Chiricahua National Monument

February 13, 2022 – 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Arizona

The Chiricahua Apache culture entered what is now the southwestern United States sometime between the years 1400 and 1500. They were nomadic, moving with the seasons as hunting and farming conditions changed. Being a warrior was a sacred honor for both genders of Apaches. They began training at a young age, and worked to reach a peak level of physical training. The warriors were trained to become completely still and disappear into their surroundings. The coming-of-age test for a warrior was to run for two straight days with no food or sleep.

The Apache Wars, which began in 1849 when white emigrants began moving through the region and ended in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo and his followers, ended the Chiricahua historic way of life. The Native Americans were removed to reservations in Oklahoma and Florida, and Geronimo died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. In 1913, the Apaches were no longer considered prisoners of war by the U.S. government and about two-thirds (only 183 individuals) moved from Fort Sill to the Mescalero Apache Reservation, which had opened itself to other bands of Apache, in south-central New Mexico just east of the present-day White Sands Missile Range. The rest, less than 80, remained in Fort Sill; the descendants of both groups still live in those respective areas today.

The drive from the monument’s visitor center to Massai Point, one of the monument’s higher points and the location of a number of hiking trailheads, gives an idea of the nature of the rock pinnacles.

Chiricahua National Monument, established in 1924 about 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Ariz., was part of the Apache band’s homeland. Today it’s a federally protected area measuring just under 20 square miles in area containing forested slopes, incredible rock formations, and sweeping vistas of southeast Arizona. Nancy and I visited the monument on Feb. 13, 2022. Since dogs aren’t allowed on the monument’s trails, Gunther took a break from sightseeing for the day.

The monument’s rock formations are the result of eruptions 28 million years ago from the Turkey Creek Volcano, the 12-mile-wide caldera of which is in the mountains on the horizon 10 miles away from this viewpoint. This photo was taken from Massai Point, looking to the southeast.

Perhaps the monument’s most famous features are its rock columns, resulting from a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred 27 million years ago from a magma chamber south of the present monument. During the eruptions, immense quantities of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and molten rock were thrust into the atmosphere. Other eruptions caused flows of gas and ash to flow down the volcanic slopes at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. When the eruptions subsided, more than 1,200 square miles of land was covered with thousands of feet of ash. The deposits, called tuff, compressed and cooled over the ensuing years to form a rock called rhyolite.

This view, to the northwest from Massai Point, includes the large rounded mountain at right-center called Sugarloaf. At 7,310 feet, it’s the tallest accessible point in Chiricahua National Monument. Sugarloaf has thick layers of fragmented rock capped with hard lava. It might be hard to imagine, but all of the rocky area 2,000 feet below Sugarloaf was once a solid layer of rock all at the level of the top of that mountain. A variety of erosional actions, some more active than others, over the 28 million years since the eruptions have caused the lowering of the elevation and the fantastic carved rock columns. There’s a fire lookout, staffed during the hottest months of the season, at the top of Sugarloaf.

This is a mountain called Cochise Head, from a viewpoint looking northeast from Massai Point. It’s said to resemble the rugged face of a Chiricahua lying on his back. Fort Bowie National Historic Site, which we visited the previous weekend, is just on the other side of this rock profile.

Here’s a view to the northeast of Massai Point, with Harris Mountain in the middle of the wide desert San Simon Valley. The Harris family had been part of a wagon train moving west in 1873. The family attempted to take a shortcut through these Chiricahua Mountains and disappeared. Several years later, soldiers from Fort Bowie found one of the Harris girls in an Apache camp in Mexico. The girl related the story of a Native American attack and led the soldiers to the spot at Harris Mountain where the rest of her family had been killed. The soldiers found the bones of the Harris family and buried the remains.
One last image from Massai Point: this is another view to the southwest. We were fortunate to visit on a clear day, because we could see the location of Cochise Stronghold (a sanctuary for the Chiricahua chief and his final resting place) 40 miles away, as well as Rincon Peak (elevation 8.482 feet) and Mica Mountain (elevation 8,666 feet) in Saguaro National Park near Tucson (which we’d visit in a few days after Chiricahua National Monument). The 23-mile-wide Sulphur Springs Valley is between Chiricahua and the closest mountains.

Let’s get back to rocks: the pinnacles in Chiricahua National Monument are formed by erosion. Cooling and uplift of the rocks formed cracks and joints in the tuff. Over millennia of weathering from ice wedging and water erosion, the cracks widened and weaker materials washed away to leave spires of rock. Here’s an interactive exercise: hold up your hand in front of you with your fingers straight and close together (go on: it’s fun!) Imagine that your closed fingers are a wall of volcanic rock, with your fingers separated by joints in the rock. Now slowly separate your fingers, as millions of years pass and countless freeze and thawing cycles of ice, as well as other erosional actions, wear down the rocks between your digits. Congratulations: you’ve created rock spires – told you it was fun.

