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