Chuck Darwin, Eat Your Heart Out

Chiricahua National Monument

Feb 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

The geology of the Chiricahuas is as striking as the biology. Twenty-seven million years ago, a massive volcanic explosion (known to geologists by the disarming French term nuée ardente, "glowing cloud") blew 100 cubic miles of lava, ash, and rock into the atmosphere—about 1,000 times more material than Mount St. Helens ejected in 1980. The fallout covered the nearby landscape to a depth of up to a half-mile and left a crater 12 miles wide. Subsequent erosion of the compacted rhyolite has created a wonderland of spires and balanced boulders in Chiricahua National Monument, 30 miles south of Willcox, at the northwestern corner of the range. It was this maze of rock that allowed Cochise to make fools of the U.S. Army until the government accepted peace on his terms.
There's a visitors center here with the usual exhibits, but you won't spend much time inside. The pink, gray, and lichen-green stone columns, like the disordered rows of a giant's chess set, lead you up and away. Take the eight-mile drive to Massai Point for an overview and then walk the seven-mile route through the Heart of Rocks. You'll lose the casual sightseers and experience (with considerably less stress) the disorientation felt by the soldiers who long ago anticipated ambush behind every boulder. As you thread between ever more improbable formations, corny snapshots of friends "holding up" huge rocks prove nearly irresistible. Keep an eye out for coatis, agile mammals that resemble stretched-out raccoons. The slender, striped lizards you might spot are Chihuahuan whiptails, which are all female and reproduce by parthenogenesis, effectively cloning themselves.

Near the monument entrance on Arizona 181, the 24-mile Pinery Canyon Road leads up and over the range, giving easy access to Cave Creek Canyon on the east side. For a stout 50-mile bike loop, leave your car at the monument entrance and ride up the road to 8,800 feet at Barfoot Park ("park" being local terminology for open meadows), then head back down the Pine Canyon jeep trail. The fir-trees-to-prickly-pear descent is quite a finger workout; V-brakes could not be more highly recommended.