Our first destination was a relatively undiscovered gem in the southeast corner of Arizona: Chiricahua National Monument. Hardly anybody we spoke with at any other point in the trip knew about Chiricahua; it’s not a place you often see in travel forums, blogs, or instagram feeds, and a part of me wants to keep it a secret. Like an uncrowded version of Utah’s Bryce Canyon, it consists of valleys whose hillsides are adorned with what are called hoodoos, towering pinnacles of rock. 27 million years ago, the Turkey Creek Caldera exploded, spewing molten debris over the 12 mile area. Eventually this rock cooled, and over many millions of years, cracks formed. These cracks got bigger and bigger until out of the rock were sculpted these multitudes of magnificent pinnacles.
We arrived at Bonita Canyon Campground late at night and got up were at the trailhead by sunrise to start the Big Loop Trail which is the following trails strung together: Ed Riggs Trail, Mushroom Rock Trail, Inspiration Point Spur Trail, Balanced Rock Trail, Heart of the Rocks Trail, Sarah Deming Trail, Echo Canyon Trail, totaling about 9 miles. We did the loop in a clockwise fashion so that we could get to Inspiration Point still early in the day where the morning suns rays would make for good photography (wasn’t totally successful in that regard). Most people do this route counter-clockwise however meaning that we didn’t encounter a single other person for the first few hours of the hike.
Chiricahua Big Loop Trail Snapshot
Type: Loop, starting and ending at Echo Canyon Trailhead
Distance: ~9 miles
Elevation Gain: ~1,731' ascent and descent
Our completion time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Difficulty: Moderately Difficult
Water Situation: No reliable sources; pack at least 2L, more if hot
Notes: Heart of the Rocks, Echo Canyon, and Sarah Deming are the highlights - Inspiration Point can be skipped if time is an issue. Going clockwise is steeper but more recommended nevertheless to avoid crowds and to get the less scenic parts of the trail out of the way first. Another potential route would be Ed Riggs, Hailstone, Sarah Deming, Heart of the Rocks, Sarah Deming, Echo Canyon. This may be more scenic in fact.
The first bit of the Ed Riggs trail was a relatively uninspiring descent through typical desert mountain vegetation, but toward the end of the trail you finally started to see the majestic pinnacles bursting forth out of the ground on the opposite side of a gorge, like a primitive jury of stately village elders deciding your fate.
The trail continues onto the Inspiration Point and Heart of the Rocks Loop, which are some of the highlights of the trail (the latter especially so). They provide views of hundreds of such pinnacles, like looking out onto a vast audience from the stage of an enormous concert hall. In the Heart of Rocks you get to walk among this forest of rocky towers, some of which have such names as “the Old Maid,” “Punch and Judy,” “Duck on a Rock,” and “the Kissing Rocks.” Chiricahua also has not one but two obligatory balanced rocks: "Balanced Rock" and "Balanced Pinnacle Rock". I've seen a number of balanced rocks by this point in my road trip career and god damn if these don't look they would immediately capsize if somebody nearby breathed too hard.
Top row from left to right: Balanced Pinnacle Rock, Old Maid, Balanced Rock.
Bottom Left to Right: Duck on a Rock, Kissing Rocks
In the Sarah Deming and Echo Canyon Trails you go into the valley where the pinnacles surround you and you really see them in them in multitudes; waves and waves of them as far as the eye can see. There are so many that the camera really doesn't capture them well. Finally the Echo Canyon trail rises steeply from the valley and is more of a slot canyon terrain that weaves through walls and hoodoos back toward the trailhead.
Another fascinating aspect of this hike is the acoustics. All of the rocky faces make for remarkable echoes. Louder sounds will be bouncing around the rocky faces of the valleys for a solid 5 seconds before finally dissipating. Conversations from people a mile away can be heard.
Chiricahua is a prime example of a National Monument is just as interesting and jaw-dropping if not more, than some of the National Parks. While I do have a goal of seeing all 60 National Parks, it’s not at the exclusion of other amazing places such as this.