Chiricahua – From the “Other Side”

In Adventure, Arizona, National Monuments, New Mexico, RV, Travel

In the Coronado National Forest

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The recent trip to Chiricahua National Monument was amazing.  “Standing Up Rocks,” beautiful mountains and canyons, and some interesting camping opportunities.  Accessing the National Monument directly requires coming in from the Willcox Arizona area.  But we discovered that the monument and surrounding Coronado National Forest can also be accessed from the east.  In fact, we spent a good deal of time crossing time zones between New Mexico and Arizona!


East of Chiricahua national Monument

During our research on Chiricahua National Monument we discovered the town of Portal, AZ.  Portal is right on the edge of the Cornonado National Forest.  Also the town of Paradise is within the forest (if you can call it a town).  The forest is set into some amazing rock formations and mountains, and is a popular spot for birding.  In fact, it’s a destination for birders from far and wide!

There’s very little in the way of services around Portal, AZ.  A small general store that’s parked a few hundred yards away from the Park Services office.  A handful of B&B’s are also in the area.  And beyond that?  A pretty amazing wilderness area visited by a small population of birding enthusiasts!

Rodeo New Mexico

Dark Skies in Rodeo NM
Dark Skies in Rodeo NM

Portal is right on the AZ / NM line.  You can play timezone games there all day long if you like.  The closest town to Portal in New Mexico is Rodeo.  It’s a small blip on the map, with a tiny downtown, a single cafe, an art gallery, and a new Chiricahua Desert Museum.

Getting to the town of Portal, travelers will go through the outskirts of Rodeo, NM.  There’s very little to do along the way, but there are two options for camping in Rodeo if you have a bigger rig.

Beyond the Forest, Rodeo is also known for being a “dark sky” community.  There are very few truly dark sky locations these days, and Rodeo draws in astronomers from all over!

So Why Visit the area?

3 Jays playing at Chiricahua National Monument.
3 Jays playing at Chiricahua National Monument.

The Coronado National Forest butts right up against the Chiricahua National Monument.  This is an area where multiple ecosystems collide.  From densely forested mountains down into open desert and plains, the entire area is amazingly diverse.  When driving from Rodeo into the forest we experienced open farm fields one minute, and dense tree cover the next minute.

A multitude of bird species visit the area each year.  So birders consider this area to be one of the hotspots for viewing and photographing rare species.  Personally I didn’t get photos of any rare birds while visiting, but I was busy taking the natural beauty of the area in.

Rock spires erupt from the forests.  Amazing colors (at the right time of day) show through on the rock formations.  Reds, yellows, tans….you’ve got to be patient to get the images you want due to foliage and time of day.

Coronado National Forest makes for a great multi-day visit, and you can tie it in with your visit to Chiricahua National Monument.  If you do this, plan to spend a week in the whole area.


Well, by now you’ve gathered that birding is a major draw.  But there’s more to do, I promise.

The Road to Portal AZ
The Road to Portal AZ

The Forest Service roads can offer extremely long Mountain Bike rides.  One option is to ride out from the town of Portal on Forest Road 42.  Reaching the junction with Paradise Road, riders can take a jaunt over to the “town” of Paradise.  And from Paradise you can ride back into Portal along Paradise Road.  It’s not a huge loop, but it makes for a nice day riding along the dirt roads.  Finish it off with a soda at the Portal General store!

Another option is to continue along Forest Road 42.  You can take your bike, vehicle, motorcycle, across the mountains all the way over to the entrance of the Chiricahua National Monument.  The way through the mountains tough!  Continuing along 42 to Pinery Canyon Road, we suggest an off road vehicle or mountain bike.  We DO NOT suggest taking your RV across this.  That’s a definite NO!

If you do make your way across to Chiricahua National Monument, understand that there’s a lot to do in the area.  Hiking the canyons, hiking the historic CCC location, taking in a very unique location in Arizona.  With so much to do at the monument, you’ll need some time.  So if you are crossing from Portal to the monument, make sure you give yourself plenty of time.

