We’ve been wanting to hike the trails in the Chiricahua National Monument for years. Known for its splendid assortment of hoodoos, balanced rocks, and spires, the monument is part of a sky island, an isolated mountain range that rises above the desert in the far southeastern corner of Arizona.
We planned three nights in Bonita Canyon Campground, deep in the heart of the canyon. We knew we were flirting with the likelihood of chilly nights in mid-December, but when we discovered that below freezing temperatures were forecast, we almost bailed on our plan. At the last minute, we decided to forge ahead. We are so glad we did.
Sure enough, the temperatures dipped into the low 20’s. With no hookups, we relied on our little auxiliary propane heater to keep us warm. Our hiking strategy didn’t turn out as planned when we awoke the second morning to find the road to the top of the canyon closed. Still, we got in plenty of hiking. And we spent a wonderful three days at Chiricahua National Monument.
If anything, the light dusting of snow added to the magic of the canyon.
The park offers an assortment of trails that can be combined in many different configurations, depending on your time, energy, and desire. Most of the trails are clustered at the top of Bonita Canyon Drive. This spectacular scenic drive climbs from the visitor center to Massai Point, eight miles winding through a landscape of oak, juniper, and pine forests with stunning views of sculpted rocks and far-off mountain vistas.
Even if you don’t intend to hike, the scenic drive is well-worth taking. The views from Massai Point are outstanding.
As I mentioned earlier, we had a plan. With three nights in the park, we figured we had two full days for hiking all of the trails at the top of the canyon. Using the excellent map provided by the visitor center, we figured out our routes.
The first day worked out beautifully. The park has a convenient shuttle van that leaves from the visitor center at 9:00 a.m. and drops hikers at the Massai Point trailhead or Echo Point trailhead to make their way back down the canyon to the visitor center.
We chose the Massai Point trailhead, first hiking the gorgeous half-mile Massai Nature Trail, and then heading down the canyon via the Ed Riggs Trail, Mushroom Rock Trail, Inspiration Point Trail, Big Balanced Rock Trail, Heart of Rocks Loop, Sarah Deming Trail, and the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail back to the visitor center. All in all, nine miles of extraordinary beauty.
We awoke our second morning to icy rain and the news that the road to the top of the canyon was closed. Alas! Our plans for hiking the 3.5 mile Echo Canyon Loop were dashed. Instead, we set out on the easy and flat 3.0 mile (round-trip) Silver Spur Faraway Trail, which took us from the campground to Faraway Ranch.
Along the way was a self-guided tour of the history of the monument, including the role the Civilian Conservation Corps played in making these remote mountains accessible in the 1930’s. Building roads, extensive trails, and creative signage, these guys did an outstanding job.
Faraway Ranch was the home of Swedish immigrants Neil and Emma Erickson, who settled here in 1888. In the 1920’s, their daughter Lillian and her husband Ed Riggs turned the home into a guest ranch for nature lovers, which was in operation until 1973. The family played an instrumental role in the creation of the national monument.
On our last morning, we awoke to snow and the exciting news that the Bonita Canyon Drive was again open. We drove the scenic road to the top, hiked the nature trail again at Massai Point (it looked so different in the snow!), and had just enough time to do about a half-mile of the Echo Canyon Trail before turning around and heading back to pack up camp.
We need to return to finish that Echo Canyon Loop.
About the campground:
If you have an RV smaller than 29 feet and don’t mind camping without hookups, this is the place to be! We loved our stay at Bonita Canyon Campground. With only 26 sites, reservations are essential if you want to score one of the larger sites. The campground has restrooms, but no showers. It’s quiet, dark at night, beautiful, and within walking distance of the visitor center and Faraway Ranch. No cell service, of course, but you might get random texts on the trail at the top of the canyon (that’s where we got a text from our RVing buddies Jodee and Bill: “Don’t forget to look for Cochise Head!”).
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