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A Wonderland of Rocks (Chiricahua NM)

Updated: Sep 4, 2022

Wednesday, 18 May 2022, Chiricahua NM

You should listen to your heart, and not the voices inside your head.

— Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson in “The Simpsons”

NOTE: Day 3 of no clouds. Nothing white in the sky; nada, zip, didley squat.

I awoke refreshed, ready to face the day, my doubts silenced for the moment. I looked forward to seeing Chiricahua (pronounced 'cheer-a-cow-a') as the premier member of the 'lesser parks' scheduled on this tour. A friend told me Chiricahua was one of his favorite parks - as he described it, "Think of how Bryce Canyon would look if you painted the red rocks green."

I drove back the now-familiar route, passing the Fort Bowie turnoff and going 16 miles further. Once in the park, the scenic dead-end drive gained elevation, topping off at 6870' at Masai Point. In the final miles, the columns and pinnacles of rocks splayed out in all directions, a veritable army of rhyolite warriors.

With the higher elevation, the temperatures moderated, and I started my hike at 77 degrees.

At Masai Point, I found a short nature hike with interpretive signs, taking me a short distance into the rocks.

A few columns stood along nearby, others grouped up, and far slopes offered platoons of the unusual features.

A half-mile back on the road lay the trailhead for the Echo Canyon Loop, the most popular trail in the park. The ranger said to do the loop counter-clockwise, as people found it easier to climb back to the parking lot on the Ed Riggs Trail than the Echo Canyon Trail. To that advice, I would add, "Have a hiking stick with you, or you will regret it." Descending Echo Canyon Trail requires stepping down rock steps and off boulders, constantly watching for where to plant your feet.

I had my walking stick with me, as well as my water. Five minutes into the hike, though, I realized I DIDN'T have my camera. Okay, Echo Canyon Loop, take two. As the trail dropped, it snaked beneath and between the columns, offering shade as well as spectacular views. The formations towered above me, hundreds of feet high, feeling more immense by their closeness.

I did spot wildlife along the way. I particularly noted the lizards - far larger and far slower than their cousins at Saguaro. Here, they would just clear the pathway then stop, posing for their portrait.

The temperatures stayed mild - only 82 by the time I finished - and a cool breeze kept it comfortable. At the bottom of Echo Canyon, the Hailstone Trail starts back up the hill, and since it lies on a south-facing slope, it felt warmer there. By the time I turned onto the Ed Riggs trail, it got shadier again.

If you look at a trail map, you'll notice a 'Heart of Rocks Loop Trail' with various named rocks like Punch and Judy, Duck on a Rock, or Balanced Rock. However, it takes a hike of 7.5 miles or more to see these features. "Am I missing out by just doing Echo Canyon Loop?" I asked the ranger.

"Oh, not at all," she replied. "Your loop has just as many interesting formations. In the days before this was a National Monument, a couple had ranch on Bonita Creek (near today's Visitor Center) they ran as a guest ranch. They would take visitors on horseback up to the Heart of Rocks, and many of the rocks got names at that time.

Once the monument was established in 1924, a road was built to the scenic overlook, now called Massai Point. The National Park Service (NPS) and the CCC improved the road in the 1930s. The CCC workers also constructed most of the hiking trails, plus the visitor and staff facilities. "But NPS declined to name new features", the ranger told me, "so you have the chance to name whatever strikes your fancy!"

Maybe I should try my hand at this. How about 'Basket on Head'? and could that one be 'Winnie the Pooh'? And for the third one... something I'm familiar with: 'Cat Begging For Food'.

(Okay, maybe that one is a stretch. How about 'Wife Giving Orders'?)

Now came time for my first megadrive, four hours to El Paso. The sad truth is that to see the parks I lined up, the driving becomes another adventure. An adventure with twin challenges: stay awake when the scenery does it best to send you to shut-eye city; and ignore the back pain that always seem to barge in uninvited after sitting in a driver's seat for around two hours.

Today I made it back to I-10 (including covering the infamous dirt road past Ft. Bowie again) in an hour, so I stopped at the only c-store for a quick lunch. They specialized in burritos, so I ordered one - not realizing it would weigh about 1.5 pounds! Eating the whole thing would have cashed in my ticket for nap time very quickly. Even after stopping at the halfway mark, I could still feel my eyes getting heavy within 30 minutes, and had to pull off the interstate into a razed lot that formerly housed a (now disappeared, except for one wall) gas station. A raven perched on a pole nearby, eating something; watching him for a few minutes woke my mind up again.

I still had hours to go, rolling through scenery that was both soporific and mesmerizingly vapid. Actually, that's harsh - they actually had scenery in the form of billboards. Numerous boards encouraged me to stop for fireworks, or to come see the world's largest pistachio at Pistachioland. (Sue couldn't believe I passed up that opportunity.) To get the 'mystery' vibe going, one attraction touted, "The THING in the DESERT!", and then upped their game a notch with "The THING: Aliens vs. Dinosaurs!" One particularly well-stocked outlet had a series of billboards, offering KNIFE STUFF! NATIVE AMERICAN JEWELRY! GIRL STUFF! HANDICRAFTS! COOL STUFF! HOMEMADE COOKIES! SNAKE STUFF! (I'll go out on a limb here, and assume the girl stuff has nothing in common with the snake stuff.)

Somehow I managed the drive with no problems. It helps to have a rental car equipped with Sirius XM, which I alternated with my mp3 player. Tomorrow will be a low mileage day as I head for White Sands, my next destination.

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