Known as the “Wonderland of Rocks”, Chiricahua National Monument is a geologic marvel located in a remote region of Southern Arizona. It is home to an unusual collection of balanced rocks, columns, and pinnacles (or “standing-up rocks” as they were known to the native Chiricahua Apache).
The otherworldly display you’ll discover in Chiricahua NM was formed by the eruption of the Turkey Creek Volcano which sprayed ash over 1200 square miles. As the super-heated ash melted together, they formed rock layers known as rhyolite which then cooled and cracked. Millions of years of ice, water, wind, and erosion enlarged the cracks, forming the beautiful landscape you see today.
It is also worth noting that the monument was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in April 2021, which means it is a fantastic place for stargazers and astrophotographers to photograph the milky way and star-filled skies. Be sure to factor this into your itinerary!
We have created this travel guide to Chiricahua National Monument to help you plan a safe, responsible, and successful visit while providing some photographic inspiration. If you are traveling through as part of a larger road trip and find this helpful, you may be interested in some of our other Southwest guides as well:
- White Sands National Park Guide
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park Guide
- Sitting Bull Falls Guide (near Carlsbad Caverns)
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park Guide
- Big Bend National Park Guide
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Quick Facts About Chiricahua National Monument
- Location: Arizona, USA
- Established: April 18, 1924
- Size: 12,025 acres (48.7 km2)
- Annual Visitors: 44,794 (2020), 60,655 (2019)
- Visitor Centers: Chiricahua National Monument (year-round)
- Entrance Fee: No entrance fee is charged
Map of Chiricahua National Monument
Official Chiricahua National Monument Map
Below is the official park map. You can find a downloadable version of this map and others for Chiricahua National Monument on the NPS website.
Top Sights in Chiricahua National Monument
It should come as no surprise that all of the notable features in “The Wonderland of Rocks” are various rock formations. In a landscape filled with otherworldly stone monoliths, these particular formations and viewpoints are the Chiricahua NM must-sees.
The Grottoes – Echo Canyon Trail
The grottoes themselves I found to be really neat, but it is the trail to (and past) the Echo Canyon grottoes that earn this a spot on the must-see list. This short 1-2 mile roundtrip (depending on how far you want to hike) provides spectacular views from above and within the massive stone pinnacles.
I recommend walking one mile minimally to the “Wall Street” stone display, during which you will find yourself constantly stopping for photos.
In other words, come for the grotto, stay for the views!
Big Balanced Rock
Many parks and scenic destinations in the American Southwest have a “Balanced Rock”, and Chiricahua National Monument is no exception. You will actually encounter quite a few throughout the park, but Big Balanced Rock is probably the most photogenic.
What I personally enjoyed about this particular formation is that it resides in a beautiful setting and provides a clear subject for photos.
Heart of Rocks Loop
This is the most popular section of Chiricahua National Monument, and deservedly so! While the roundtrip hike to and around the Heart of Rocks loop requires about 8 miles of up-and-down walking, the reward is worth it.
While most of the trails skirt the giant boulders, the Heart of Rocks loops take you into the stone jungle! This is where you will discover most of the park’s iconic features such as Duck on a Rock, Pinnacles Balanced Rocks, Kissing Stones, and much more.
You will also be treated to exceptional views to the west for sunset for those who don’t mind hiking back in the dark. Be extremely careful if you decide to do this, however. I had my first-ever cougar encounter on my return journey after sunset and it was one of the scariest moments of my life.
Be sure to read the section further down in this guide on what to do if you encounter a mountain lion – it might save your life!
Inspiration Point is the best place in Chiricahua National Monument for sunset. Your view to the west is unbeatable with plenty of room to explore different compositions. In addition, there are good views of the Chiricahua Mountains and pinnacles to the north as well, should there be some sky interest in that direction.
Be sure to get back quickly, however, as the return hike is about 2.6 miles and twilight is when the mountain lions begin hunting. Always bring two flashlights just in case one fails as well.
Visitors to Chiricahua National Monument with any sort of physical disability will find it challenging to really see much of the scenery. However, Massai point is one of the best overlooks in the park and can be driven directly to. Stargazers, astrophotographers, and Milky Way chasers will have an open view of the horizon with no hike required.
