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Chiricahua Car Camp
Chiricahua National Monument
Hiking in the Wonderland of Rocks
May 16-18, 2003
by Chuck Parsons

Glenn Kappel, Carole Wray, and I arrive at our group campsite shortly after noon on a warm Friday afternoon in the Chiricahuas. We set up camp and enjoy a leisurely lunch under the shade of the tall pine, juniper, and oak trees surrounding the campground. On the drive down we had discussed doing the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail after lunch, but now decide to postpone that hike until early Sunday morning, because of the afternoon heat.

Faraway Ranch

It would later reach almost 90° on this unseasonably warm day in the Chiricahuas, despite the 5,400-foot elevation at the campground. Since this is Carole’s first trip to the area, we opt instead for the 2:00 PM afternoon tour of Faraway Ranch. We are just pulling away from the campground, as we meet Richard DeSouza and his wife, Rochelle Mascarenhas, who had left the valley a couple of hours behind us.

After a quick greeting, all five of us head over for the ranch tour.

We are greeted at the ranch by young park service intern, Ruth, who is surprised and a bit flustered by the size of her audience. However, she does a very commendable job, as she slowly unfolds the detailed story of the pioneering Erickson family and the early history of Bonita Canyon, then escorts us inside the house. Neil and Emma Erickson, young Swedish immigrants, along with baby daughter, Lillian, were among the first white settlers in this area, homesteading a small cabin and 160 acres in 1888. As Ruth escorts us through the rooms of the house, furnished exactly as they were when Lillian left in 1975, she relates the birth of two more children and the addition of several more rooms and a second floor, expanding the little cabin to its present day size. In later years, Neil and Emma moved to Flagstaff, and Lillian eventually took over operation of the thriving cattle ranching operation, supplementing her income with paying guests.

Lillian was credited with originating the name Faraway Ranch, since it was, as she put it, “so godawful far away from everything”. However, that distance eventually worked to her advantage, and by the mid-1920s Lillian and her new husband, Ed Riggs, had a thriving guest ranch operation, drawing visitors from all over the country to see what they called the “Wonderland of Rocks”. They expanded their trail network and took guests by horseback and on foot through the endlessly fascinating rock formations of the Chiricahuas. Due largely to the tireless efforts of the Riggs in promoting the area and pushing for the idea of a national park, Chiricahua National Monument became a reality in 1924.

The slender white cane lying on the living room sofa, where she last left it in 1975, is stark testimony to the blindness of Lillian Riggs, resulting from a fall in a horse riding incident. What would have sidelined most people only served to strengthen her resolve, and this strong-willed woman, known as the “Lady Boss of Faraway Ranch”, continued running and managing the guest ranch operation for the next 25 years, after the death of her husband in 1950.

Hoodoos and spires reach for the sky.

Lillian retired to a rest home in nearby Willcox in 1975, where she lived out her last two years. Faraway Ranch was eventually purchased by the National Park Service and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. In a quit little family cemetery at the mouth of Bonita Canyon, Lillian Riggs and most of her family now rest peacefully, overlooking the Wonderland of Rocks that Lillian and Ed Riggs had worked so long and tirelessly to preserve.

We take our leave of Faraway Ranch with a new-found respect for the fortitude and resolve of Arizona’s early pioneering families and head back down the smooth, paved highway in our comfortable, air-conditioned vehicles. Arriving back at the campground, we rest for a while in our comfortable, oversized camp chairs, with built-in beverage holders and foot rests, as we ponder over the prospects of dinner. For the second year in a row, fire restrictions have banned the burning of wood and charcoal, so no charbroiled steaks or chops for us tonight. We would also have to forego a nice roaring campfire once again, so no roasted weenies, toasted marshmallows, or S’mores for this intrepid group of modern-day pioneers. Most of the soaking spring rains enjoyed by much of the state bypassed the Chiricahuas, resulting in high fire danger this early in the season in mid-May. In an act of sheer irony, we sit down to delicious dinners cooked over modern propane stoves and my brand-new propane grill, wishing we could go back to the ways of the early pioneers and cook instead over wood and charcoal fires and later ward off the chill of the night by gathering around the same crackling wood fire our pioneering ancestors would have used to keep warm. Perhaps we modern day voyagers are just so spoiled we don’t even realize it. You think?

