Most people go to Chiricahua National Monument to hike. Ruth & I did exactly that the first time we visited many years ago. When I realized that Chiricahua was destined to one day become a national park, I wanted to return to see if I thought it qualified. We sat in its parking lot at the visitor center for a long time waiting for the rain to stop. Instead, it began to hail. The next time the icefall slightly abated, we made a dash for the door. Inside was a standing-room-only situation and the atmosphere was glum. Hordes of hikers were waiting for the sun to come out. The forecast was for the opposite with probable snow in Chiricahua’s upper elevations even though March was usually among the best times to visit. When it comes to travel, we can anticipate and plan for almost everything but the weather.
Chiricahua is small by national park standards. It’s slightly more than 12,000 acres. If currently stalled legislation to let it join the current 59 national parks is enacted, Chiricahua will be the 2nd smallest one. Denali is almost 5 million acres! Smaller doesn’t mean lesser. Chiricahua, which has 4 ecosystems, is a bit like Big Bend National Park in that it contains an entire mountain system. It’s actually a mountain island surrounded by a sea of grass. That’s why one of its nicknames is Sky Island.
Chiricahua was created by volcanic activity. Violent nature sculpted dramatic shapes that are, for now, silent sentinels. When the Chiricahua Apache were resident, they aptly called these shapes ‘standing up rocks”. When Cochise was accused of stealing livestock, war ensued. Medicine Man Geronimo, also a Chiricahuan Apache, later took over followed by non-native settlement. Sky Island became a guest ranch from 1917 to 1973. This popular destination called Faraway Ranch was only 7-years-old when the area was designated a national monument.
Today a newly paved 8-mile scenic drive takes the intrepid, even on bad-weather days, up to Massai Point, which is 6,870 feet. Below it are 17 miles of trails, countless rock pinnacles, and great beauty. Among the many hikers waiting with us for better weather to enjoy that beauty were birders hoping to spot many of the Mexican species that find their way here to the northern limit of their range. There are 9 types of hummingbirds around. But the most interesting of the 200 bird species to me was the Mexican Jay pictured below. It is, by the way, mislabeled in the visitor center where it’s called a Grey-Breasted Jay. White-tail deer, javelinas, and other mammals are common, but the most fascinating animal to me was the coatimundi. I had only seen them once before in Argentina. They have migrated north to Chiricahua and are only seen here and in a few places in New Mexico.
I sincerely hope that Chiricahua becomes a national park and that the unhappy hikers’ weather improved the next day.