WONDERLAND OF ROCKS
Last winter I stayed in Marfa, Texas during the month of January. When February rolled around, it was time to transition to a new place called Bisbee – a small and historic mining town down in Southeast Arizona. Southeast Arizona is known for its “sky islands”, or regions of isolated mountains surrounded by a “sea” of otherwise barren and desolate desert. While I had not learned the term until my stay in Arizona, I had technically visited one in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park in Far West Texas.
During the drive from Marfa to Bisbee, I remember seeing several different mountain ranges rising from the flat desert floor. When I was about two hours away from my destination, I saw an interesting clump of mountains in the distance. I passed one of those familiar brown road signs; this one read “Chiricahua National Monument, next turn”. I had never heard of this monument, and the view alone piqued my interest. With the monument being reasonably close to Bisbee, I kept this in mind and noted it as a potential place to visit during my stay in Arizona.
On one of my free weekends, I reserved a few nights in the park’s Bonita Springs campground and headed out to the Monument. Immediately upon entering the park, I was surrounded by a “wonderland of rocks”- rhyolite rock pinnacles formed by the park’s ancient volcanic past. The park is home to the Turkey Creek Caldera, where an immense and catastrophic volcanic eruption occurred roughly 27 million years ago. The ash from this eruption settled and compacted into a formation called rhyolite tuff, and this material eroded over time to form the spires for which the park is known.
Hiking: the big loop and sugarloaf mountain
My brother joined me in camping for a night, while I stayed for two nights. We had different goals that weekend – I wanted to hike the entirety of the 9.5 mile Big Loop trail, while Nick preferred to bike the beautiful scenic drive (an amazing bike ride, I am sure). We woke up for sunrise that Saturday, and enjoyed a portion of the Big Loop together. Witnessing first light on the rhyolite spires was something magical, and we were even treated with some alpenglow-like lighting on Sugarloaf mountain, the short peak I had climbed on my first evening. When we reached one of the possible small loop cutoffs, Nick headed back to the trailhead to complete a smaller loop, while I continued on.
One of the interesting dominating features in the park is a mountain called Cochise Head, named after the chief of the Chiricahuan Apache Native American tribe. The mountain resembles a human head profile, rotated 90 degrees and facing upwards. Starting from the left is the chin of Cochise, and moving right are lips, whiskers, a prominent nose, eye and brow. This figure is in view from almost any perspective in the park. Cochise is also the namesake of the county in Arizona in which I stayed last February.
I write this many months after exploring Chiricahua, and I remember this hike being very beautiful, pristine, and quiet. While I encountered others on the trail closer to the access points, the Big Loop was fairly empty in its middle portions. One of my favorite areas on the loop is the Heart of Rocks Loop, which showcases many impressive rhyolite spires of varying shapes and impressions. This section is also elevated a bit in comparison to the others, and so you can see sweeping views of the entire wonderland of rocks. I suppose this is why it is called “Heart of Rocks”.
During my final evening in the park, I decided to hike up Sugarloaf Mountain once again. Sugarloaf Mountain was one of my favorite treats of the park, as it is a locally-dominating mountain and is fairly easy to summit in less than an hour. It also provides some of the coolest views in the park; spanning from the Turkey Creek Caldera (below), to the imposing and iconic Cochise Head to the North.
I remember forgetting my camera on this final hike up Sugarloaf Mountain, so all I had to document the experience was my iPhone (which didn’t turn out too bad). As they say, “the best camera is the one you have on you.” On the way up the mountain, the sky was mostly shrouded in low-lying, grey clouds. It was also fairly windy and cold, and I was bundled up with my puffy jacket. Remember that it was only February at this time, and small pockets of snow still lined some of the shadiest portions of the trail.
When I made it to the top of the mountain, I took my backpack off and sat next to a lookout tower, which was closed to any visitors. I remember reading some warnings about rats or rat poison from inside the structure. The clouds began to break a bit, and far off the distance I could see the sun shining through one of those small openings in the clouds. It resembled something like a heavenly figure spotlighting something on the surface with a microscope of light. As golden hour approached, the lighting became more impressive, and the wonderland of rocks was illuminated with lights. I took a few panoramas with my iPhone – one of which is the header of this blog posting.
I would have stayed longer at the top, if I had not had to descend in the dark. My only regret is not toughing it out on the summit, for the following sunset was a stunning one. Luckily – even still – I caught glimpses of fiery clouds to the west on my quick descent back to the trailhead. I had to crane my neck backward to see it; stopping every few minutes to gaze at the setting sun – so as not to miss its peak colors. Even by the time I made it to the car, I was rewarded with the afterglow of that beautiful dusk. Cochise Head was still lying there, facing the same sky I was. The clouds became cotton candy before the light and color started to retreat. It was time to head back to the campground for some rest.