Recently, we visited Chiricahua National Monument for the 3rd time. As always, we were completely blown away from the views surrounding us, and we loved every minute of our hike. This time, we convinced our friends Mitch and Julianna to come along with us, and they were equally as impressed with the beauty of this place. We often use phrases like “The most underrated National Monument in Arizona” and “Southern Arizona’s hidden gem” to describe this place. So today, I’m going to try to convince you why YOU need to visit Chiricahua National Monument!
Chiricahua has NO entrance fees! Not only that, but last summer they waived all camping fees, AND they offer a FREE daily shuttle service at 9 AM from the visitor’s center to the end of the park – which gives you the ability to easily hike through the park! You may be asking yourself, “if this place is so great, why don’t they charge you anything??” Well, the answer that makes the most sense to us is because it is off the beaten path, and the closest services are at least 30 miles away. To get to Chiricahua, you must exit the I-10 around Wilcox, Arizona, (about an hour and a half East of Tucson, AZ) then head South on highway 191 for 36 miles. However, I hardly think this is any reason not to visit. Next time you’re planning a road trip along the I-10, make plans to take this detour and spend anywhere from a couple hours to one night camping here – it’s definitely worth it!
This place is commonly referred to as a “Wonderland of Rocks,” and for good reason. When we started on Echo Canyon Trail, all we could see was trees and scrub brush along the path. Then, suddenly there was a break in the trees, and we were given our first view into this vast canyon. It was breathtaking! Not only were we seeing our first Rhyolite Hoodoos, but we were also getting a look into how vast this canyon is. As we continued on this trail, we realized that we were in the middle of all this – the rocky canyon was on either side of us! And to top it all off, we were also able to see peaks of other mountain ranges surrounding the canyon. Being in this park showed us how small we were and how great this world is.
As I mentioned earlier, this was Curtis and my third time visiting. We visited a year ago and camped, but we didn’t make enough time to hike some of the most popular trails, and have regretted it ever since. This time, we arrived at the park at 8:30 on Saturday morning and signed up to take the free shuttle at 9. We planned out our route so that we could see the most of this area. Last time, (read about it here!) we parked in the Echo Canyon Trailhead lot and made a 3 mile loop on the Echo Canyon, Hailstone, and Ed Riggs Trails, and then hiked up Sugarloaf Mountain (pictured above) 1 mile round trip. Today, by taking advantage of the shuttle, we were able to hike through the majority of the park. Our route for today started on the Echo Canyon Trail (our favorite from last time!), then took the Hailstone Trail to the Mushroom Rock Trail. We then took the half mile spur trail to Inspiration Point before continuing on the Big Balanced Rock Trail, then we hiked the Heart of Rocks Loop Trail, finishing with Sarah Demings and Lower Rhyolite Canyon trail. I know none of that matters if you haven’t been to the park, but those are all the trails on the South side of the park. There are a few more we haven’t done that are near the visitor’s center and the campground.
As I said before, Echo Canyon Trail was our favorite last time, and it blew us away yet again today. Along the trail, you see the rhyolite hoodoos along canyon walls on either side of you. Whenever the trail is heading Northwest, you are facing toward Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in the park. The trail goes through some narrow points where the high rock walls surround you. You pass by the grottos, and who can resist a short detour to wander around those?! This is one of those places that astounds me with every turn – each view seems better than the last – so my camera got a little workout this morning 😉 (to say the least…I ended up with 400 pictures.)
In 2011, the Horseshoe Fire 2 came through the area, and you can still see some of the effects as you hike along the bottom of the canyon. The above picture is what it looks like nearing the South end of the Echo Canyon Trail. When you begin at the Echo Canyon Parking Lot, the whole trail is a gradual descent into the canyon. Altogether, this trail is 1.6 miles long. The South end runs in with the Hailstone Trail (East) and the Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail (West). The Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail takes you to the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail, which you could either take to the Sarah Deming Trail, and following that the Heart of Rocks Loop to the East, or you could head West to get back to the visitor’s center. Because we took the shuttle, we headed East on the Hailstone Trail so that we could see all we wanted to on our way back to the visitor’s center without backtracking. If you happened to park in the Echo Canyon lot and want to hike to the Heart of Rocks trail, this would be a good point to head West.
