There are myriad reasons why the Chiricahua Mountain range in southeastern Arizona is one of our favorite places on earth.
• The mountains are beautiful, their geology unique. This is the largest mountain range in Arizona, stretching some 40 miles long and 20 miles across.
• The wildlife is abundant, even in the dead of winter.
• The area’s history is poignant; this is where Cochise and Geronimo made their last stands defending the Chiricahua Apaches against the white man’s encroachment.
• My father’s ashes are scattered nearby, across Cochise Stronghold in the neighboring Dragoon Mountains.
• Our campsite this week in the Coronado National Forest’s Sunny Flat campground just outside of Portal, Arizona ranks as one of the very best of our Year on the Edges of America.
Here’s the view from spot #5 the afternoon we arrived. It’s easy to see why this area of majestic cliffs is called the Yosemite of Arizona.
Here’s another perspective of “Little Yosemite.” It’s a windshield shot as we’re driving out of Portal up into the Cave Creek area toward the campsite.
Highlighting our three nights in the area was time with good friends Tom and Judy, formerly of Scottsdale but who are in Year Five of living full-time in their nifty Roadtrek van. We met them in the redwoods of northern California last October, and our time together this month was just as rich.
We shared an ever-so-spacious campsite – and the obligatory selfie.
The Chiricahua Mountains
This is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Sierra Madre. It’s also marks the juncture of the Chihuahua and Sonoran deserts. That’s why there’s so much bio-diversity.
I fell in love with the white sycamore near our campsite, nearly crowded out by all the oaks and acacia. As you can see from the photo that leads this post, it was a magnet for the sunlight peeking out from the gathering storm clouds.
I kept trying to capture its elegance.
Here’s another attempt.
The base of this mountain range is about 3,600 feet in elevation. We camped at about 5,200 feet – it dipped into the 30s in the pre-dawn hours. The tallest point in the range is Chiricahua Peak at 9,742 feet.
The mountain range was created some 27 million years ago by one of history’s most violent volcanos. According to the visitor center brochure, this volcano spewed 1,000 times more ash than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.
Over millions of years, a sky island pushed up out of the 12-mile-wide basin. This became the Chiricahua Mountain range. Wind and water sculpted the rock and the surrounding land, creating spires and hoodoos. The canyon’s towering rhyolite cliffs are a mix of compressed ash and magma from the volcano, accented by various shades of tuff, disintegrating “rotten granite” and lichen.
This was my father’s favorite hiking area for many years before he died in 2010.
I have a particular memory of my own about Chiricahua Peak.
Long ago, when I was in my 30s, four of us back-packed up the Chiricahua Peak trail from the western side of the mountain. It was over the Fourth of July weekend and we were fully equipped – tents, tarps, water, freeze-dried food, etc. But shortly after we’d reached the crest and carefully pitched our tents, a thunderous storm moved in and pelted us, first with rain and then with hail.
At first we tried to stick it out. We huddled inside our tents munching nervously on trail mix and sipping hot chocolate. But heavy rolls of thunder descended upon us, accompanied by blinding bolts of lightning. We were frightened, to be sure, but, strangely, I recall a sudden and eerie sense of calm enveloping me, a quiet cone of personal tranquility I’d never experienced before.
We’d done everything we could to be safe – staying away from tall trees, for example. If it is our time, then it is our time, I recall thinking. There’s nothing we can do…. I’m with good friends, I can go happy….
The storm raged. Eventually, the guys decided we should pack up and leave – in the dark. We gathered our gear as best we could and traipsed back down the mountain in the hail, slipping and sliding along the trail, shivering in the wet, mud caking our gear and clothes. We cowered in a hotel room in the town of Wilcox some 30 miles away – and wound up watching Michael Stich win Wimbledon the next morning on television.
Fast forward to the present … and one afternoon Tom and Judy piled into the Nissan Xterra with us as we drove across the mountain range, east to west, to Chiricahua National Monument. It was a good dirt road, but it still took us a good hour and a half to do the 17 miles. We saw three large wild turkeys and at least a dozen white-tailed deer along the way and passed several patches of snow.
The views were fabulous. Here’s one from Massai Point at about 5,200 feet looking down across nature’s sculpted columns, pinnacles and balanced rocks.
And another one of Cochise Head. Can you see the profile of his face, looking straight up into the sky? (His chin is the left end of the rock formation; his nose is rather large, descending into his eye socket and topped by a rounding forehead toward the right side of the formation.)
We’d planned to do some hikes in the area, but it was cold and windy so we ditched the idea. It misted on and off on our drive back over the mountain; we were treated to this rainbow on the way back down the mountain.
This area is world-famous among birders, known especially for its hummingbirds, elegant trogons and golden eagles. We didn’t see any of these on this trip – wrong season – but we were mesmerized for hours by:
• Mexican blue jays, which look a lot like Western scrub jays but for the brown spot on the top of their tails.
• Spotted towhees, with their rust-red sides, black head, black-and-white spots on wings and shoulders, and deep red eyes.
• White-breasted nuthatches, darting around upside down on the resident oak trees.
• Dark-eyed juncos – and we even saw several Yellow-eyed juncos!
• A phainopepla, which has the crest and body shape of a cardinal but is all black.
• A Hairy woodpecker.
• A red-topped Acorn woodpecker.
Apparently birders aren’t necessarily a benign bunch. Jan the camp host regaled us with stories of mean, narcissistic birders who have been known to poach prime campsites from one another in broad daylight. She works this park seven months of the year and has come to hate the month of April, when birders invade the area.
This is gentle camp host Jan and her friend, little Annie.
