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Running Through Southeast Arizona’s Wonderland of Rocks
Gearing up in a brisk wind at the Echo Canyon Trailhead (6780 feet) in the Chiricahua Mountains, we armored up …
Photo by Matt Hage
Gearing up in a brisk wind at the Echo Canyon Trailhead (6780 feet) in the Chiricahua Mountains, we armored up beneath hats, gloves and wind-proof layers, then descended into a tight canyon, out of the gale. It was January in Arizona’s high desert. Rays of sunlight streamed up the trail and we soaked up their warmth. The canyon became saturated with the scent of pines. Spires reared their bulbous heads high above the forest, catching the morning light.
Racing down the trail to generate metabolic warmth, my partner, Agnes, and I took turns with smart-ass comments about running in cold-weather gear on our winter escape from Alaska to the Southwest. The early light selectively touched spires and I stopped to pull out the camera. Agnes paused for a couple shots before continuing down the trail. “No more stopping until we’re in the sun,” she scolded.
As we neared Ed Riggs Trail’s end, the ponderosas gave way to spindly rocks. Rounding a bend, we veered onto the Hailstone Trail, which tread a rock shelf high above the canyon. The drop to our left measured a few hundred feet while an army of volcanic-tuff towers hemmed us on the right. The south-facing wall caught the brunt of the rising sun, allowing us to strip to shorts and T-shirts.
Having spent two weeks working in Southeast Arizona, on the advice of locals, we had road tripped to the Chiricahua Mountains. The Chiri-what? Try CHEERY-COW-AH, greenhorn. “The trails are unreal—spires, slots, tunnels. You guys have to check it out,” urged one Bisbee local during a festive night on the town. “It’s like a forest of rock towers, totally crazy.”
It’s amazing what a little rain and wind can do if left unchecked for millions of years. Our path cut behind giant blades of rock a hundred feet tall and only a foot wide. Pillars twice as high stand with giant overgrown cap rocks. Their toothpick-and-olive stature thumbs its nose at the laws of gravity.
“Hey, Ags, give me a hand with this one,” I joked while pretending to push over a slender spire capped with a boulder. “I wouldn’t even lean against it,” she said as she cruised by.
We try to keep a pace and not trip into the canyon while rock gawking. The final leg of our loop dives deep into a maze of spires and grottos. We duck into tunnels and squeeze through slots, giggling like a couple of six-year-olds at Disneyland.
I give up on any attempt to make sense of this jungle gym. Apparently, the place even has geologists scratching their heads. They believe that a violent eruption some 27 million years ago from the nearby Turkey Creek caldera laid down a vast wasteland of white-hot ash. This welded into a 2000-foot-thick rhyolite layer that was later uplifted and eroded into the Chiricahua Mountains. But I can’t help feeling like this is a place where the forces of nature just decided to show off a little bit.
A final mile of tunnels, slots and mushroom-carved boulders drop us back in the parking lot, ending the most spectacular five kilometers I’ve ever run. And that was just our warm-up.
A longer loop took us into the Heart of Rocks, home to obviously named attractions such as Duck On a Rock and Pinnacle Balanced Rock. The latter stands as the ultimate offense to gravity—a house-sized block standing upright on a tiny pedestal.
From a high vantage point, thousands of balanced rocks populate the mountains and valleys. The surrounding country is surprisingly largely undeveloped, open for overnight excursions. But don’t dally. One good earthquake and the whole park would tumble to the ground. Until then, the magical art of erosion will continue, cutting away at the weak points one chunk of rock at a time.
Getting There. Located 120 miles southeast of Tucson off Interstate 10. Turn off at the town of Wilcox, take Highway 186 for 35 miles to Highway 181 and head five miles east to the park entrance.
Seasons. Like most of southeast Arizona, summer is suited only for Gila monsters and rattlesnakes. The best season is early spring and late fall when 70-degree temps are the norm. Winter is fickle as warm, sunny days can quickly turn bitter cold with a brisk wind. Afternoon thunderstorms are common July through September.
Permits. The entry fee charged at the gate is $5 per visitor and is good for seven days. Camping is available at the Bonita Canyon Campground; tent sites are $12 per night. Water is available in the campground. A free shuttle is offered between trailheads; check the visitor’s center for a current schedule.
More Info.www.nps.gov/chir; 520-824-3560.
Seeking Balance in the Chiricahuas
The Park’s three best running trails begin at the Echo Canyon Trailhead (6780 feet) near the top end of Bonita Canyon Road. All are well signed at the junctions with directions and miles.
:: Echo Canyon Loop (3.3 miles). Best 5K ever! Start with a left turn that leads to the Massai Point Nature Trail, which quickly meets a pine-forested canyon sprinkled with the occasional spire on the Ed Riggs Trail. Continue the route clockwise on the Hailstone Trail. The final 1.6-mile section weaves around rock formations and into deep tunnel-carved grottos.
:: Heart of Rocks Loop (8.5 miles). Head down the Ed Riggs Trail about a mile then turn left onto the Mushroom Rock Trail in Hunt Canyon. Climb through the spire-lined canyon to just over 7000 feet to the Big Balanced Rock Trail. Turn right into the Heart of Rocks, a one-mile side loop through so many balanced rocks you may fall over from rubber-necking. Back on the main trail, head down into Sarah Deming Canyon to the junction at Rhyolite Canyon Trail. From there it is a spectacular 2.5-mile climb back to Echo Canyon Trailhead. Or you can hang a left for a breezy downhill to the visitor center for a 7.5-mile point to point.
:: Rhyolite Canyon Downhill (6.5 miles). Park your rig at the lower end of this downhill cruise, the Bonita Creek Picnic Area, then take the morning shuttle service to Echo Canyon Trailhead. Follow the maze of grottos and spires until you reach Rhyolite Canyon Trail. Fly down through the pine forests to the visitor center and across the street to Silver Spur Meadow Trail. You’ll run through the front yards of Stafford Cabin and Faraway Ranch, historic leftovers from the canyon’s first white settlers. Continue along Sonita Creek Trail to the parking lot 2000 feet below your starting point. For a serious lung-buster, return the way you came.
The traveling photo duo of Matt Hage and Agnes Stowe eavesdrop on locals to find hidden trail-running gems, and split their time between Anchorage, Alaska, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.