After dinner, we decide to head over to the camp amphitheater and catch tonight’s lecture on “The History and Customs of the Chiricahua Apaches”. Our moderator is Todd, another young park service intern, whose facial features bear remarkable resemblance to those of a Native American. Imagine our surprise when he tells us that he hails, not from the American West, but from Japan. Japan?? Once again, you cannot always judge a person by first impressions. Todd proceeds through a slide show presentation, showing construction of an Apache wickiup shelter, grinding stones (metate) for making meal, various plants and animals used for food, and coming-of-age ceremonial rites for young Apache men and women, including those of present-day Apache maidens in New Mexico, dressed in vibrant, bright costume. He also discusses the leadership roles of the last two great Apache chiefs, Cochise and Geronimo.

The Native American presence in the Chiricahuas and the Dragoons, some 35 miles to the west, traces back ten thousand years in time. These rugged mountain ranges were the homes and rocky fortresses to a people then known as the Chokonen for those many, many centuries before white men ever appeared on the scene. A tiny trickle of white homesteaders through the region in the mid-1800s spelled the beginning of the end for the Chokonen people (later labeled Chiricahua Apaches by the white man), as the trickle slowly but steadily grew into a torrent, and brutal, bloody encounters between the two groups in the form of attacks, raids, counter-raids, cold-blooded murder, and outright massacres raged on for years, until the U.S. Calvary moved into the region and established Fort Bowie at Apache Pass in 1862. For the next 25 years the calvary waged a prolonged and bloody war on the Apaches, under the leadership of Cochise and then Geronimo. The tattered and defeated remnants of the once mighty Chokonen people were rounded up and shipped to the San Carlos Apache Reservation far to the north and later to remote reservations in distant Florida, never to gaze upon their ancestral Arizona homeland again. The final fate of the Chokonen, or Chiricahua Apaches, was now sealed, and a very long chapter of Native American history in Arizona was closed forever. A people who had occupied this land for 10,000 years were now gone in less than fifty.

Arriving back at the camp in darkness, most of us soon break out an extra layer to ward off the night’s chill. We sit at one of our camp tables and talk for a while under the light of a propane lantern. Outdoor camping is somehow just not quite the same experience without the focal point of a good campfire, which would be especially welcome on this night, as the night air grows cooler. One by one, most of our small group turns in for the night, and Richard and I are soon the only holdouts. It is now getting close to 9:00, and I expect our three remaining campers to start arriving any time now. We soon spot an SUV stopping near our group parking area, and I go out to check on it. It is Sharon Strong in her dark blue Subaru Forester. I help her get parked, and we start transferring her gear to the campsite. Within a few more minutes Rudy Arredondo and Angie Lien also arrive, and Richard and I help get everyone set up for the night. We all then sit down and discuss tomorrow’s plans, while our last arrivals get a chance to rest. By about 10:00 PM we are all getting a bit tired and decide to call it a night, as we head to our tents. Tomorrow will be a big day.

d_columns c_Balanced
Massive columns and balanced rocks are common throughout the Chiricahuas.

Saturday morning greets us with the loud call of the camp Ravens, grey-breasted jays, and one or two other unidentified species of noisy feathered friends. In fact, some of them started their chorus well before dawn. The temperature stands at a crisp, cool 55 degrees, as we roll out of our tents to greet the day. No sooner are we seated at the table to eat our breakfasts, when several of these bold jays start to move in closer for a possible grab and snatch maneuver. One spies an opportunity and starts picking away at an unguarded package of bread at another table. These guys are amazingly brazen and are almost like the flying version of pesky squirrels we have encountered at other campgrounds, most notably at Indian Gardens in the Grand Canyon. At last year’s Chiricahua camp, one of these jays actually started pounding away on an aluminum cookware set left on one of the tables, sounding like some angry, half-crazed woodpecker.

