Rising from dry grasslands, the Chiricahua (chee-ree-KAH-wah) Mountains hold a wonderland of rock formations, spectacular views, diverse plant and animal life, and a variety of hiking trails. The name may come from the Opata Indian word Chiguicagui, meaning "mountain of the wild turkeys." Volcanic rock, fractured by slow uplift of the region, has eroded into strangely shaped forms. Weathering of softer rock at the base of some columns creates the appearance of giant boulders balanced delicately on pedestals.
The Chiricahuas harbor a unique mix of Sierra Madrean and Southwestern flora and fauna. Birders come to view coppery-tailed elegant trogons, hummingbirds, and many other species. But bears live here, too, so take care with storing food; forest service signs list necessary precautions.
Chiricahua National Monument offers the most spectacular erosional features, a scenic drive, many trails, and a visitor center. Chiricahua Wilderness, to the south, protects the highest summits of the range, including 9,796-foot Chiricahua Peak. A narrow mountain road crosses the range from near the entrance of the national monument on the west side to Portal on the east side; it's not recommended for trailers and is sometimes closed by snow in winter. Be sure to fill up with gas before coming out to the Chiricahuas, as there are no supplies here. Douglas Ranger Station (1192 W. Saddleview Rd., Douglas, AZ 85607, 520/364-3468, www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado, 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) has information on the Coronado National Forest lands.
Forest trails in the Chiricahua Mountains total about 111 miles. The Rattlesnake Fire in 1994 burned more than 25,000 acres on the west side of the wilderness, and dead trees continue to fall across trails. Horseshoe 2 Fire in 2011 burned nearly the entire range, and you can see the forest recovering. No permits are needed for backpacking or hiking, but South Fork and Rustler Park have $3 parking fees. Topographic maps, such as the Chiricahua Mountains Trail and Recreation (scale 1:62,500), show trail locations and lengths; look for them at Tucson hiking stores, some Forest Service offices, and Chiricahua National Monument. The Coronado National Forest (Douglas Ranger District) map shows trails but lacks contour lines and fine detail.
Rucker Canyon (Southwest Side of Chiricahuas)
Four routes lead to Rucker Creek and its pretty canyon; they're unpaved but usually ok for cautiously driven cars in dry weather. From Douglas you can head north on Leslie Canyon Road from the Douglas Ranger Station and cross the Swisshelm Mountains into Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge (lands south of the road are closed to the public); after about 30 miles you'll reach Rucker Canyon Road—continue another seven miles to the canyon. Tex Canyon Road is another scenic route; it turns off AZ 80 29 miles northeast of Douglas and crosses a gentle pass into Rucker Canyon in another 16 miles. You can also take Rucker Canyon Road from US 191, a 22-mile drive one way, or reach the canyon via the Kukkendall Cut Off from AZ 181 near Chiricahua National Monument, a 20-mile drive one way.
Campgrounds usually stay open all year with water available April-Nov.; sites have a charge of $10 camping or $5 day use. You'll first come to Camp Rucker Group Use Area (5,600 ft.) on the left in a desert grassland with scattered oaks and junipers; you can stay here if no group has reserved it. Groups can make reservations with the Douglas Ranger Station. In another 3.3 miles, Cypress Campground (6,000 ft.) on the left sits beside the creek in a forest of Arizona cypress, oaks, and pines. Bathtub Campground (6,300 ft.) is 0.4 mile farther on the left on a shelf overlooking the creek. A trail below the dam leads to the "bathtubs," depressions carved in the bedrock by the creek. You have to park at the edge of the campground, so it's suitable only for tenters. Rucker Lake nearby has completely filled in with sediment and the campground once here is closed. Rucker Forest Camp (6,500 ft.) sits beside the creek at the end of the road, 0.3 mile beyond Bathtub, in a dense forest of oaks, junipers, and pines. Rucker Canyon Trail #222 and Raspberry Ridge Trail #228 climb into the Chiricahua Wilderness from here.
