Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chiricahua National Monument; Wilcox, Arizona

In 2002, a photo in a Christmas newsletter from our friends, Kathy and Jerry Lemay, inspired us to visit the “Wonderland of Rocks” for the first time. Originally named by pioneers, the area is now the Chiricahua National Monument, designated by Congress as a wilderness area in 1976. Located in the Chiricahua (say "cheery-cow-ah") Mountains just 50 miles north of the Mexican border, the monument contains extraordinary rock sculptures – towering spires, massive stone columns, and balanced rocks weighing hundreds of tons that perch delicately on small pedestals.

Scientists believe that volcanic eruption 27 million years ago formed a 2000-ft. layer of rhyolite rock. Wind, water and ice exploited vertical and horizontal cracks in the rock, sculpting it into odd formations. To get to the scenic overlook at Massai Point, we followed Bonita Canyon Drive for eight miles to the mountains’ crest at 6870 feet. Several hiking trails, ranging from ¼ mile to 9 miles, loop through the Heart of Rocks area. (In 2002, the trails were coated in places with snow and ice due to the elevation. Back then, I only walked out with Duncan as far as I dared to get a few photographs, trying to stay on the bare patches of the trail. Duncan bounded around eating snow and thoroughly enjoyed chasing snowballs that Ed threw for him.) But on this visit, temperatures were quite comfortable and we walked the 1/2 loop trail at the summit.

No dogs are allowed on the trails so we let Duncan & Roxie out in the parking lot to stretch their legs. But no one was around, as it was getting late in the afternoon. So we took them on the paved walkway designed for wheelchair accessibility up to a lookout for views from the top of the "island in the sky". The Arizona mountains are like that - flat expanses of desert with mountains sharply rising up thousands of feet. In the Chiricahua Mountains, Mexican species of plants and animals intermingle with those more common to the Southwestern US. Prickly pear cactus grow next to fir trees in this unique environment.

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