In my humble, yet well-informed opinion: drop everything and go to southeast Arizona's stunning National Monument, Chiricahua. This isolated "sky island" mountain is surrounded by an ocean of desert grasslands that protect the wonderland of rocky sentinels that call Chiricahua home. Forget the Badlands*, forget Mono Lake**; if you are in the market for several thousand acres of pinnacles, hoodoos, and precariously balanced spires secreted away at 9,000 feet above sea level, Chiricahua is the national monument for you.
The moment I traced our path from Silver City, New Mexico, towards our next destination in Tucson, Arizona, and noticed the attractive swath of green on our atlas that represented the monument, I knew it was fated. Even more so as we felt the predictable lull of road trip weariness settle on our shoulders as we careened down I-10 after the setting sun, trying to put car troubles and freezing temperatures behind us.
A hike will do us good,
Some rocks will cure us.
We drove the long and lonesome road through cresting waves of grass towards the looming mountain as the sky dimmed, anticipating a hopefully mild night in our tent. Forty solitary miles later and we were enveloped in the comforting familiarity of a National Park campground, whose completely average yet consistent facilities are among my favorite lodgings in the country.
A warm morning welcomed us with the delight of choosing our hiking trail for the day. We decided on something long and hopefully epic, making sure the Mushroom Rock Trail, Big Balanced Rock Trail, and Heart of Rocks would not be missed. In the end, we chose a 7 mile hike out of the possible 17 to explore.
From the campground and the Welcome Center, there were no interesting rock formations to be seen, but as soon as we boarded the bus to Massai Point - climbing ever higher into the sky - the tantalizing blanket of unique geology began to unfold before us.
Twenty seven million years ago, the nearby Turkey Creek Caldera laid down 2,000 feet of volcanic ash that fused into rhyolite tuff, an event similar to the recently visited Bandolier National Monument. Over time, additional uplift paired with erosion caused by wind and water wore cracks into the tuff, leaving behind the carefully sculpted masterpieces that make up Chiricahua today.
As an added bonus, Chiricahua is one of the only places in the US where you can see a native coati... and we did!
And as I expected, walking beneath the towering spires, under an overcast sky was just the balm we needed to sooth our traveling bones and ready us for what's next: Tucson in the rain.
*NEVER forget the Badlands
**Long live Mono Lake!!!!!