Along with towering mountains and alpine lakes, awe-inspiring rock formations are one of the quintessential landscape features of the American West. From Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, to Delicate Arch in Utah, to Half Dome in California, iconic formations draw hikers and sightseers to far-flung public lands to witness the majesty sculpted by nature. In the Southwest, rock formations are by and large the main attraction. National parks, monuments, and other public lands contain enough arches, canyons, cliffs, hoodoos, and other formations that hikers can stay captivated for a lifetime without ever going to the same spot twice.
While Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah have a staggering concentration of incredible rock formations and hikes they’re probably not places to go if you’re seeking solitude or are on a more fluid schedule, as reservations made well in advance are a near necessity. Visiting these phenomenal national parks should certainly be high on the list for hikers and backpackers, but there are several other worthy destinations in the Southwest for those looking to see more eye-popping formations than people during their hikes.
Located in southeastern Arizona, roughly two hours from Tucson, Chiricahua National Monument is an excellent choice for hikers seeking an uncrowded wonderland of rocks to explore. While the monument, which is managed by the National Park Service, is relatively small – less than 12,000 acres (with over 10,000 managed as the Chiricahua National Monument Wilderness) – it makes for an excellent destination if you’re looking to spend a few days hiking or trail running among amazing rock formations in a lonesome part of the Grand Canyon State.
Whereas the bulk of formations in Utah and other parts of Arizona are sandstone, the formations in the Chiricahua National Monument are rhyolite and the result of volcanic activity that began 27 million years ago. The human history of the area is as fascinating as the geology, with the Chiricahua Apaches having lived in the area for hundreds of years before being forced out by the US Army in the later 1800s and placed on reservations as part of the broader efforts of the government to remove Native Americans from their homelands.
No backpacking is allowed at the monument, but the expansive and adjacent Chiricahua Wilderness in the Coronado National Forest provides ample opportunities for multi-day trips, as well as fantastic birdwatching. The Bonita Canyon campground is open all year and is a nice campground, although some of the sites are rather close together. Water is available at the campground as well as food storage boxes and other amenities generally associated with campgrounds (other than showers). The national monument is far from anything, so arrive with as much gas as possible and all the food and beverages you will need.
Although strong hikers can easily breeze through the 17 miles of trail in a single day, the landscape these trails pass through compels you to slow down and savor the scenery. For example, at only 1.1 miles, the Heart of Rocks Loop could be rushed through in little more than 20 minutes, but its setting is intriguing enough to easily take an hour as you pause to admire the formations. Several great loop hikes provide options for the varying amounts of time hikers have to spend in the park. The largest loop, at 9.5 miles, passes by virtually all the highlights of the monument. The elevation changes are not extreme, but this loop will give even fit hikers a nice bit of exercise.
I was able to spend two days of hiking at Chiricahua National Monument in mid-November, which is prime hiking season. The scorching heat of summer is gone and, while the campground and visitor center are located at 5,400 feet in the high desert, nighttime temperatures weren’t yet frigid. Daytime highs were in the mid-60s and nighttime lows bottomed out just above freezing. Perhaps the only drawback of visiting this time of year was that the days were on the short side, with sunset around 5 p.m.
However, one benefit of an early sunset is earlier opportunities for stargazing, which my hiking partner and I took full advantage of during our second night of camping at the monument. The views of the night sky from the campground are fairly limited, so we planned our day so that we would not return there until we were ready to go to sleep. After a leisurely morning, we drove up the scenic road that winds its way up Bonita Canyon to the trailheads and took our time walking the Echo Canyon Loop. From the loop, we could see Sugarloaf Mountain, our destination for later that afternoon. The Echo Canyon Loop, 3.3 miles, passes through beautiful formations, with the Echo Canyon Grotto being especially wonderful. The pines, yucca, and cacti along the route provide botanical highlights in addition to the wonders of the rocks.
Upon our return to the trailhead, we made the short drive to the trailhead for Sugarloaf Mountain and loaded up our packs with our cooking gear, dinners, and warm clothes to wear while we stargazed from the superb vantage point of the lookout, perched at 7,310 feet. We took in a magical high desert sunset all to ourselves and then watched the stars come out. Our views stretched east to New Mexico, south to Mexico, and eastward in Arizona across the Willcox Playa with other sky island ranges jutting up from the flatness. We gazed upward for a few hours after dinner and then made the short hike of less than a mile back to the parking lot and drove back to the campground.
The next morning, we made use of the free shuttle provided by the National Park Service that takes hikers to trailheads and allows you to hike mostly downhill back to your car at the visitor center. This allowed us to hike an outstanding point to point hike and pass by the Heart of Rocks Loop and enjoy some excellent vistas from the trail of the Chiricahua Mountains and a spectacular perspective on the formations in the monument. The lower reaches of our hike, in oak forest that provides ample shade, were an excellent way to keep stretching our legs before hopping in the car and leaving the monument – a visit that wrapped up a week of backpacking, hiking, and camping in Arizona that was one of the most perfect road trips I’ve ever had the pleasure of undertaking.
Information: No permit is required to visit the park and no entry fee is charged. Campsites in Bonita Canyon Campground can be reserved through recreation.gov and reservations are a good idea for weekends. Campsites are currently $20 per night. For more Arizona hiking destinations to explore on your trip, check out our TrailFinder Page. After the hike, and while Arizona lacks many primitive hot springs that abound in neighboring states, you can find two commercial hot springs outside the town of Safford, and Isabel's South of the Border Mexican restaurant in nearby Willcox, AZ is a great place to refuel.
Getting There: From Willcox, Arizona travel southeast on Highway 186 for 32 miles. There are great views of the Dos Cabezas Mountains and the Willcox Playa along this lonesome stretch of highway. At the junction of Highway 181, you make a left (east) onto the signed road the leads to Chiricahua National Monument. The visitor center is four miles east of this junction, the campground a short distance past that, and the trailheads approximately eight miles further on the paved dead-end road.
Best Time to Go: September to May is best, with November to April being perhaps most ideal due to the pleasant temperatures for hiking. However, the higher elevations of the monument do receive snow and frigid temperatures can settle into the area.
Maps and Books: I found the map from the visitor center to be wholly sufficient for hiking in the monument. Junctions are well-signed and the trails are exceedingly easy to follow. For getting there and to and from other Arizona hiking destinations, the Benchmark Arizona Recreation Map is a great start. The trails of the monument are described in various guidebooks focused on hiking in Arizona, adding insight into natural history, geology, and human history of the area as well. See Hiking Arizona (a Falcon Guide) and Chiracahua Mountains: History and Nature.