Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona is a hidden gem! The spectacular mountain scenery includes stunning vistas of the Sulphur Springs Valley stretching hundreds of miles, as well as rocky canyons full of fascinating pinnacles and gravity-defying rock formations.
The unique geology of this area that the Apaches named “land of standing up rocks” was formed 27 million years ago when the Turkey Creek Volcano erupted and deposited ash over 1200 square miles. Hot ash particles melted together and formed layers of gray rock called rhyolite. Subsequent cooling and uplifting created joints and cracks, and eons of weathering by ice wedging and water erosion enlarged the cracks. The weaker material was washed away, leaving the denser rock behind in improbable stacks and haphazard piles.
Many people have never heard of this monument because it is in the rugged Chiricahua Mountains in the remote desert in southeastern Arizona. While that is true, it is only an hour from Interstate 10 and the small town of Willcox, and only a little over two hours from Tucson. The easiest access is from I-10 at the town of Willcox; take exit 340 for Rt. 186 and follow it about 40 miles southeast to the monument. The two-lane roads on this scenic drive are paved and well-maintained. It’s a comfortable day trip in a passenger car; no need for 4WD or high clearance.
I recommend that the best times of the year to visit Chiricahua are the spring and fall months. Summer will be extremely hot and dry until the monsoon starts around July 1st, then there will be dangerous storms that can cause flooding and muddy conditions until the end of September. Winters are mild in Arizona, but the parts of the monument that are high elevation will be colder than the surrounding area and it can snow. If possible, try to time your visit for a day when skies are clear to get the best views.
IMPORTANT NOTE! There are no fuel or food services here; bring your own or plan to stop at Willcox or Sunizona. Regardless of when you visit, there are high elevations and little shade in some areas so the sun will be intense. Bring plenty of water, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. Be alert for symptoms of dehydration and altitude sickness. Pets are not allowed on most of the trails. Check the NPS website for park alerts like road closures or hazardous conditions before you go. Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. Cell service is unreliable.
Attractions at the Park Entrance and Visitor Center
When you reach the monument, the entrance station is closed because this park is free for everyone! Just inside the entrance on the right is a small parking area for the cemetery of the Erickson family who homesteaded this land. On the left side of the road is the Bonita Creek Picnic Area. This is an accessible picnic area along a hard-surface trail, with handicapped parking and an accessible restroom. Next along the road will be Faraway Ranch, the restored home of the Erickson family. I suggest that you save Faraway Ranch for the return trip when you’re leaving the park to save time and energy, as this area is not ADA accessible. I was able to manage the short, hard-packed dirt and gravel trail into the ranch to see the historic buildings and exhibits using a manual wheelchair, but needed assistance in a couple of areas where there was deep gravel.
The Visitor Center is just a mile further – stop for a map and information (8:30-4:30 MST). There is handicapped parking, accessible restrooms and a ramp into the visitor center where you will find helpful rangers, exhibits, and a small gift shop. If you are interested in seeing Faraway Ranch, speak to the rangers; they offered to unlock a gate that would allow us to drive closer, and can tell you if there will be a guided tour of the ranch that day.
Scenic Drive and Access to Short Trail
The heart of Chiricahua National Monument is the eight-mile scenic drive through Bonita Canyon that gradually climbs through oak, cypress, and pine forests to Massai Point at nearly 7000 ft. (no vehicles >29′). There are some pull-outs along the way where you can stop and marvel at the scenery without having to leave the car. There are trail heads and picnic areas at Sugarloaf and Echo Canyon, but these are not ADA accessible. It is still worth pulling in to take a look around at these paved parking areas, because you can see some different viewpoints of the scenery and rock formations.
The scenic drive ends in a loop atop Massai Point. This is the best place to get out of the car! You can see stunning views of Rhyolite Canyon and the adjacent valleys and mountain peaks right from the parking lot. There is accessible parking, a restroom, picnic table and the paved, ½ mile Massai Nature Trail that leads to some overlooks and a small exhibit building.
If you’d like to stay overnight, there are hotels are Willcox, a campground at the monument, and some local RV parks near Sunizona. I have stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Willcox and found their accessible room to be satisfactory. The Bonita Canyon Campground in Chiricahua is open year-round and offers an accessible camp site – #8 – that is convenient to accessible restrooms, picnic tables and fire rings. You can reserve online or call 1-877-444-6777. There is a fee for camping: $12 per site or $6 for Access Passport holders.