Chiricahua National Monument, and the area around it, offers some amazing recreational opportunities. In order to cover the whole area we’ll be breaking our 2 week visit into three parts. This article, specifically about the Monument, a second article about Fort Bowie, and the third about the eastern side of the Chiricahuas and the Coronado National Forest.
In total, 2 weeks were spent in the area, and we could have extended the visit further. There’s a lot to do in the region, and you will find yourself doing a lot of extra road time getting from point A to B. Additionally, for many RV’ers you’ll be hunting for the perfect place to stay. We’ll talk more about that later, but keep in mind some planning will be in order if you want to enjoy everything there is to see and do.
Into Chiricahua National Monument
Getting to Chiricahua National Monument is a very deliberate act. As visitors make their way to the park it becomes pretty clear, there’s nothing else out here. A few ranches along the way, old abandoned homes, and very little else. Driving around the area you’ll see there’s very little traffic except the vehicles headed to the monument. You’re not just popping off of I-10 for a few minutes to see a road side attraction.
Driving into the park you will start to see the rock spires that draw visitors. “Standing Up Rocks.” That’s what the Chiricahua Apache called the formations within the monument. Organ pipe formations, chimney formations, balanced rocks, and “sky islands”. This is part of what you’re coming to see.
Today’s Chiricahua National Monument was created by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930’s. During the Great Depression with so many unemployed President Roosevelt created the CCC to help put people to work. Many of the parks we visit today were born out of the efforts in the 30’s to get people on the job. And what a job the CCC did here!
There are many trails through the incredible rock formations in Chiricahua National Monument. Trails that cut along the edge of steep drop offs. Trails that walk you right into the rock formations, and sometimes through them. And as you visit the area you’ll ask yourself, “How did they do all of this?” At least that’s what I asked myself on our first trip through Echo Canyon. The planning and knowledge of the area is amazing and a testament to the work the CCC put in here.
The main draw to the Chiricahua National Monument has to be the towering rock formations in the park. That’s what people come to see. Balanced rocks sitting atop small rock spires. Formations that architects wouldn’t dream of. Twisting paths leading to view after view. So it’s safe to say, one of the main recreational opportunities has to be all of the hiking through the park.
Each day a shuttle leaves to the higher points in the park. The park service can drop you off at one of several starting points on the edge of the rock formations, and you can take a leisurely stroll back down to the Visitor Center. Or you can take a harder stroll back down in an effort to see everything there is to see. Our advice is simple, take a few days, and try a few different loops within the park. You are visiting the area, there’s no need to be in a rush.
Hiking down from Echo Canyon was an enjoyable 4.8 mile stroll (according to our GPS). You start out above the Rhyolite formations, looking down into the canyons. The balanced rocks are mostly at eye level. But as you hike in the spires begin to tower above you. And that’s when you really get a feel for the size and scope of these formations!
There are 3 primary drop off points provided by the park service. Sugarloaf, Echo Canyon, and Massai. From these launching points you can get views from above the canyons, and within them as well. You can do short loop hikes, or a good half day hike trying to get as much as possible in. Balanced Rock, Punch and Judy, Inspiration Point, and more. Most of the hikes are moderate, and a few are difficult. It’s all up to you.
Beyond the canyons, there’s also a trail that leads from the visitor center to the Faraway Ranch house. It’s a short hike that can make for a fun round trip through locations where the CCC once based their operations. Two old stone chimneys and fireplaces remain from one of the camps. The old Stafford Cabin is also along the route. And the trail provides another look at Chiricahua that many visitors bypass.
The area is also extremely well known for birding. There are many species that come up from Mexico, or come south from the Northern reaches of the U.S. With the Coronado National Forest butted up agains Chiricahua National Monument, the birding opportunities abound. And during the course of our visit we ran into more people geared up for photographing that rare species then anything else. I almost felt embarrassed by my binoculars compared to theirs.
Road cyclists can have a field day riding up to the high points in the park. The 8 mile park drive is incredibly scenic, and provides a challenge for cyclists. Several thousand feet of gain over the 8 miles will make for quite a workout.
Outside of the park there are rolling roads with low traffic, incredible views of the mountain ranges, and miles to roll.
