Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua (pronounced cheer-a-cow-uh) National Monument has been on our road trip radar for quite some time. Fortunately, our wish to visit finally came true during our “Vacation in Ruins” road trip, and the park was everything we expected plus a whole lot more. Even upon entering the park, we never anticipated a lush forest or gently flowing creeks. Nor did we expect a dose of history to go with the gorgeous setting. While nothing can compare to seeing Chiricahua in person, we hope you enjoy the visit through our eyes.

Where is it?

Chiricahua National Monument is located in the Chiricahua Mountains, approximately 30 miles south of Willcox, Arizona which is the closest city with accommodations, food, and gasoline. However, if you choose to visit Fort Bowie National Historic Site first, like we did, Google maps with take you down the road shown below to reach Chiricahua. Google maps will also tell you that the drive takes 29 minutes, but it took us almost an hour. Nevertheless, it was worth the drive, though we now have a dashboard squeak that we didn’t have before this road.

Road to Chiricahua from Fort Bowie.

Luckily, after about 30 minutes of driving on dirt, we finally made it to Highway 181 which led us to the turn off to the park. We truly felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. The scenery was worth the trouble though. Note to travelers: Have a full tank of gas before venturing out to Chiricahua.

Highway 181 – lonely road, ranchland, and snowcapped peaks. We were in our element.

Chiricahua National Monument features:

  • Visitor center with exhibits, bookstore, and gift shop.
  • Hiking trails for all levels of hikers with some designated for horseback riding.
  • Faraway Ranch Historic District with ranger guided tours of the ranch house/museum.
  • Bonita Canyon scenic drive.
  • Picnic areas.
  • Campground for RV and tent camping – open year-round and requires a fee. Reservations are highly recommended.
  • Free hiker shuttle service to higher elevation trailheads during the winter and spring months.
  • No admission fees.

Access the park’s website here.

Little waterfall, Chiricahua National Monument.

Getting There

Before we left Fort Bowie to drive to Chiricahua, we heard other travelers talking to the rangers about the scenic drive being closed due to snow. Our hearts sank because missing Chiricahua was going to be a huge disappointment. The ranger told us later that we should go on to Chiricahua, after all it was a warm day with hardly a cloud in the sky. So, we took off thinking that under the sunny conditions the road would be clear by the time we arrived.

Chiricahua’s visitor center with rangers stationed outside under a much-needed heater.

Upon arrival, we found a parking place in the crowded parking lot and made our way to the visitor center. There we were met outside by one of the nicest park rangers we’ve ever encountered. She told us that the scenic Bonita Canyon Drive wasn’t closed due to snow, but it was closed due to a large fallen boulder. Then the ranger suggested some hiking trails to keep us occupied until the road was cleared. “Which could be any time,” she said with a confident smile. So, we drove to a trailhead for our first hike – a leisurely stroll, really – to see the Faraway Ranch Historic District.

We also encountered this pretty Mexican Jay near the visitor center. Apparently, they have been fed so often by park visitors, they now beg. Large signs attempt to discourage visitors from feeding them, but we suppose that rules only apply to some people.

Faraway Ranch

Windmill at Faraway Ranch, Chiricahua National Monument.

Faraway Ranch was established alongside Bonita Creek in 1886 and became the home of Swedish immigrants Neil and Emma Erickson and their children. The house that began as a one room cabin evolved over the years into a large, modern home by the 1920s.

From the park’s wayside information board. The house perhaps after an 1898 expansion.

Interestingly, Emma bought the 160-acre ranch a year before she and Neil married in 1887. The newlyweds soon realized that making a living by farming was difficult, so Neil took a carpentry job 85 miles away in Bisbee, Arizona. Meanwhile Emma struggled to make a go of the farm. Soon the couple was raising three children, daughters Lillian and Hildegard and son Ben. Neil eventually returned to the ranch, and then in 1903 he became the first ranger of the Chiricahua Forest Reserve.

Faraway Ranch house today

The house underwent several renovations over the years, including the addition of electricity, heating, and indoor bathrooms by daughter Lillian’s husband, Ed Riggs. By the time Lillian had married Ed in 1923, the Erickson’s homestead had become a guest ranch. Chiricahua, called the Wonderland of Rocks by the Erickson family, became a national monument in 1924. Faraway Ranch was operated as a guest ranch until the early 1970s. In 1979, the ranch and all of its contents were sold to the National Park Service to be protected as part of Chiricahua National Monument.

View from the Bonita Creek trail on approach to Faraway Ranch. The shot includes the old barn, corrals, the windmill, and a hint of the wonderland of rocks.

The Ericksons, however, weren’t the first white family to call Bonita Canyon home. Click here to read the short story about Ja Hu Stafford, a 46-year-old man and his 12-year-old wife, Pauline, who settled in Bonita Canyon in 1880.

Lower Rhyolite Trail

Our second hike at Chiricahua was on the Lower Rhyolite Trail. We didn’t go far though, because we were anxious for Bonita Canyon Drive to open and wanted to stick close to the visitor center. However, the parts of the trail that we did experience were perfect and peaceful.

Lower Rhyolite Trail
Rhyolite Creek runs next to the trail.

We encountered a Native American woman who sat on the edge of the creek and chanted while beating a drum. It turned out that she wasn’t the only one doing the same thing. The Chiricahua Mountains were once home to, and named for, the Chiricahua Apache people.

We only wish we knew what her beautiful chants meant.

Scenic Bonita Canyon Drive

After waiting a few hours for Bonita Canyon Drive to open, we finally got access. Unfortunately, it was late in the afternoon by the time the park officials let us through, and even then, the last part of the road was closed. Still, what we got to see was well worth the wait. Some of our shots are below.

