canyon Campground. Enjoy the scenic drive as it rambles through cypress, oak, and pine forests and climbs to Massai Point where you’ll gaze over a sea of trippy hoodoos, distant mountain ranges, and surrounding valleys from a 6,880-foot vantage.

Be sure to stretch your legs along the paved half-mile Massai Nature Trail. The path is outfitted with informative signs about the natural history of the area so you can depart Chiricahua with some impressive facts that give context to your photos. Oh, if you want to catch a sunset, this is the place.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be wowed under a blanket of stars

Unparalleled sunsets are a highlight in Chiricahua but that little ball of fire dropping behind distant mountain ranges is just the opening act. Chiricahua is a premier destination for astronomy tourism and it wows with spellbinding views of the crystal-clear night sky.

In 2021, Chiricahua added International Dark Sky Park status to its resume making it the 12th such stargazing destination in Arizona. Definitely stay up past your bedtime for a chance to glimpse the Milky Way in all its glory.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore hidden grottoes and towering volcanic rocks

Overall, there are 17 miles of day-use hiking trails snaking through the monument ranging from easily accessed to knee-shaking. For a panoramic view, Sugarloaf Mountain should be first on your list. The 1.8-mile moderate hike rises 7,310 feet above canyons to one of the highest points in the monument. It winds through carved tunnels and culminates at a fire lookout that offers far-reaching views in every direction.

Echo Canyon Loop is your best bet for stellar photo ops. Spanning 3.3 miles and best hiked counterclockwise (trust me on this one), Echo Canyon Loop leads you through rock pinnacles and popular areas of the monument including the grottoes and through the narrow rock wall corridors known as Wall Street.

The ultimate physical test has to be The Big Loop. Landing at the top of the list of the most strenuous trails in the monument, the 9.5-mile loop twists through mazes of rhyolite formations and it’s peppered with scenic outlooks which make the trek through those elevation changes worth the sweat. Tackling the Big Loop gets you up close and personal with the monument’s most notable (and aptly named) geologic formations like Camel’s Head, Kissing Rock, and Big Balanced Rock.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encounter some truly wild wildlife

From falcons and finches to swallows and swifts, southeastern Arizona is renowned for its avian diversity. In fact, close to 200 bird species have been documented throughout the monument. Each year, thousands of migrating birds funnel through Chiricahua highlighted by massive migrations between mid-April and mid-May.

Far from simply a birder’s paradise, Chiricahua is one of the northern hemisphere’s most biologically diverse areas. Javelina, black bear, jaguar, ocelot, whitetail deer, and the white-nosed coati (the cuter cousin of the common raccoon) are among the 71 species of mammals in the monument.

There are also 46 species of reptiles—including the western box turtle and venomous banded rattlesnake—and eight amphibian species including the smirking, striped tiger salamander that inhabits Chiricahua’s wetland areas.

Like the fauna, the flora in Chiricahua abounds. Experts cite that 1,000 plant species flourish throughout the monument including an eye-popping, sinus-destroying superbloom of desert wildflowers. For the best wildflower peeping, plan your trip for late spring or early summer.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to know before you go

Chiricahua’s busiest months are March and April but ultimately the best time to visit is between March and June or from October to November. Just remember as a rule to expect the unexpected. In Chiricahua, weather events like unpredictable thunderstorms are common in the summer monsoon season and snowstorms are a normal occurrence during winter months.

Road tripping in? Campers and RVers are allowed inside the monument boundary and in the campground but all vehicles longer than 24 feet are prohibited on Bonita Canyon Scenic Drive. The closest services are in Sunizona and Wilcox, 24 miles and 34 miles away, respectively. That’s a long way to walk for gas—especially with ocelots watching—so fuel up before you enter and keep an eye on the gauge.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Bonita Campground is the only area where camping is permitted in the monument. It has 26 individual sites and they go fast. Reserve campsites through recreation.gov. Vehicle length limit is 29 feet. The campground is equipped with flush toilets and running water but that’s about it. There are no hookups, showers, or laundry facilities and cell service is nonexistent.

Chiricahua does have a visitor center and a bookstore, but it’s not a big-box grocery store by any means. Some food items are stocked but you probably won’t see any spirulina-dusted artisan popcorn on the shelves here. There are no restaurants, either. So bring plenty of provisions and water for your trip and prepare to be awed.

Worth Pondering…

Most travelers hurry too much…the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open … with real inward attention. …you can extract the essence of a place once you know how.

―Lawrence Durrell