Chiricahua National Monument itself isn’t geared for mountain bikers. However, the road that leads back across into the Coronado National Forest is dirt / gravel, and offers a 37 mile ride to the town of Portal. Mountain grades, narrow sections, and a minimal amount of traffic make for great off roading in the area. There are also side tracks available to explore, but we’ll talk more about those in the next article about the eastern side of the Chiricahuas and the Coronado National Forest.
If you’re a history buff, Chiricahua National Monument will definitely be worth your visit. As noted earlier in this article, the CCC spent a great amount of time an effort developing the park. Informational plaques are everywhere. Signs of the CCC’s occupation at the location are hard to miss. Old stone chimneys, cabins, and the Faraway Ranch are all available for visitors to see. The walk from Bonita campground to Faraway left this author feeling very well educated about where today’s National Monument came from.
Where to stay on the Western Side
Here’s where things get interesting for visitors. You have a few more options than we initially believed, which is great, and why we travel to each park to investigate them.
Option number one is very straightforward. You can stay at Bonita Campground in the National Monument itself. The campground has 25 sites that can accommodate up to 29 foot rigs (you’ll see signs about nothing over 29 feet on the road in). And there’s the hitch. If you’re trying to get in with anything larger it is NOT going to happen. Period. Don’t even think about it.
Honestly, the site sizes lean toward the small side. If you check out the new online reservation system for Bonita you might have hope that you can fit. But here’s the thing. As of our visit, the online registration system overstates each site’s size. We booked for site number 10, shown as a 27 foot site online. Arriving at the park we found the map the rangers had said the site was 23 foot. And looking at the site….? Not even 23.
There aren’t that many sites that can really accommodate big rigs. Looking at the campground map provided by the rangers I found some of the lengths “hopeful.” So if you’re traveling with a bigger rig, you’re most likely going to be looking outside the park. Fortunately there are some options.
The town of Willcox is a 40 – 45 minute drive from Chiricahua National Monument. Be sure to top off your tank before heading in, that’s my advice. For folks with bigger rigs, Willcox is one of the places to be.
With 5 commercial campgrounds in the area, Willcox makes for a good launching point into Chiricahua. We didn’t stay at all of the parks, so we can’t give you great insight into them. We did stay at Fort Willcox RV Park on a prior trip. It was a bare bones location, more expensive than it should be. And the trains going through the area did not offer us any peace and quiet while we camped. So honestly, while the town works and gets you close to the park, we weren’t big fans.
181 & 191 Junction
If you’re coming from Douglas, from the south, there’s a restaurant / RV Park near the junction of 181 & 191. Sandy’s Restaurant and RV Park. From the most recent RV Park Review on the location we have…..
Ok, but only acceptable. Basically a lot with some hookups behind a restaurant. Restrooms are in restaurant and not available when restaurant is closed. There is WiFi available at the restaurant and a table next to restaurant to use it when Restaurant is closed. We camped at Sandys Restaurant and RV Park in a Fifth Wheel.
Honestly, we drove by and after looking at the park we continued down the road.
Please Tell Me there’s Boondocking
Why yes, I can actually tell you that there is some boondocking! And larger rigs can actually use the location.
Right before entering Chiricahua National Monument there’s a road off to your right named “Pinery Canyon Road.” Going about 5 miles along Pinery Canyon (from the Chiricahua National Monument entrance) you will note many dispersed sites along a creek bed. They are on Forest Service Land, and they are legit sites. The road was incredibly washboard when we visited it, and I decided against taking the Airstream along the road. Don’t want to pop any rivets.
Several of the sites have full turn arounds in them. And while visiting we noted that the creek bed was actually a creek with a good water flow. These dispersed sites would be an awesome place to stay, and we saw several 30+ foot 5th wheels camping. So if you’re up for a little adventure, I’d suggest giving one of these boondocking sites a try!
Oh, and P.S……. Pinery Canyon road is an interesting road that leads all the way over to Portal, AZ. We’ll talk about Portal and the Coronado National Forest in the next installment. Don’t take your RV all the way, dirt mountain roads. But pick a campsite, unhitch, and take a ride over to Portal for an exciting off road adventure!