Glenn and Carole had decided yesterday they were not going to do the full hike we had planned for today. Instead, they would take the park shuttle to the Echo Canyon Trailhead and hike the Echo Canyon Trail to the junction with the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail and hike that back to the Visitor Center and campground. The rest of us are going to do the longer hike (8.3 miles), taking in the Heart of Rocks Loop, especially since four of our hikers had never been to the Chiricahuas before. Our goal is to reach the Echo Canyon Trailhead close to 8:00 AM, so we can get an early start and hopefully beat some of the heat we will encounter today. Our two groups part company, and six of us head up Bonita Canyon Drive in two vehicles, reaching the trailhead shortly after 8:00. Actually, we overshoot the Echo Canyon turnoff and go to Massai Point at the end of the road. From here, it would be another half-mile back to our trailhead.

However, this works to our advantage, since this is a good opportunity for our four newcomers to be introduced to a brief history of the geology of the Chiricahuas, in the form of a small interpretive center and lookout at the end of a short nature trail. It is really hard to imagine, gazing out over the serene and peaceful scene before us, that far back in time (approximately 27 million years ago) this was the very epicenter of one of the most violent and prolonged periods of volcanic activity the earth has ever seen. Over the course of a million years one hundred cubic miles (yes – cubic miles) of ash, pumice, sand, and lava would explode with the force of one thousand Mount St. Helens from numerous vents across the 13-mile diameter Turkey Creek Caldera. Superheated clouds of incandescent, white-hot ash and pumice were blasted miles into the atmosphere, turning day into night for weeks and months at a time. Avalanches of burning hot volcanic sand raced across the land, covering and obliterating everything in their paths. Over time, enough material was ejected from the caldera floor to bury almost 1,200 square miles of present day Sulphur Springs Valley to a depth of 2,000 feet or more. Intense heat and pressure eventually turned much of this material into solid rock. Great uplifting forces that created the Chiricahua Mountains split these multiple layers of welded rhyolite tuff into massive upright blocks. Those masters of erosion – wind, water, and ice – went to work on the blocks and, over time, created the convoluted landscape before us today.

Into this volcanic hell of millennia ago, we descend from the Echo Canyon Trailhead, from an elevation of 6,780 feet. Hopefully, the area will remain dormant for at least a few more days.

Sharon and Rochelle help support a
100 ton balanced rock at trail’s edge.

We slowly descend through dense chaparral thickets of manzanita, scrub oak, pinyon pine, alligator juniper, and Emory oak, as we make our way through an almost surreal labyrinth of rocky spires, pinnacles, hoodoos, massive stone columns, and narrow passageways weaving through and around rocky grottos created over the eons by a combination of wind and water erosion.

At a couple of places along the trail, Sharon and Rochelle help provide some interesting photo ops by seemingly holding up huge balanced rocks at trails edge. After about 1.2 miles of hiking, we reach Echo Park, a densely wooded and shaded forest of oak, pine, juniper, and cypress nestled among gigantic rock towers and pillars soaring to meet the brilliantly blue skies on this beautiful Saturday morning in the Chiricahuas. Eventually our trail descends all the way to the canyon floor, and we find ourselves in the even deeper shade of towering ponderosa pine, soaring oaks, sprawling sycamores, Arizona madrone, and even a few Douglas fir.

We traverse the first of many dry creek crossings we will encounter on this portion of the trail. That we do not find a single small pool of water at any of the crossings is testimony to the lack of rainfall in the Chiricahuas and the reason for recent fire restrictions.

