“Standing Up Rocks”

IMG_9615As we neared the end of our 4-week visit to Arizona, there was one last National Historic site that caught my attention on the map – the barely pronounceable Chiricahua National Monument.

The first thing I should tell you is that it is not particularly easy to get to, as there is no direct route, and once you are on your way, there are no services available in any direction for miles and miles.

The second thing I should tell you is that it is worth the effort, as the scenery is unlike anything else we saw during our entire trip, assuming you’re into rock formations that is……

So you know where to find it, Chiricahua is located 120 miles east of Tucson, and 32 miles south of Willcox (off the I-10), before taking a short jog on SR-181 into the Visitor’s Centre.

The park entrance is at an elevationIMG_9617 of about 5,000 feet, and once you leave the parking lot, you begin an 8 mile climb up to Massai Point which provides some spectacular vantage points.  Of what, you might ask?

An enormous collection of weirdly-shaped rocks, that made me recall images from Fraggle Rock.

IMG_9620-editedThe native people had a name for the area which translated to “Land of Standing Up Rocks”, and a Ranger at the Visitor Centre told me he liked to describe the trip up to the top as “climbing up a Sky Island to an isolated mountain range rising above the surrounding grasslands”.

Regardless of the name or the romanticized description provided by the Ranger, we were treated to views of some remarkable rock formations as we climbed up to close to 10,000 feet above sea level, before reaching the summit parking lot.

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At the summit (Massai Point), we got our first glimpses of some of the rock pinnacles that fill the higher regions of the park, the remnants of a huge volcanic eruption that occurred about 25 million years ago.

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According to the signs along the trail-head, eruptions from the Turkey Creek Volcano spewed ash over 1200 square miles.  The super-heated ash particles melted together to form a gray rock called Rhyolite.  As the Rhyolite cooled, cracks formed, and over time, weaker material was washed away, leaving behind an endless variety of spires, balanced rocks, and other mystical-looking shapes.

The park offers multiple-hiking opportunities, IMG_9654-editedincluding one 17-mile trail that starts at the top of Massai Point and ends back at the Visitor Centre some 8-10 hours later.  We didn’t bring the right kind of gear to embark on something quite as challenging as that (although I’d love to tackle it at some point in the future), but we did walk/climb/scurry along 2.2 miles of rocky trails down to Echo Canyon, where some of the most interesting formations reside.  The most photographed, and therefore most famous landmark in the park is called “balanced rock”, and the picture below says it all.

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We definitely noticed the rarified air as we scrambled along the trails at between 7000 and 9000 feet high, and as somebody who suffers from asthma, I found myself more winded than usual, despite the amount of walking that we regularly do.

The views along the trail were incredibly interesting, but I got to the point where I thought “I don’t even know if pictures will accurately capture the wonderful strangeness of these stone column formations”.  Nonetheless, here are a couple more photos taken along the upper trail.

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We finally reached our destination of the Echo Canyon Grottoes, and the best description I can provide to you is that it resembles a long sloping stone hallway, worn between giant boulders.

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As we made our way along the trail back up to the parking lot, we were once again mindful of the efforts of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), back in the 1930’s, who as part of FDR’s “New Deal”, built the roads into the park and up to the summit.  They also created the trails and roughed out stone walkways so that the generations of hikers of walkers that followed could enjoy the bizarre and weirdly wonderful landscape that makes up the Chiricahua National Monument.

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