Chiricahua National Monument: Hard to say, easy to love

Chiricahua National Monument: Arizona’s Wonderland of Rocks

Once you’ve learned how to say Chiricahua and carved out time on your calendar to visit, the hard part is over. Shortly after you arrive, you’ll quickly fall in love with this “Wonderland of Rocks” in Southern Arizona.

How do you pronounce Chiricahua?

According to one sign posted near the Chiricahua National Monument Visitor’s Center, it’s pronounced: cheer-a-cow-a.

Although the drive to this highly underrated national monument is a long one from almost anywhere, it’s incredibly scenic. And if you think the scenery is cool on the drive to the park, good luck keeping your eyes on the road as you cruise the 8-mile road winding from relatively flat grasslands to Massai Point (elevation ) where you’ll experience standing on top of a “sky island.”

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Sidenote: What is a sky island?

The U.S. Forest Service website describes the sky islands as isolated mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. Some of the mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor making the lowlands and high peaks drastically different. Learn about sky islands with this quick read on the U.S. Forest Service website.


It took me a few years to get to Chiricahua after I added it to my Arizona Bucket List and one thing is for sure: My first visit won’t be my last. It didn’t take long to fall in love with this place shortly after cruising through the unattended, no-fee entrance gate. Having allocated only a day to check it out, I quickly realized I would only be scratching the surface.

columns of rock rise up from trail
rock column rises higher than remains of a tree

This place is freaking huge! Over 12,000 acres (4,866 hectares). And roughly 84% of that area is designated as wilderness. That means it’s protected from human developments which alter the land, such as roads, buildings, utility lines and mines. It’s not an understatement to say “this place is really wild.”

columns of rocks resembling organ pipes
Organ Pipe rock formation at Chiricahua National Monument

How long is the drive to Chiricahua National Monument?

  • from Willcox, AZ (nearest town) it’s 37 miles (60 km)
  • from Tombstone, AZ it’s 68 miles (109 km)
  • from Tucson, AZ it’s 120 miles (193 km)
  • from Phoenix, AZ it’s 228 miles (367 km)
  • from Las Cruces, NM it’s 231 miles (372 km)
  • from El Paso, TX it’s 282 miles (454 km)
  • from Petrified Forest National Park, AZ it’s 318 miles (512 km)
  • from Grand Canyon it’s 459 miles (739 km)

What caused the spectacular rock formations at Chiricahua National Monument?

There are no short stories when it comes to talking about the geology of Arizona’s landscape. The rock formations of Chiricahua have been taking shape for something like 27 million years. That’s when eruptions from the Turkey Creek Volcano spewed ash over 1,200 square miles (3,100 square km).

Here’s how the park brochure describes the evolution:

Super-heated ash particles from the eruption melted together, forming layers of gray rock call rhyolite. Cooling and subsequent uplifting create joints and cracks in the rhyolite. Eons of weathering by ice wedging and erosion by water enlarged the cracks. Weaker material washed away leaving behind an endless variety of spires, balanced rocks, and other shapes. This sculpting by the forces of nature continues today. The longer you look, the more alive the formations seem. Many have names but you can use your imagination to name your own.

Want the inside scoop on more amazing places like this? Grab a copy of Arizona Bucket List Adventure Guide.

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Popular activities at Chiricahua National Monument

There really is something here for everyone to enjoy. Here are some of the more popular activities:

  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Bicycling (on pavement only)
  • Photography
  • Birdwatching
  • Sightseeing

Three must-do hikes at Chiricahua National Monument

If you like to hike, you’re really going to love this place. My biggest disappointment when my day at Chiricahua ended was that I didn’t build in time to explore more trails. I hiked the three trails detailed below and what surprised me most was how different each one was from the others. It really felt as though I was hiking in three completely separate nature areas.

Trailhead signage at Massai Point

Massai Point Nature Trail

This is a fairly short trail that’s long on views. About half of it is wheelchair accessible. If you only sample one trail at Chiricahua, this should be it. It’s the farthest from the visitor center, so that means you’ll get to experience the magical 8-mile drive through the entire park to reach it. Jaw-dropping views will greet you the entire way.

3-D video overview of Massai Point Nature Trail

View from Echo Canyon Trail

Echo Canyon Loop

The song that comes to mind when I reflect back on this hike is Donny and Marie Osmond’s 70s hit “A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock-n-roll.” You start off on a rugged plateau with expansive views for many miles in all directions. A few minutes later, you find yourself rolling up and down through some of the mind-blowing natural rock sculptures that words can’t describe.

Folks in the know swear that counter-clockwise is the best way to go if you don’t want to feel like you’re fighting your way uphill. If you don’t think you can conquer the entire loop, challenge yourself to make it to the clearly-marked Grottoes rock formations for sure. Your efforts will be rewarded with some of nature’s finest works of art on the planet.

3-D video overview of Echo Canyon Loop Trail

More about the Echo Canyon Loop Trail

Echo Canyon Loop Trail Sign
Echo Canyon Loop Trail Sign
columns of rock rise up from trail
Here’s a sampling of rock formations visible along Echo Canyon Trail

Lower Rhyolite Trail

Rhyolite Canyon. It starts out gently, with a wide path of soft dirt leading you through the cool shade of towering, oxygen-spewing trees. You hardly notice the increase in grade until you’re about a half-mile in, when the trail narrows and more rocks begin to appear underfoot. If you make it to the endpoint, you can decide whether to turn back or continue your trek onto either Upper Rhyolite or Sarah Deming Trail and beyond. More steps equal more incredible views in this place.

3-D video overview of Lower Rhyolite Trail

Lower Rhyolite Trail sign
Lower Rhyolite Trail sign displays hiking distance of several trails accessible from the Chiricahua visitor center

About camping at Chiricahua National Monument

According to the official Chiricahua National Monument brochure, there are 26 private campsites and one group campsite in its Bonita Canyon Campground. Each campsite offers a place to pitch a tent or park a smaller camper, plus a fire ring, picnic table, and bear-proof bin. Common restrooms with flush toilets (no showers) are available for campers to use.

Search and reserve campsites at recreation.gov.

Notes for RV campers:

  • No hookups
  • Max length is 29 feet
  • Low-hanging trees
  • Short-radius turns
  • Weak cell service, no wifi

Map out your visit to Chiricahua National Monument

Before heading out to any place this big, wild, and remote, it’s smart to map your route and activities ahead of time. Visit the official maps page on nps.gov for interactive and printable maps of the park. For help with driving directions tap the map below on your smartphone.

Before I went to Chiricahua National Monument my first time, I had done plenty of research by reviewing dozens of pictures and videos on the web. I thought I knew what to expect, yet I greatly underestimated the size of the park. With 16 hiking trails winding through the 12,000-plus-acre monument, there’s no way to see it all in one day. Now that you know how to pronounce it and how to get there, do yourself a favor and plan a 2- or 3-day trip to Chiricahua. One visit and you’ll fall in love, I promise.

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