At the 2.6-mile mark, we reach the signed junction with the Upper Rhyolite Trail, which will carry us east for a short distance, before a switchback reverses us back to the west, as we travel along the north slope of upper Rhyolite Canyon. We will continue descending for the 1.1-mile length of the Upper Rhyolite Trail, before finally reaching the Sarah Deming Trail junction. At this junction, Glenn and Carole plan on taking the Lower Rhyolite Trail all the way back to the Visitor Center and campground, while the six of us will take the Sarah Deming Trail into the Heart of Rocks area. We will now more than make up for the 800 feet of descent from the Echo Canyon Trailhead, as we start an almost 900 foot ascent to the Heart of Rocks Loop. The day is growing steadily warmer (our thermometers are now reading 90 degrees), and we are more exposed to the sun on this trail, as we slowly start gaining elevation. We will have to climb for 1.6 miles before reaching the entrance trail into the Heart of Rocks Loop. Fortunately, as we get higher on the trail we are greeted by a refreshingly cool breeze from time to time that helps energize and motivate us.

The climbing and the heat begins to take its toll, and we decide to take a lunch break in the shade of some small trees at trail’s edge before starting the loop trail. We sit on some large rocks and logs and break out the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, and trail snacks, while Rudy pulls out some left over fried chicken that keeps mysteriously popping up at every meal in camp (including breakfast). He must have stopped to buy one of those huge, bottomless tubs of fried chicken at a KFC somewhere, before reaching the Chiricahuas. For an encore, he then polishes off a large apple – core, seeds, and all – before spitting out the stem. While enjoying our lunches, the conversation suddenly takes a bizarre twist to the subject of people dying while sitting on the commode. How did we get on this subject anyway? As a physician, Sharon nonchalantly indicates this is just normal and typical lunchtime conversation for her (we can only imagine) and doesn’t bother her in the least. With that lovely picture in mind, it is time to move out. Rested, cooled, and energized, (with nary a single commode in sight), we are soon ready to hit the trail once again.

Spectacular photo ops await us at every turn.

Hmmm – come to think of it, didn’t Elvis Presley die on the commode himself? All right, already – enough commode stories. Let’s get serious about hiking.

We next stop for a group picture opportunity by Big Balanced Rock, near the short spur trail that will take us into the Heart of Rocks loop. To the immediate left of this huge balanced rock, we note a smaller and presumably former balanced rock that has already met its fate, as it lies toppled on its side and rested against a taller column of rock. Perhaps more than anything, Chiricahua National Monument is testimony to the unrelenting and on-going powers of erosion, and nothing – not the largest balanced rocks, nor the most massive columns or pillars – can escape its powerful grasp in the end. We then descend on the spur trail for 0.2 of a mile through a small thicket of pine and Arizona cypress, before reaching the loop junction. We opt for a clockwise direction and immediately begin climbing a long series of steeping stones, before finally leveling off and soon finding ourselves face to face with the largest balanced rock on the trail, Pinnacle Balanced Rock, a massive thousand ton pillar of solid rock delicately perched on a narrow base approximately eighteen inches in diameter. One can only wonder just how much more of its narrow pedestal can erode away, before this magnificent pillar of stone topples over in a thunderous crash that will echo far and wide throughout the stony wonders of Chiricahua National Monument.

Richard, Angie, Sharon, Rudy, and Rochelle
(kneeling) in front of Big Balanced Rock.
Pinnacle Balanced Rock is an entirely
different formation.