The U.S. Army set up a supply depot in 1878 for Indian scouts who patrolled the region on the lookout for hostile Apache. Originally named Camp Supply, it later became Camp Rucker to honor an officer who drowned while trying to save another man during a flash flood. The camp saw use until Geronimo's surrender in 1886, when it became part of a ranch. You can visit this remnant of the Old West and walk an interpretive trail past the adobe bakery, still in good condition, and the large ruin of the commissary with its stone cellar. From the junction of Forest Roads 74 and 74E near Camp Rucker Group Use Area, head east 0.7 mile on Forest Road 74 and look for a gate in the fence on the left; park outside the gate, walk in about 0.1 mile, then turn left past the barn to the site.
Turkey Creek Canyon (West Side of Chiricahuas)
West Turkey Creek Campground (5,900 ft.) and Sycamore Campground (6,200 ft.) lie along Turkey Creek in a densely wooded canyon of sycamores, pines, oaks, and junipers. Sites have tables and grills but no drinking water or fee; the season is about March to November. From the 90-degree bend in AZ 181 east of Sunizona and south of the Chiricahua National Monument turnoff, head east on unpaved Turkey Creek Road. Tall pines appear among the oaks and junipers after seven miles and you'll enter the national forest in another mile; West Turkey Campground is on the left just 0.1 mile farther and Sycamore is 1.5 miles farther up on the left. You'll also pass several trailheads in the national forest that connect to the heights.
Rustler Park Area (Summit Ridge of the Chiricahuas)
A scenic mountain road crosses the range through Pinery Canyon on the west near Chiricahua National Monument to Onion Saddle (7,600 feet) and continues east to Cave Creek Canyon and Portal. The road is narrow, bumpy, and mostly unpaved, but may be passable by car for cautious drivers. Trailers and RVs over 28 feet aren't permitted. Snow and fallen trees can close the road at times from December to April. From just outside the entrance of Chiricahua National Monument, take Pinery Canyon Road, which enters the national forest after 3.8 miles; you'll see many undeveloped camping spots along the next three miles before the grade steepens. Pinery Canyon Campground is tucked under tall pines and Douglas fir on the left, 9.8 miles from the start of the road; it has just four sites (no water or fee) and is difficult to spot if coming from below. The road tops out at Onion Saddle, 11.5 miles from AZ 181. If you're coming up from Cave Creek Canyon on the east side, the driving distance from Portal to the saddle is 13 miles with some great panoramas along the way.
A side road from Onion Saddle climbs south along a ridge to Rustler Park Campground (8,400 feet) in pines and Douglas fir. Sites have been closed since the 2011 fire, so check with the Douglas Ranger Station to find out if the campground/picnic area has reopened. Normally it may be closed in winter, then may have water April-Sept., $10 camping, $5 day use, or $3 for trailhead parking. Steel boxes protect your food from bears.
Hikers at Rustler Park have the advantage of starting from the highest trailhead in the Chiricahuas. Crest Trail #270 winds south over the gently undulating summit ridge to Chiricahua Peak (9,796 feet), the highest point in the range, in 10.5 miles roundtrip. Trees, however, block the view from the top! Centella Point (9,320 ft.) has a spectacular vantage point overlooking Cave Creek Canyon and far beyond; follow the Crest Trail south to just inside the wilderness boundary, 2.5 miles one way, then turn left 1.9 miles one way on the Centella Trail #334. Fly Peak (9,666 ft.) is an easy half-mile one-way jaunt from the wilderness boundary and has some views through the trees. Many other trails branch off the Crest Trail along ridges or down into canyons. Springs lie just off the Crest Trail but can dry up in drought years.