The pinnacles were later smoothed by wind, chemical action, and further water freezing and thawing over the last 10,000 years to their smooth and rounded shapes. Here we see an intrepid hiker (it very well be Nancy) making her way toward the columns on a trail called the Echo Canyon Loop.

We went on a 5-mile loop hike from Massai Point that dropped about 1,000 feet into Echo Canyon. It was an incredible hike that allowed us to walk among the pinnacles, as well as see wonderful views and a variety of plants and wildlife.

When the flows of hot ash settled to the earth, the heat they contained, combined with the immense pressure of layer after layer of ash, welded the material into solid rock. That welding action wasn’t always enough to transform the ash into solids; some layers cooled too quickly to weld together, and remained softer than other areas. There’s a hiker (in purple on the left) behind this column to give a sense of scale; also note the evergreen shrub growing out of the top of this column. Many years ago, the seed of that shrub was dropped into a crevice in the top of the rock (perhaps by a bird or a breeze); the seed germinated and the roots of that growing shrub are now helping to expand the crevice even further. We saw many cases of that happening: grasses, shrubs, cacti, and trees, growing in loose material in rocks and those plants’ roots helping to slowly but surely break those rocks apart, especially as rainfall and snowmelt freezes and expands in the crevices.
Those layers in the rocks are seen in this photo. Also note the green material that’s on the rocks (and seemingly every other rock in the monument).
Here’s a closeup of that green material: lichen, along with several other different-colored varieties. Lichen, too, is an erosive factor for rocks. Lichen is a plant-like composite organism (but not a plant) that attaches to rocks and organic materials like tree trunks. In their very slow growth cycle, they release weak acids that contribute, day by day over the centuries, to the breakdown of rocks.
There are about 20,000 species of lichen in the world, and there are at least four of them in this picture. I have a hard enough time remembering how to tell sparrows apart and I’m not about to try learn how to identify lichen (but I like ’em)!

We got a really good sense of just what nature is capable of doing, given enough time, during this hike. I was especially struck by how some rocks have broken off, through erosion, from their original formations but didn’t end up on the ground.

Check out the placement of the rocks at the top of the column on the left: the larger rock at the top right of the column is probably seven or eight feet long. There’s no way these were placed by people.
It’s just crazy.

There were other types of erosion on view as well. Running water can be an incredibly effective factor for erosion, especially given enough time.

This is a rock formation on the trail called “The Grottoes.” The smooth sides of the rock walls in the center of the photo were created by year after year of water running through the opening.
Check out this weathering in the solid rock. A helpful passerby (again, most likely Nancy) provides a sense of scale; like most thoughtful hikers, she’s not actually touching the rock so that others can enjoy this formation for years to come.
Again, just fascinating. I wonder if this and the previous formation were formed by softer materials being caught in the ash flow before it solidified, and then wearing away before the surrounding rock could.

There’s more to enjoy in Chiricahua National Monument in addition to rock formations. The only wildlife we saw was a chatty acorn woodpecker and some acrobatic swallows swerving through the rocks, but we saw a good variety of plants. The varying topography and elevations in the monument lend themselves to supporting a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants.

Here are two species of oak trees growing just a couple of feet apart from each other along the Echo Canyon Trail. The one on the left is netleaf oak (Quercus rugosa) and on the right is silverleaf oak (Quercus hypoleucoides). With enough water, silverleaf can grow up to 60 feet tall. That’s not happening in this desert canyon; both of these were two-feet-high shrubs.
This is narrowleaf four-o’clock, a wild close relative of the four-o’clock annual plant that’s popular in gardens. Four-o’clocks have been cultivated since the time of the Aztecs. I think we were a bit too early to see it in bloom.
Here, though, is a plant in bloom. This purple prairie verbena was attracting a large black butterfly that wouldn’t stay still for a picture.
This is a very common type of cactus called strawberry hedgehog, growing in a rhyolite crevice along the trail. It has pretty fearsome spines.
This was an extraordinarily rewarding hike. We seemed to stop every few paces just to enjoy the formations and views.
We were a little surprised to see this good-sized spring at about the halfway point of our loop hike. It provided a little rivulet of running water further downstream.
Just another example of nature being absolutely wild sometimes. This is a formation of rocks alongside part of the hike called Hailstone Trail. I’d love to find out how these rocks were formed, as well as some of the other atypical formations earlier in the hike. We had a blast at Chiricahua National Monument and will definitely return to get those answers.

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