We take time out for another group picture in front of this marvel of nature, before moving on. The Heart of Rocks Loop trail alternately climbs and then descends along its full 0.9-mile length, as it continues carrying us through a virtual Alice-in-Wonderland of whimsical fairyland figures carved into stone. At the top of the next grade we find Old Maid Rock, soon followed by the Camel’s Head and then Thor’s Hammer. Through a framed window of rock stands an uncanny likeness of the famous puppets, Punch & Judy, who appear to be engaged in some sort of heated argument, as they square off face to face. Poor Punch seems to be getting quite an earful in this heated debate that is frozen in time. Moving along, we are soon greeted by the amazing Duck on a Rock, followed by Kissing Rock, and finally the Totem Pole. Before we realize it, we have completed the Heart of Rocks Loop and return via the short spur trail that will rejoin us once again with the Sarah Deming Trail. (A special note of thanks here to Sharon Strong for leading us on the straight and narrow into the Heart of Rocks Loop, when we were about to go astray. Sharon is soon to join the ranks of Arizona Trailblazers hiking leaders. Congratulations, Sharon!)

Once again on the Sarah Deming Trail, we now have a 3.1-mile hike ahead of us back to the Visitor Center. Fortunately, it is all downhill from here, and we will drop a little over 1,400 feet in elevation along the way. The same cooling breeze that helped cool our ascent through Sarah Deming Canyon now serves to quicken the pace of our descent, as we follow this cliff-hanging trail along the canyon’s western slope through an open forest of pine and oak. Making very good time now, we eventually make our way to the junction with the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail, which will take us on a western path directly to the Visitor Center. Here we decide to take a well-deserved rest and water break before completing the last leg of today’s hike. The Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail follows the south wall of Rhyolite Canyon, as it steadily descends to the canyon floor on the approach to the Visitor Center. Although tiring by now from a long day of hiking, we are still making good time, as we near the canyon floor and its open forest of pine, oak, and cypress.

The hot sun overhead has been obscured for some time now by a hazy, overcast sky.

That cooling effect, along with the periodic breezes, helps propel us along, and before we know it we are greeted by signs of civilization in the form of the Chiricahua Visitor Center, where we will stop for a bit of R & R.

Indian Head Rock

We arrive back at the campground a little past 3:00 PM, where we are greeted by Glenn and Carole, who had completed their own hike by noon. For the next couple of hours, we rest in the welcome comfort of our cozy camp chairs, with ice-cold drinks in hand, while talking and passing around everything from chips, to peanuts, to trail mix, to fresh grapes. Some opt for a short post-hike nap, and we all just take it easy for a while. Before long, it is once again time to think about dinner, and we all begin to break out the fixings for tonight’s potluck. We sit down to a healthy dinner of mixed salad greens, fresh soy beans, pasta salad with Italian sausage, marinated three-bean salad, and, yes, more of Rudy’s famous perpetual fried chicken (it’s almost like the Energizer Bunny, except it keeps on coming … and coming … and coming!). We wash it all down with an eclectic assortment of ice-cold beers and a large bottle of red Chardonnay wine, topped off with a huge pile of decadent chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Mercy! Does life get any better than this? As our stomachs and gastrointestinal tracks take on a task of monumental proportions, we ponder over the options of the evening. Shall we continue sitting around camp and digesting, facing a second night of virtual campfire, or shall we migrate over to the amphitheater, where tonight’s venue is “The CCC and Chiricahua National Monument”? It is clearly a no-brainer, so we start the migration.

Arriving at the amphitheater, we are greeted by the sight of Park Ranger Kate, as she swirls about the stage in her full flowing red dress and flowery hat straight out of the 1930s. This is a woman in search of a dance partner, as popular swing music from the 30s pours out of the sound system, followed by the voices of famous crooners of the period, including Bing Crosby and Rudy Vali. Alas, no dance partner comes forward, but Kate soon faces a full house and enthusiastically takes on the role of a period reporter harshly questioning the entire concept of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program, including the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and the PWA (Public Works Administration). She traces the history of the CCC through a slide show presentation, showing the wide variety of daily activities of the many young men involved in the program.

