Chiricahua National Monument

For three years we have had this unit of the National Parks system on our “must visit” list.  Mostly this has been because Chiricahua sits in the southeastern corner of Arizona, not far from our winter home base, and it beckons to us.  A national park left unexplored is, in our lives, an unnatural vacuum. Missing one that sits only 100 miles from our home is inexcusable.

But we have had excuses nonetheless.  Chiricahua has presented two small barriers to our visitation.  For one, most of the park is between 5,600 and 6,800 feet above sea level, which means it gets snow in the winter and presents its best weather in spring and fall.  We’re usually busy with other things at those times, and often aren’t even in the state.

The other barrier is one of logistics:  the road through the park and the only campground are CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps)-era creations, with the usual gorgeous stone works and narrow, winding roads.  Our 30-foot Airstream would never be able to camp here.  The official limit is often stated as 29 feet, but that really refers to motorhomes.  For trailers, 22 feet would be a more practical limit, maybe even shorter.

Two years ago Bert and Janie Gildart took their 28-foot Airstream to this park and found out why: the CCC workers in the 1930s built two steep road dips through dry washes inside the campground.  The Gildarts added a long scrape of their own to the many others found on the roadway.  Just last week I got an email from some blog readers with a 25-foot Airstream and they, too, reported scraping.  (They had bumper damage, as well.)

We had planned to tent camp here, but with the arrival of the 17-foot Caravel we finally had a proper vehicle for Chiricahua National Monument.  Looking at the trip plan this year, I realized that we needed to either go this month, or pass on the park until sometime in 2011.

wonderland-of-rocks.jpg

The funny thing is that I hadn’t expected all that much.  Sure, we’d heard of the “wonderland of rocks” that has been promoted here since even before it was a National Monument, and others had told us that it was a very nice place, but that didn’t prepare us for the scenic beauty of the place.  Let me cut right to the chase:  Chiricahua National Monument is a really gorgeous, and possibly under-appreciated (only 56,000 visitors last year), national park.

The only campground in the park, Bonita Canyon, is classic CCC.  There are the narrow roads, as I mentioned, and there are the little stone and brown-wood bathhouses, and tiny tent-sized campsites that have been gradually co-opted by trailers and small motorhomes over the decades.

caravel-at-chiricahua.jpgA word about those campsites.  They are not friendly to big RVs and long trailers.  In addition to the impossible dips, the 90 degree bends, and complete lack of RV services (no hookups, no dump station), the sites themselves are generally sized for one ordinary passenger vehicle.  That parking space is probably not level, either, since when this campground was built people were expected to pitch a tent.  Only the tent spaces have been leveled.  We had to pull out every leveling block we had, and extend our tongue jack to the highest level to get the Caravel approximately level in site #12.

Still, I do not begrudge rustic little CCC campgrounds like this one in any way.  They are charming, shady, and quiet.  They take me back to days of camping many years ago.  It’s like traveling back in time, since little has changed in the seven decades since they were built.  I am not an advocate of expanding, leveling, and adding utilities to these campgrounds, since in almost every case, “improving” a CCC campground would utterly destroy the essential charm of it.  For many people, a wilderness area (an official designation that constitutes the bulk of Chiricahua) is cruelly mocked by massive infrastructure such as is seen in Yellowstone and other major western parks.

I consider it a privilege to stay in such a historic, beautiful, and primitive place for a mere $12 per night.  Apparently others feel the same way, since the 25-site campground fills up nearly every night in the spring and fall.  We arrived at about 12:30 pm and found that only a few tent sites remained available, besides the notorious Site #12 that eventually accommodated us.

Our friends Ken and Petey had arrived the night before, in their 16-foot 1961 Airstream Bambi.  After settling in, we met up with them and checked in at the Visitor Center to get oriented, pick up the Junior Ranger program, and plan our next 24 hours.

When you are in a tiny trailer, life is generally conducted al fresco.  It is difficult to find room inside for three people to function all the time, and a group of five for dinner is unquestionably an outdoor affair.  Fortunately, the entire weekend we received the typical southern Arizona April weather: dry, clear, and mostly bug-free.  (Emma, however, has gotten so used to not having bugs that the appearance of just one or two strikes her as cause for complaint.  “The bugs are awful!” She needs to spend a May weekend camping in northern New England sometime.)

emma-zoe-ken-at-chir.jpgThere are two major activities here:  hiking, and visiting the original ranch houses as part of a guided tour led by park rangers.  I can heartily recommend the hiking, and in fact you can’t really see the best of this park without doing at least a little.  The “wonderland of rocks” is a huge formation of volcanic tuff that has gradually eroded and split into tall spires and unlikely balancing rocks.  The photographic opportunities are endless, for both the bird-watcher and the rock-watcher.  The trails, again built by CCC labor, are excellent.  We covered 3.3 miles in one hike on Saturday, circling from the Echo Canyon Trail to the Upper Rhyolite Trail and then to the Ed Riggs Trail, and we wished for more.

faraway-ranch.jpgThe ranch tour (free, no reservations needed) is also well worth a visit.  It’s always interesting to hear the tale of how a national park was established.   The Faraway Ranch house is the centerpiece of that story.  Since the house is essentially a time capsule complete with furnishings, it has its own story to tell, too.

coatimundi.jpgEvery time we  travel to a southern Arizona park we hear from someone about the dangers of encountering border crossers from Mexico.  For the first time we encountered a Mexican immigrant who has taken up residence here in recent decades:  the Coatimundi.

This cute critter looks like a cross between a cat and a monkey, with an incredible long tail.  He climbs like a monkey, too, quick as a flash up and down trees.  We’ve never seen one before, even in a zoo (although I believe there are some at the Sonoran Desert Museum), so it was quite a surprise to have one slinking and sniffing not far from our campsite.  From the wildlife log at the visitor center, it seems the coatimundi drop by on a regular basis.

With only two nights in the park, our visit was too short.  Emma snagged the Junior Ranger badge of course, and we managed to take in several trails, but there is clearly much more to explore.  I’d also like to try the graded dirt road over the mountains to Portal AZ (on the east side of the Chiricahua Range), possibly with the Caravel in tow if the road conditions permit.  And just a few miles down the road, there’s Fort Bowie National Historic Site, which we missed on this visit.

We are already talking about going again in about a week.  It’s the perfect time of year and we’ve got our eye on a particular 6.9 mile trek the would bring us past most of the park’s best formations.  We would have just stayed another day on this visit, but unfortunately I am expected in the office on Monday for several important tasks.  There is no cell phone service in Chiricahua Nat’l Mon., nor Internet of any sort (even satellite would be tough with all the trees and canyon walls), so there was no possibility of extending our visit by working from the Caravel.  (Drat that “work” thing.)

This Sunday was our neighborhood’s annual block party, which we managed to get back in time to attend.  I told some of our neighbors about our trip and in doing so I met a couple of guys with trailers who started telling me about all kinds of wonderful boondocking spots in southern Arizona.  It seems that we’ve only scratched the surface of this region.  We have just a couple of weeks left before we must leave for points north, but now we have a long list of explorations to enjoyably work through while we are here — and next season as well.

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