Chiricahua National Monument, Chiricahua Mountains
By Robert Stieve
The Apaches called them “standing-up rocks.” Today, people call them hoodoos or pinnacles or the most amazing rock formations they’ve ever seen. All of the above will work when referring to the centerpiece of Chiricahua National Monument.
Although the hoodoos can be photographed from any car window, the most impressive rocks can be seen only on the Heart of Rocks Loop, which can be reached in a number of ways. For this hike, you’ll begin at the monument’s visitors center. Before you get started, though, you should know that you will see signs of the Horseshoe 2 Fire, which hit the park in 2011. Fortunately, this trail fared better than expected when the human-caused blaze began. And today, it’s still spectacular.
To get to the loop, you’ll first need to tackle two connector trails: Lower Rhyolite Canyon and Sarah Deming. The first is an easy-to-follow dirt path that’s instantly recognizable as the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built the trail in 1934. The path parallels Bonita Creek for 1.5 miles before its intersection with the Sarah Deming Trail. Along the way, the views to the left epitomize the local landscape, with rows and rows of hoodoos, some as big as U-Haul trucks, set against an unbelievably blue sky. If Bob Ross were painting the scene, he’d use phthalo blue. Most of this stretch follows a gradual incline, but it’s nothing strenuous.
After about a half-hour you’ll come to the intersection with Sarah Deming. The Upper Rhyolite Trail veers left; you’ll veer right. Unlike Rhyolite Canyon, which is fairly wide from side to side, Sarah Deming Canyon is narrow and more forested, and if the winter has brought some rain and snow, there’s a good chance you’ll hear water along much of this trail. The creek at the bottom of the canyon will make most of the noise, but even up on the trail itself, you’ll encounter some small springs that trickle across the path before heading 100 feet downhill to the main creek. In addition to the water, check out the two chimney-shaped rocks that look as if they were built of brick by stonemasons. They’re huge. You can’t miss them. Five minutes later, you’ll cross the creek, veer left and then switch right for the final ascent to the Heart of Rocks Loop.
Even before you get there, you’ll start seeing some of the great shapes, and you’ll find it hard to stop making photos. Fortunately, the CCC carved steps into the trail, which makes it easy to look around and hike at the same time. In all, this uphill stretch takes about 15 minutes, after which you’ll come to the loop. Of course, it doesn’t matter which direction you go, but the National Park Service recommends clockwise, and that’s how this hike is written.
There are many marvels within Chiricahua National Monument, including the fact that it’s home to more than 1,000 plant species, the southernmost stand of Engelmann spruce in the United States, and an array of wildlife such as coatimundis, cougars, black bears and all four species of skunks native to Arizona — spotted, striped, hooded and hog-nosed. None of that, however, will seem more impressive than the hoodoos you’ll be hiking through on this incredible loop. Among the many well-known rock formations you’ll see are Totem Pole, Big Balanced Rock, and Punch and Judy.
Although the loop takes only about 25 minutes, you’ll probably end up lingering and making photos. It’s also a good opportunity to think about the history of the area. Long before the establishment of Chiricahua National Monument and the overlapping Chiricahua Wilderness, this was the home of the Apaches, including Cochise, Geronimo and others. As you look around, you’ll understand why they settled in this environment. The “standing-up rocks” make up one of the most amazing landscapes you’ll ever see.
Photo: The setting sun casts a glow on Chiricahua National Monument's trademark hoodoos. | Mark Frank
Length: 7 miles round-trip
Elevation: 5,366 to 6,870 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 32˚00.335', W 109˚21.361'
Directions: From Tucson, go east on Interstate 10 for 71 miles to Exit 336 in Willcox (an I-10 business route). Veer right onto the business route and continue 3 miles to State Route 186 (the first stoplight). Turn right onto SR 186 and continue 32 miles to State Route 181. Turn left onto SR 181 and continue 4 miles to the Chiricahua National Monument entrance. The trailhead is located at the east end of the visitors-center parking lot on Bonita Canyon Drive.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Map: Cochise Head
Information: Chiricahua National Monument, 520-824-3560 or www.nps.gov/chir