Camel’s Head
Punch & Judy

From the height of the Great Depression in 1933, when this nation and much of the world was at an all-time low, until America’s involvement in World War II on December 7th, 1941, the CCC gave hope, meaning, and a new lease on life to 3.5 million young men between the ages of 18 and 25. The corps sent home $25 per month to each man’s family, helping to stave off starvation for many of them, and gave the men $5 per month. Many got their first real education and training, as well as health care, while in the corps. Many more got the military training and discipline that would help them serve their country with honor and dignity during the war. In work camps scattered across the country in many of the park system’s national parks and monuments, including Chiricahua, these young men toiled endlessly building miles of trails and roads, bridges, buildings, and various infrastructure and support facilities throughout the system. In Chiricahua National Monument, they are credited with forty construction projects, including Bonita Canyon Drive and the campground, with its buildings and structures. In the end, I think we all (including that doubting reporter, Kate) had a new found respect and deep admiration for the enormous contributions of this then controversial government agency and the great differences it made in the lives of so many young men, who were on the verge of giving up all hope. An entire nation was inspired – the rest is history.

Kissing Rock
A four-stage rocket of stone is ready for lift off.

Arriving back at the campground for our last night beneath the night skies of the Chiricahuas, we all turn in early, fatigued from the long day of hiking. Wakened once again early Sunday morning by the raucous call of the camp Ravens and jays, we turn out to greet our last day in the Chiricahuas. Sitting down to a final breakfast together, we discuss the day’s options. Several in our small group of eight, including Rudy, Angie, and Carole, decide to leave early and head back home, as soon as they break camp. The rest of us are going to do the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail, originally planned for Friday afternoon. We again decide to try to hit the trailhead by no later than 8:00 AM in an attempt to beat the day’s heat. Last year at this time, a massive rockslide had closed this trail, blocking it with thousands of tons of rocks and boulders. The park service was not sure when, if ever, the Sugarloaf trail would be re-opened to the public. Lucky for us, they got some heavy equipment in there earlier this year and cleared the trail just in time for the height of the tourist season. Thanks guys, for a job well done. Breakfasts done and packs ready to go, our two groups bid farewell to one another for the last time, and five of us head up Bonita Canyon Drive once again.

Sugarloaf Mountain Trailhead
Sugarloaf Mountain

We turn off at the Echo Canyon spur road and follow it to its terminus at the Sugarloaf Mountain Trailhead and parking area. We stop for another group picture by the trailhead sign and cast our gaze upward to the 7,310-foot summit of Sugarloaf Mountain.

It looks like a bit of a challenge, but is really a short hike, compared to yesterday’s main event.

Rochelle, Richard, Glenn, Sharon, Chuck atop Sugarloaf Mountain.
Cochise Head is on the ridge in the background.

We will only be hiking a total of 0.9 miles and gaining 500 feet of elevation to reach the top – a mere stroll in the park for this seasoned group of veteran Chiricahua hikers. Although the temperature is already approaching 80 degrees at the trailhead, our trail is soon in the cool shade of the north slope of the mountain, overlooking large clusters of pinnacles and columns in Bonita Canyon below us. We soon pass through a small tunnel, blasted out of solid rock by the CCC, as they constructed this trail to the summit in the 1930s. We hike a few hundred more yards up the trail, before we discover the site of last year’s rockslide, in the form of a large swath of rocks and boulders on both the slopes above us and far below the trail on the other side. As the trail swings to the south, we gaze out over the broad expanse of Rhyolite Canyon and the Chiricahua Mountains beyond. One last climb through a manzanita thicket, and we are soon standing next to the fire lookout on the summit, with the monument’s best commanding views of Cochise Head. A short break, a few group pictures, and we head back down the same trail back to the parking lot. Reaching the campground, we discover the others have already left. We take down our tents, pack away all of our supplies and belongings, take one last look around camp, sadly bid one another a fond farewell and safe passage back home, and say goodbye once again to a very unique and special place in Arizona, known as Chiricahua National Monument, Wonderland of Rocks.

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updated April 16, 2020