Cave Creek Canyon (East Side of Chiricahuas)
Although remote, Cave Creek Canyon's spectacular rock features, excellent birding, and paved road access make it a favorite with visitors. You can get here by taking AZ 80 northeast from Douglas for 51 miles or NM 80 south from I-10 for 28 miles, then turning west to the village of Portal at the mouth of the canyon. The road continues up along Cave Creek beneath vertical rock walls past campgrounds, vista points, and hiking trails. The Forest Service operates Cave Creek Visitor Information Center (1.9 miles upcanyon from Portal, 520/558-2221, about 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Fri.-Mon. from early April to late September) in a 1920s building. In 1933 the CCC constructed two nearby buildings of stones from the creek. Cave Creek Nature Trail makes a short loop across the road. For a bird's-eye view of the region, determined hikers ascend Silver Peak Trail #280, a strenuous climb of 3,000 feet over 4.6 miles one way to the 7,975-foot summit; the trailhead is just upcanyon from the information center. Bring a hat and lots of water—there's little shade—and avoid the trail if thunderstorms threaten.
Idlewilde Campground (5,000 ft.) lies on the left across a bridge 0.4 mile upcanyon from the information center; sycamores, oaks, junipers, and pines provide shade. The season runs April-Oct. with water and fees of $10 camping, $5 day use. Stewart Campground (5,100 ft.) is another 0.3 mile up on the left with the same types of trees; it has drinking water from April-Oct. and fees of $10 camping, $5 day use. On the left 0.4 mile farther, look for Cathedral Vista parking; an easy 200-yard walk takes you to a stunning 360-degree panorama of the canyon and the Chiricahuas.
Continue 0.2 mile upcanyon and turn left on unpaved South Fork Road for a pretty drive up this side canyon and creek to South Fork Picnic Area and trailhead at road's end, 1.3 miles in; there's a $5 parking fee. South Fork Trail leads up the wooded canyon with some creek fords. Maple Camp, 1.6 miles one way, is a popular destination for birders; the trail continues up into the high country.
Back on the main road and 0.2 mile upcanyon, turn right across a ford for Sunny Flat Campground (5,200 ft.), which despite its name is shaded by sycamores, oaks, junipers, and pines. There's year-round drinking water and fees of $10 camping, $5 day use. A trail begins near the end of the campground and follows the creek downstream about a mile to the information center.
Pavement runs out 1.7 miles farther up Cave Creek Canyon at the Southwestern Research Center of the American Museum of Natural History; staff occasionally offer public programs, which the information center should know about. Turn left just past the research center for John Hands Campground (5,600 ft.) one mile in, and Herb Martyr Campground (5,800 ft.) 2.2 miles up at the end of the unpaved road; oaks and junipers shade these campgrounds near Cave Creek; they're open all year, no drinking water or fee. If you look up on the cliffs above to the west, you may see Winn Falls making a 400-foot plunge; Greenhouse Trail #248 climbs up for a closer view. Experienced cavers will enjoy a visit to Crystal Cave. A key is needed to get inside; contact the Douglas Ranger Station for access details. The cave is closed April 15 to Aug. 31 to protect bats and other life inside.
This small community lies on the east side of the Chiricahuas just below the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon. Portal Peak Lodge (520/558-2223, $65 s and $75 d) offers rooms year-round, a tiny cafe with American and Mexican food (open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and a store which also has groceries and some regional books. Continue 1.5 miles west into the canyon for Cave Creek Ranch (520/558-2334, www.cavecreekranch.com, $90-150 d, dropping to $85-$125 from Sept. thru Feb.), which has a gorgeous setting beside the creek. The owners are bird enthusiasts, as are 95% of the guests here. All of the lodge rooms and cabins have kitchens. No meals are served, nor are there trail rides. Friends of Cave Creek Canyon and Portal-Rodeo websites have local information.
Rodeo, New Mexico
This little town on Hwy. 80 a mile south of the Portal turnoff has a little grocery store/cafe (breakfast & lunch); closed Sunday on the south edge. Rodeo also has an art gallery and an RV park. Chiricahua Desert Museum (Hwy. 80 directly opposite the Portal turnoff, 575/557-5757, chiricahuadesertmuseum.com) features a memorable collection of live rattlesnakes from the Southwest and Mexico; you'll also see other living regional reptiles and amphibians along with paintings, and sculptures; the large gift shop has many books and maps.
On to Chiricahua National Monument