Chuck Darwin, Eat Your Heart Out

The Chiricahua Wilderness

Feb 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Biologists call the mountain ranges that tower over the Arizona deserts "sky islands," a reference to the plants and animals that survive on their cool, rainy slopes, isolated by surrounding heat and dryness. Nowhere is this effect more clear than when you stand shaded by firs and pines on 9,795-foot Chiricahua Peak and look west toward stark Willcox Playa, an enormous bone-dry lakebed.
About 200 miles of Forest Service trails crisscross the Chiricahua high country. Late spring brings perfect weather for exploring them—usually. (I was once left tentbound for four days on top of the range by a freak April snowstorm that closed I-10, 5,000 feet below me.) The trail system lets hikers customize a nearly endless selection of routes. One of my favorite two-day backpacking loops starts in Cave Creek Canyon on the five-mile Greenhouse Trail, which switchbacks up past the impressive Winn Falls to a high open meadow at Cima Park, where there are several good unimproved campsites (camping is allowed anywhere in the high country). From here, it's only 1.5 miles to Chiricahua Peak. Head south along the ridgeline on the Crest Trail, which occasionally opens up with expansive views. Turn left at the junction with the South Fork Trail, which descends back to Cave Creek (17 miles total). Black bears are fairly common in this area, so cook and store food away from your tent. Water is reliable in spring if there's enough snowmelt, but it should be treated.

For a high-country day hike and a lesson in fire ecology, drive up Pinery Canyon Road to Rustler Park and take the Crest Trail to 9,666-foot Flys Peak. It's six miles round-trip; if you're up to it, make a 13-mile loop by connecting with the Saulsbury and Rock Creek Trails. In 1994, the Rattlesnake Fire burned 27,000 acres of this forest, and the rejuvenation is amazing to see. Use caution, however—snags and limbs still fall occasionally.
From different parts of the trail, I can not only view all four of the Chiricahua's biotic regions; I can see and feel and smell the connections between them. The ash from mountain fires drifts down and fertilizes desert cactus, and the hot wind that sweeps across the valleys cools as it rises up the range, dropping rain on the pine seedlings shouldering their way up through old, dead needles. The Chiricahuas are my answer to those who think all the last best places—the Serengeti, the Galápagos—are a world away. This American place forms its own biological paradigm.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!