The Hailstone Trail gradually takes you back up the canyon, where you can either take the short Ed Riggs Trail back to the Echo Canyon or Massai parking lots, or follow the Mushroom Rock Trail to continue your through-hike through the park. While hiking on this trail, you are still in a canyon and always looking up to those now-familiar rhyolite hoodoos.
The Hailstone and Mushroom Rock Trails took our breath away – this time because of how steep they were! This was the part of our hike today that gained the most elevation in the shortest amount of time. In 2 miles, we went from 6330 feet to 7010 feet above sea level. Compared to other hikes, that really isn’t a lot, so perhaps it was just our faster pace and the fact that this was toward the middle of the day that we were more worn out. But once we made it to the turnoff to the spur trail for Inspiration Point, we were at the highest point we’d be all day – it was all downhill from here!
The spur trail to Inspiration Point adds only 1 mile round trip to the hike, and after doing it, we HIGHLY recommend it! We’ve done both Sugarloaf Mountain and Inspiration Point, and would definitely say Inspiration provides a much better overview of the monument without taking you too high above it. The trail is mostly flat, so unless you’re really pressed for time, there’s no reason to skip it. 😉
This being our “halfway point” for the day, we decided to have lunch here. It was truly an unbeatable view, and we just couldn’t get enough of it. I love the overlook of the canyon, and how it empties out into the playa, with more mountains far off in the distance. What mountains are those? I’m glad you asked!
My dear husband Curtis put together this little labeled panorama to help identify mountain ranges to the West/Northwest of the park. This picture was taken along the Big Balanced Rock Trail, West of the Inspiration Point spur. See the Rincon Mountains? For those who aren’t familiar with Tucson, those are the mountains to the East in Tucson, and Mt. Lemmon is the highest point in the Catalina Mountains to the North.
While the sights along the Big Balanced Rock Trail were similar to what we’d seen before, we were in no way “used to them.” After walking along a long, straight path, the trail would bend one way and expose a whole other side to the rocks we hadn’t seen yet. The highlight of this trail is obviously the Big Balanced Rock, but even though we were expecting it, we weren’t prepared for how grand it really was!
I had seen pictures of Big Balanced Rock before, but no picture can really explain how you literally come around a corner and BAM! There it is, so big and grand! All 4 of us literally exclaimed “WHOA!” when we first saw it. It truly is amazing, how a rock that size is just balancing by a tip. This is truly one of those amazing sights you NEED to see in person.
Following the Big Balanced Rock is the Pinnacle Rock – another large balancing rock. This one, while it may not have received the same verbal praise as the last – is still an amazing sight to behold. The Pinnacle Rock is along the Heart of Rocks Trail, a 1.1 mile loop trail off of the Big Balanced Rock/Sarah Deming Trail. This trail was the main reason why Curtis and I knew we had to come back. This loop takes you on a tour of some of the monument’s most interesting rocks. The beginning of the trail was a little confusing to navigate, but some signs helped us out in finding the way. The trail signs have you take this trail clockwise around the loop. The beginning was steep and rocky, and less maintained than what the other trails had been, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this trail!
Many of the rock formations along this trail have been given names – the above picture features Punch and Judy. Others include Camel Head, Duck on a Rock, and Kissing Rocks. Each is identified with a sign. We thought of several other names that could be given to unnamed formations – this can provide extra entertainment when hiking through the area. 😉
After the Heart of Rocks Loop, we were in the final stretch of our hike today. We took the Sarah Deming Trail to the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail, then back to the Visitor’s center. Along most of the trail, we were still enjoying views to the North of the canyon and Sugarloaf mountain. The trail goes from 6860 feet to 5400 feet of elevation over 3 miles, and at this point we were very thankful we had taken advantage of the shuttle so that we didn’t have to hike up this steep incline!
Altogether, we hiked a total of 9.4 miles over 5 hours according to the “Map My Hike” app. While we were content and very happy that we were able to return and hike on these trails, I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied to the point where I don’t want to return. Chiricahua National Monument is one of those places that we’ll always love and enjoy, and if we ever find ourselves back in Southern Arizona, we’ll undoubtedly make an effort to return to this Wonderland of Rocks.