We spent a couple of hours at the Chiricahua Desert Museum, just across the New Mexico line, in Rodeo. It has an excellent – and expansive – exhibit of reptiles, well worth the $10 admission fee. Think frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes – and a wide array of commercial accoutrements.
Here’s a collection of beer bottles named for reptiles.
I’d not heard of many of these beers. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Some don’t sound all that appetizing.
I liked these dainty frogs in a nearby exhibit.
Here’s G in front of another one of the displays.
The museum has an entire room dedicated to poisonous (live!) snakes…
… and the snakes were cranky. We peered at them through the window and they rattled and flashed their forked tongues at us.
Fortunately, these are the only snakes we’ve encountered in our entire perimeter journey – so far, anyway.
This is the land of Cochise and Geronimo, whose Chiricahua Apaches roamed freely for centuries across what is now Arizona and New Mexico and into Sonora, Mexico. Every time I read about this era I wonder how history might have progressed differently if not for the ensuing “Bascom Affair.”
In case your history class didn’t cover this, here’s a summary: The Apaches long resisted white colonization. Tensions had become especially acute by 1848 when gold was discovered in California and fortune-seekers traipsed the Apache’s homeland in greater numbers than ever before. The encroachment triggered raids and counter-raids.
A few years later, a band of Apaches drove off some cattle belonging to a white rancher and abducted the child of a ranch hand. Army Lieutenant George Bascom, new to the area and inexperienced in dealing with Native Americans, ordered Cochise and five other Apaches to appear for questioning. (Cochise had worked as a woodcutter at the Apache Pass stagecoach station on he Butterfield Overland line and in his early years sought to make peace with the military.) All six denied guilt or complicity, denials which later proved true. But Bascom wasn’t having it.
The lieutenant ordered his men to arrest the Apaches, sparking a struggle that left one Apache dead and four others prisoner. Cochise, hobbled by three bullet wounds, managed to escape by slashing his way through the side of a tent.
Cochise soon abducted several whites to exchange for the Apache captives. But Bascom beat him to the punch and promptly hung six Apaches, including a couple of Cochise’s family members.
Cochise took to the warpath. For years, the attacks and counter-attacks went on. Cochise and an estimated 200 tribal members managed to resist capture for more than a decade by concealing themselves in the Dragoon Mountains and continuing their raids from these hidden strongholds.
Cochise ultimately surrendered and died on the Chiricahua Reservation in 1874. Arizona’s southeastern-most county is named for the chief; the storied town of Tombstone is in Cochise County.
Geronimo followed Cochise as leader of the Chiricahua Apaches. His, too, is a sad story. After a period of relative peace during Lieutenant Colonel George F. Crook’s command, Crook’s successors forcibly moved some 4,000 Apaches to a reservation north of their homeland. A band of Apaches, led by Geronimo, escaped and bolted into Mexico.
Raiding parties on both sides of the border dominated the next decade. Eventually, Geronimo surrendered, escaped, surrendered and escaped again. (The second time, his surrender was negotiated with the help of scout Mickey Free, the white child Cochise had been falsely accused of abducting years earlier.)
Geronimo surrendered for the final time in Skeleton Canyon, just 30 miles southeast of Portal, in 1886. Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, who had succeeded Crooks, promised Geronimo that he and his followers would be permitted to return to Arizona after a brief exile in Florida. That never happened. It was years before Geronimo saw his family again; he and his fellow prisoners were put to hard labor and eventually were moved to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory.
For awhile, Geronimo seemed resigned to his fate, according to various historical accounts. He took up farming and joined the Dutch Reformed Church. But it didn’t last. His penchant for gambling got him booted from church. He never saw Arizona again. He died in Oklahoma in 1909.
What if Bascom hadn’t acted so precipitously, if he hadn’t been so cruel? Would history have unfolded differently?
We’ll never know.
We stoked great fires each night…
… and enjoyed scrumptious meals. G’s steak on the grill was excellent…
… and so was Tom’s homemade pozole! We all enjoyed homemade green corn tamales from the wonderful tamale-making party in Tucson. (I liked the pozole so much that I inhaled it before thinking to snap a photo.)
We also met interesting people.
Ann and Duanne at the park’s information center were gems. They are retirees from Door County, Wisconsin – which we visited last August – and she’s actually a descendant of the Belgian immigrants we wrote about then. This is their first park-volunteer experience, which made their observations of special interest to G and me as we dream of camp hosting some day at Big Bend National Park.
Then there was Jeff, owner Sky Islands Grill & Grocery just across the New Mexico line. He moved here from Detroit in 1989, purchasing the only commercial property on the eastern side of the Chiricahuas and founding an art gallery, event center, restaurant and grocery. He took three years to build the just-completed restaurant, which is spacious and well-built – with great views of the mountains.
We can attest to the fact that the chili, black-bean burger and gluten-free chicken soup were all outstanding.
One evening after dark, a Texas-made Casita like ours pulled into the campsite across the way. – Casita sighting #54 on our yearlong loop around the country. We learned the next day that the couple from Denver have been traveling full-time since May in their 1998, 17-foot Casita with two sweet dogs.
Taras, a strapping, talkative young man, was as interested in our solar panels as we were in the 14-ply, all-terrain tires on his Casita. He’d customized and updated his 20-year-old used Casita with the ingenuity of an engineer, the precision of a pharmacist and the creativity of a choreographer. He and his lovely, dark-haired wife, it turns out, are natives of St. Petersburg, Russia.
We clicked. We shared contact information. Soon, they were off to Tucson and then to Yuma, where she’ll start a new job as an occupational therapist.
We headed across the mountain, set aglow by their youth, enthusiasm and zest for life.