Like last year, I did another Parks in Focus trip to Chiricahua National Monument last weekend. This isn’t the most famous landmark in Arizona by a long shot, and it’s definitely out of the way, but it’s honestly phenomenal, especially as a weekend trip from Tucson. Not only do you really get away from the city, you also get to see a really unique Sky Island. The pillars of Chiricahua were formed by an ancient volcano eruption that caused rhyolite to coalesce under the extreme temperatures. Weaker materials eroded away and left behind these awesome pillars. The location is also at an amazing intersection for plants and wildlife – including coatimundis, which are actually native to South America. With that said, a weekend isn’t really a lot of time to explore such a big place. I really like this itinerary though since I think it gives you a good look at several places in the park.
When to Go: Spring, Summer, or Fall – the weather will be cool at night whenever you go, and it will be hot in the day too. In the spring, you can see some great colors – the leaves here change color in the spring, and there are also flowers. Summer and fall also have good weather though, and since the main views are rocky, it’s a good year-round place to visit. The main thing to know is that the trails can get icy in the winter, and monsoon season means flash floods (don’t go then).
This is a really great place to go for a weekend out of Tucson. You’re basically in the middle of nowhere, but it’s only about a two-hour drive. I recommend leaving Tucson by 9 am and packing a cooler bag with sandwich materials and anything you’re grilling. Keep in mind that you will need to bring your own firewood or charcoal, and be on the watch as you leave Tucson. Benson is the last place with a Target or Walmart, but Wilcox should be your last stop before you continue into Chiricahua. The park is 40 miles out of Wilcox, but there is literally nothing after you leave here. This is the place to get your Starbucks fix and grab any last minute items or snacks.
Leaving Wilcox, it’s pretty hard to get lost. However, the turn off from AZ-186 to the smaller road that will take you to Chiricahua is very sudden, so you might pass it. From here though, it’s a straight shot into the park. Don’t forget to slow down and take some pictures of these amazing rock formations. Once you reach the visitor center, check to see if there is a Faraway Ranch tour. This is a good hike to start with in my opinion since it acquaints you with the area and is not at all strenuous. On weekends, the rangers do tours where they give you more information about the plants and animals in the park as well as the history of the first ranchers and later the CCC. It’s also with this tour that you’re able to tour the Faraway Ranch house, which is pretty cool – I would live there. This trail is about a mile and a half, and there’s a nice place for a picnic at the far end. Taking lunch with you and eating here before you head back is a great idea.
Once you hike back to the Visitor’s Center, it will probably be late enough to head to Bonita Canyon Campground and set up for the night. Taking some time to decompress after setting up tents is pretty nice especially since the second hike of the day is more demanding. The campground here is a little expensive – about $20 a night – and you have to camp at the actual campground, which can get crowded, so book in advance.
The second hike and my favorite is Sugarloaf Mountain. From the campground, it’s about a 15 minute drive up to the starting point for this hike. Check what time sunset is (they list it in the Visitor’s Center) and plan to start hiking about an hour and a half before that. The Sugarloaf trail is only 0.9 miles, but it’s strenuous. Even with a bunch of kids though, everyone made it to the top between 30-45 minutes – and that includes a few stops for water breaks. Pack some snacks to eat at the top, and wait for the sunset. You can get some pretty nice pictures up here!
Once the sun goes down, make sure you have headlamps and/or flashlights. The trail is not at all even, and though it’s easier going down, someone always gets hurt somehow. Back in the Sugarloaf parking lot, take some time to stargaze because this is a very nice place for that. Or – if you plan ahead, you can go back to the campground for dinner now and come back later to see a meteor shower or something. The Visitor’s Center has books on the night sky if you want to see some stars but aren’t sure what to look for. Back at the campground though, grills are provided, so this is a good time for burgers and s’mores! Keep in mind that Chiricahua has high elevation, and from the time you hike Sugarloaf until the next morning, you will want a jacket, especially in the spring or fall. If you’re from Tucson or a similar climate, pack like you’re going to the Arctic; if you’re from somewhere cooler, a sweatshirt should be fine. Thermal sleeping bags are for everyone though.
In the morning, when you start is up to you. The best of Chiricahua is seen on a longer hike, and that’s what today is for. I will note here that in traveling with a group of kids, a lot of them did not enjoy the longer hike and on this recent trip, we shortened it considerably and only went as far as the Grottos where they were able to climb around before lunch. That said, for adults, I definitely recommend doing a longer trail on day two. So pack the car, pack a lunch, and drive to the Visitor’s Center. The best way to really see Chiricahua in my opinion is hiking one of these trails, but hiking back up is not great. Fortunately, the Visitor’s Center offers shuttles up to the Echo Canyon parking lot which is where the longer trails start.
From here, I really loved taking the Echo Canyon Trail down to where it connects with the Rhyolite Trail, which leads back to the Visitor’s Center. This is a total of 4.2 miles, and it’s really not too hard, especially if you take water breaks. Don’t forget to stop by the Echo Canyon Grotto which is a super cool area that you can actually climb up and around in. It’s hard to get good pictures, but it’s fantastic and also a good shady spot to take a snack break. This trail is mostly downhill as well, and it’s well-traveled, so as long as you remember sunscreen, you’ll have a great time.
Also from the Echo Canyon parking lot, you can take the Ed Riggs Trail to the Mushroom Rock Trail to the Big Balanced Rock Trail (it’s confusing; grab a map at the Visitor’s Center though, and you’ll be fine). This takes you to Pinnacle Balanced Rock, which is a central part of the park. Since I have only been to Chiricahua with kids, I haven’t been to this section, but with the most famous rock in the park, it’s somewhere I want to go. From the parking lot to the Visitor’s Center, this is a total of about 7.2 miles. If both of these sound a little long, there’s also a sort of loop comprised of Echo Canyon, Hailstone, and Ed Riggs that comes to about three miles and gets you back to the parking lot.
Chiricahua is a fantastic place that I love visiting, and even if you don’t have the time for a long hike, at the very least, it’s worth going along Bonita Canyon Drive to see some of the rock pillars that make this place so amazing!
Bonus tip: A little over halfway up Sugarloaf, you’ll find what is probably the best spot in Chiricahua for a photo-op.