First glimpse. Now we know why the Erickson family called this the Wonderland of Rocks!

Chiricahua truly is a wonderland of rocks with its sculpted hoodoos, gigantic pillars, and precariously balanced rocks. We certainly understood why a large fallen boulder could close the road for the better part of a day.

Rocks covered in lichens that glowed neon green in the late afternoon sun.

As the road climbed in elevation, we saw more snow, but we saw these jaw-dropping balanced rocks too! It’s impossible to see these along the road and not wonder what would happen if one happened to tumble. At least that was the case for us.

The undeniable wonder of Chiricahua.
Sentinels of the mountain.
Wrinkly pillars loom high above the treetops.

Since we were unable to access the scenic overlooks, we found the photo below to show a panoramic view of this amazing park. Perhaps another trip is in order so we can actually hike among the hoodoos and pillars.

Chiricahua National Monument. Photo courtesy of R. Gray/Unsplash.

Furry Friends

If the breathtaking scenery along Bonita Canyon Drive wasn’t enough, we were so excited to encounter some of the park’s furry residents.

Chiricahua cutie!

This is a coati, also known as a coatimundi, and they are native to South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Southwestern US. Coatis are relatives of racoons, but unlike their nocturnal cousins, coatis prefer daytime activity and sleeping at night.

These three were obviously too busy foraging for food to stop and pose for a photo.

Black bears, mountain lions, deer, javelinas, foxes, and 20 bat species as well as many other mammals call Chiricahua home. The park’s diverse ecosystems also enable a wide variety of birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians to thrive, even in the sometimes-harsh elements.

Thank you so much for coming along with us to Chiricahua National Monument! We’re closing the post with one more view of the Wonderland of Rocks.

Love national parks? Take a look at these amazing sites:

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
Colorado National Monument 
Scotts Bluff National Monument

Travel safe, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.
























47 thoughts on “Chiricahua National Monument

  1. Wow, I’ve never been to Chiricahua, but this makes me want to go check it out some weekend.

    I have a confession to make. As soon as I saw the first two photos, my first thought was: ugly, monotone beige… must be AZ! No offense intended, but hopefully a chuckle if you’ve seen enough of the state to know the landscape is generally pretty static. 😊

  2. I have a confession to make. I receive your new blogs by email and when I am out waiting for something like an appointment I read your blog as I hope we will one day have the opportunity to travel on the road, also.

  3. The rock formations are fascinating! Some look like they were stacked by giants. I am curious to know how the Rhyolite Trail got it’s name? There is a gemstone called rhyolite and wondered if that stone can be found along the trail. Thanks for sharing.

  4. This looks like another amazing place that I have not heard of before reading your post. The Wonderland of Rocks looks just amazing. Your pictures are beautiful and really show off this National Monument’s features. Thank you for your post!

  5. Wow, amazing rock formations, especially the pedestal shapes…as you say, that’s gotta do some damage when it finally falls over! Coati are incredibly common in Costa Rica, we have some great videos. They seem completely unperturbed by human presence. Love your “family home” story, great reading.

  6. What a stunning landscape, well worth waiting to be able to see! I also like the look of Highway 181 – just my sort of road 😀 The dirt road would be a no-go for us as we’re always in hire cars in the US and the rules prohibit them, but presumably there’s another, longer, way around?

  7. I enjoyed pronouncing the name of this place! I’m glad you were finally able to visit and that it lived up to your expectations. It definitely looks like you’re out in the middle of nowhere, but the scenery is gorgeous. I love the snow capped mountains in the background and all those rock pillars. I’ve never seen (or heard of) a coati before, but it looks super cute!

  8. Amazing Rock pillar formations, would have thought Von Daniken would have argued that some cosmos visitor built them as a hidden message. Loved practising pronouncing the name.

    1. Well, you never know about the Four Corners area (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado). Strange things go on there – they say, and von Daniken may be right. I’ve been waiting my entire life to see a UFO!

  9. The scenery you captured make that drive look very worthwhile. Not sure I’d want to drive that washboard road if it ever rained. Love all the hoodoos and rock pillars. Thanks for taking us there Kellye. Allan

  10. Oh wow, what an incredible reward for braving that dirt road. I really love the rock formations mixed in with the trees. And to happen upon her singing there by the creek must have been such a special and tender moment. I hope though that the squeak in your dashboard just turns out to be a little lingering dust from the road and nothing more serious 🙂

  11. Chiricahua National Monument is an absolute delight of scenery and history. I love your photos of the empty road with mountains in the distance – some quintessential American road trip photography. The hiking trails are just the way I like them: peaceful and beautiful. The rock formations are stunning and what a wonderful chance encounter with a Native American woman singing by the creak. That is a true priceless travel moment. It is incredible to think that this land was once available for purchase and that a Swedish woman bought a piece of it with dreams of making a farm.

    1. Thank you, Leighton! Chiricahua was a wonderful surprise to see in person. I wish we could’ve had more time there. I am going to be spending some time with my kids and grandkids for a few days, so I may be slow at answering e-mails and reading posts. Have a great weekend!

  12. What an amazing place to visit! I have never heard of a coatimundi, how cute. Those rock formations fascinate me. Thank you for sharing all of this wonderful information Kellye!

  13. The Chiricahuas are truly one of my favorite parks and you did an outstanding job at your documentation. We go there at least once a year, and I have to say I am so jealous you got to see coatimundi. I have looked so hard. lol camera on lap an everything to make it possible. What a great trip you had, with valuable info shared!

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