The Apaches called it "The Land of Standing-Up Rocks" and Anglos later dubbed it the "Wonderland of Rocks." An added appeal for the area now known as Chiricahua National Monument was the cooler and greener contrast provided by this "sky island" mountain range to the vast desert grasslands that surround it in southeastern Arizona.
It's no wonder then that both fans of this park'and potential future visitors'were concerned when they heard news reports of a major wildfire spreading across the area last summer. The 2011 wildfire season was an unusually difficult one in Arizona, and on June 8 the Horseshoe Two Fire, which had already been burning for a month, moved into the park.
By the time the blaze was contained on June 25, it had burned 223,000 acres within the Chiricahua Mountains, and most of the park's nearly 12,000 acres had been affected to at least some extent. So, how did the area fare, and is it worth making a trip to Chiricahua this year?
One of the appeals of this park to many people is its off-the-beaten path location, but some potential visitors may be hesitant to make the 35-mile trek from Interstate 10, fearing they'll find not much more than ash, charcoal and a dismal, blackened landscape. I decided to go and see for myself, and my visit in late January'about six months after the fire'provides some good news for visitors.
An NPS report on the fire offers an accurate summary of what you'll find in the area this year: "The fire burned through most of the monument, but with varying intensity, so there are still many areas that remain green."
It's clear the fire crews did an outstanding job protecting key facilities, and no structures were lost in the park. Those buildings include some classics, such as the stone visitor center constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the historic Faraway Ranch just inside the entrance to the park, and facilities in the Bonita Canyon campground. The lovely, tree-shaded campground showed little sign of the blaze-- good news since this is the only place to stay overnight in the immediate area.
There's only one road into the park, and it follows the canyon floor for about two miles to the visitor center, which lies at an elevation of 5,400 feet. From there, it's eight winding miles via the Bonita Canyon Drive up to Massai Point, which provides fine views from the 6,800 foot level.
There's still considerable "green" in the vegetation along most of the drive, although keep in mind this is a rather arid landscape, even without the effects of a fire. Evidence of the blaze is clearly evident right along the road in places, and as you drive further into the park, or hike the trails, you'll have views of extensive slopes across the canyon that were completely torched.
There's no doubt the fire was a hot one in places; the scenic drive to Massai Point was closed for the summer and fall to allow time to replace guardrails and support posts that were damaged or even destroyed by the blaze. The scenic drive and all trails in the park are now open, but if you're planning to hike, take a minute to read the advice about "traveling and hiking safely in a burned landscape."
A podcast at this link on the park website includes a good summary of the overall impacts of the fire on the environment, and some of the fire control measures that were taken during the incident.
Chiricahua offers some fine opportunities for day hikes, from easy to challenging, and we'll cover some of those in coming days. If you plan to camp or take the drive to Massai Point and have a vehicle or trailer longer than 29 feet, check in advance on length restrictions.
You'll find information to help plan a visit on the park website, and the following two bits of advice underscore why that's a good idea: "The nearest restaurants are in Willcox (35 miles northwest) and Elfrida (40 miles southwest)" and the book store at the ...Visitor Center only offers animal cookies, beef jerky and bottled water (open 8am to 4:30pm)," and "Obtain gas in Willcox; gasoline is not available at or near the monument."
Anyone who has visited the area before the fire will undoubtedly be aware of changes in the landscape, and there's no question the fire will have significant impacts on the ecosystem for years to come. That said, there's no reason to avoid a trip to Chiricahua just because of last year's fire.
The "Wonderland of Rocks" description of the area is still an accurate one, and as I heard someone remark during my visit '¦ "The rocks didn't burn. Theyr'e still amazing!"