Beyond birds and biking, remember that the area is a “dark sky” community.  The area is a draw for amateur astronomers and real ones too!  While camping in Rodeo we took advantage of a few great nights for working on our Milkyway photography.  We had mixed results, but not the fault of the area, more the fault of our own setups.

Where To Camp

Ah, now we’re at the big one!  Camping was a sticking point for us on our first attempted trip to the area.  First lets talk about the Forest Service sites, then we’ll talk about the other options.

A camper at Sunny Flats
A camper at Sunny Flats

3 Forest Service Campgrounds, 2 Functioning

Currently within the National Forest there are 3 campgrounds, but only two are open at present.  Idlewilde, Stewart, and Sunny Flats.

Idlewilde is closed at the moment.  Between forest fires the other year, and major flooding recently, the campground is closed with no announced re-opening any time soon.  The campground itself also only caters to smaller setups.  Tent campers, camper vans, and the small pop up tent trailer.  It is not a campground for big rigs.

The next campground, Stewart, is currently open.  Once again, like Idlewilde, you are not pulling your 5th wheel in here.  You aren’t pulling my 25 ft Airstream in either.  The campground’s max limit is 16 ft.  So like Idlewilde, a campground for small rigs or vans.

Finally Sunny Flats offers options for mid-sized rigs.  We could get our Airstream into a few sites there, but the competition for the sites is amazing during the Spring.  The campground lists a 28 ft max limit on rigs going in.  And we saw 4 campsites that would have worked for our Airstream.  They were all filled at the time of our visits, and we actually spoke with a few campers about the location.  Given the price to stay and the popularity of the area with birders, actually securing a site for yourself (first come first served) is a feat in itself.

Additionally, one more item of note regarding staying in the Forest Service campgrounds.  A good deal of damage has been done to the road headed into the camps due to flooding.  There is a point along the way where the road goes to single lane due to washouts.  Navigating larger trailers in this section is a little difficult and caution must be exercised.  Not trying to discourage you.  Just giving you a heads up.

The view from Rusty's RV Ranch
The view from Rusty’s RV Ranch

Rusty’s RV Ranch, Rodeo New Mexico

The second real option for camping on the eastern side of the Chiricahuas is Rusty’s RV Ranch.  It’s a short drive into Portal, and the forest.  It’s a full service campground with all the bells and whistles.  Wi-Fi throughout the park, a pool / hot tub, huge sites, and an owner who is very knowledgeable about the area.

Knowing the issues with the camp sites in the forest, we opted to stay at Rusty’s for 5 days while exploring the area.  At $24 a night for everything we found the place to be a bargain.  And when we first checked in, Rusty spent 15 minutes reviewing all the things there are to do in the forest.

If you’re in a bigger rig, this is the spot.  Weekly and monthly rates lower the cost even more, so if you want a park that actually caters to people visiting the Coronado National Forest, and caters to dark sky enthusiasts, this is the location!

Looking up Cave Creek Canyon
Looking up Cave Creek Canyon

Wrapping up

Chiricahua National Monument takes little space within the vast Coronado National Forest area.  The monument itself is worth a visit, but the surrounding area shouldn’t be neglected either.  If you’re looking for a remote and quiet trip, the whole area meets your needs.  After our visit I know we’ll be returning again this year to take in more of what the area has to offer.

Keep in mind, most of the area within the Monument and Forest does not have real cell phone access.  So when you head in to visit you really will be disconnected.  And honestly, how many places offer that these days?  Visiting Chiricahua and the Coronado National Forest can offer a true getaway from today’s overly busy world!

Finally, this isn’t the last article on visiting Chiricahua.  There’s one more on the way.  A few miles north of the National Monument lies the Fort Bowie Historic Site.  And we’ll be covering that in depth on our next installment of Living In Tin!



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