In the northwest corner of the Chiricahua Mountains, massive boulders weighing hundreds of tons balance easily on a forest of stone pedestals. Called the "Land of the Standing-Up Rocks" by the local Chiricahua Apaches and the "Wonderland of Rocks" by later pioneers, the area has been preserved as Chiricahua National Monument since 1924.

Geologists aren't exactly sure how this land of massive stone spires and columns came to be, but it is believed to be the work of volcanic eruptions and natural erosion. It appears that about 27 million years ago, the nearby Turkey Creek caldera erupted violently, covering the land with white-hot ash. As the ash cooled, it fused into dark volcanic rock known as rhyolite today.

The uplift that created the mountains exposed the rhyolite, then wind, rain, and ice went to work sculpting the rock. The erosive forces carved away at the cracks that had formed in the volcanic rock as the ash cooled, creating natural rock sculptures.

An eight-mile paved road leads up Bonita Canyon to Masai Point, which has panoramic views of the entire park, as well as the desert valleys and mountains beyond. Along the scenic Echo Canyon Trail is a rock grotto created by wind and water.

Chiricahua
The "standing rocks" of the Chiricahua National Monument create a variety
of unusual formations.

Nearly 20 miles of foot trails wind through the 12,000-acre monument, taking hikers past some very unusual rock formations, including Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock. The trails allow visitors to see the formations up close, as well as experience the beautiful landscape more fully.

The cool, lush Chiricahua Mountains contrast greatly with the arid desert below. These "sky islands" contain a unique combination of Southwestern and Mexican species, such as the Chihuahua pine, Apache fox squirrel, alligator juniper, and Arizona cypress.

The visitor center has slide presentations and exhibits on the monument's geological, natural, and cultural history, including information on the Chiricahua Apaches and their famous leaders, Cochise and Geronimo.

Faraway Ranch

Chiricahua National Monument also includes Faraway Ranch, a farm and guest ranch in Bonita Canyon started by a Swedish immigrant couple in 1888.

Neil and Emma Erickson were among the first pioneers to settle in this area, and their only neighbors were the Stafford family, who lived in a log cabin nearby. In the 1920s, one of the Ericksons' daughters and her husband turned the homestead into a successful guest ranch. Lillian and Ed Riggs built trails and took guests on horseback trips through the "Wonderland of Rocks." In 1922, they began to promote the idea of a national park here, and two years later Chiricahua National Monument was established.

Chiricahua National Monument Information

Address: 120 miles southeast of Tuscon, at the junction of Arizona State Hwy 186 and Arizona State Hwy 181
Telephone: 520/824-3560
Hours of Operation: Open daily, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.; closed Christmas
Admission: $5 per person

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To learn more about national national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.