This is also a good place to begin your visit as the east-rising sun will light the rock formations up angularly and provide nicer light than you will receive throughout the day or at sunset.
Trail Guide to Chiricahua National Monument
There are a surprising amount of hikes and trails available at Chiricahua National Monument for people of all skill and interest levels. Many of the trails connect to each other, which can make it somewhat confusing as well. This section attempts to clear up that confusion and breaks down the best and worst hikes in Chiricahua National Monument.
Best Hikes in Chiricahua National Monument
Below are my favorite hikes for exploring the park, which factor in distance, scenery, and and destination.
Echo Canyon Grottoes
Distance: 1-2 miles roundtrip
The Echo Canyon trail can be done as a 3.3 mile loop that connects to the Hailstone Trail and Ed Riggs Trail, as a 4.2 mile journey to the visitor center, or as a 1-2 mile out and back to the Echo Canyon Grottoes. I recommend just hiking down as far as “Wall Street” which is about one mile down the trail, then returning.
Alternatively, those planning on hiking to the Heart of Rocks Loop as well, covered below, can hike through The Grottoes and connect to the Mushroom Rock Trail from there, which will lead you toward Heart of Rocks. If this is something you would like to do, review the hiking instructions in the Heart of Rocks section and pick up from Step 3.
While the rest of the hike is nice enough, the most interesting portions are at the Grottoes and at Wall Street, and there are better trail to spend your time which will be covered below.
Heart of Rocks Loop Trail
Distance: 7.3 miles roundtrip
This is definitely the best hike in the entire park! I particularly enjoy it for sunset, though hiking 3.5+ miles back in the dark is a bit sketchy.
Knowing where to go is a bit confusing, so print or take a picture of these steps to make sure you do not get on the wrong trail!
Begin your hike from either Massai Point or Echo Canyon. Either way, follow signs fo the Ed Riggs Trail until you come to your first junction.
- Begin at either Massai Point or Echo Canyon (it makes no difference which).
- Look for and follow signs for Ed Riggs Trail.
- The Ed Riggs trail will end after 1 mile at a fork; follow signs for Mushroom Rock Trail.
- In 1.2 miles, the trail becomes Big Balanced Rock Trail and you will encounter a detour option to Inspiration Point. I absolutely love Inspiration Point and highly recommend it for sunset as well. If you have the time and energy, it is only a 1-mile roundtrip detour. Otherwise, continue onward toward Big Balanced Rock.
- In one mile, you will pass by Big Balanced Rock, which is signed. Just beyond this are signs for the Heart of Rocks loop, which is 1 one-mile loop through the heart of Chiricahua National Monument.
As you will discover, the vistas you encounter are the best in the park. What’s more, you are able to walk amongst the giant monoliths and get up-close views of the natural features that make this place so special.
Inspiration Point Trail
Distance: 5.4 mile roundtrip
As mentioned above, Inspiration Point is my favorite place to photograph sunset in Chiricahua NM. The views you are rewarded with to the west are absolutely incredible. Photographers will love how much room there is to roam and compose unique photos, while casual visitors can just sit back and enjoy the show.
To access, review the instructions above for Heart of Rocks Loop, ending at Step 4.
Sugarloaf Mountain Trail
Distance: 1.8 miles roundtrip
Looking for something a bit less strenuous for sunset? The Sugarloaf Mountain trail is my second favorite option, particularly for those who do not want to hike back in darkness.
This moderate hike takes you up the Sugarloaf Mountain to a lookout station. From here, you will have 360 panoramic views of the entire region.
Not Recommended Hikes in Chiricahua National Monument
The following are popular for taking a stroll, but do not really showcase what makes this area so unique and beautiful. I wanted to include them anyway as some people want to hike every trail and some may prefer a more leisurely stroll.
Bonita Creek Trail / Silver Spur Meadow Trail
As you enter the park, you will come across these trails immediately. They are short and flat but do not offer much in the way of scenery. Instead, you will learn about some of the earliest residents of the park and see some old homesteads, such as the Stafford Cabin and Faraway Ranch. I, personally, did not find them particularly interesting and would not recommend the investment of time unless it was extremely plentiful!
Natural Bridge Trail
The first trail I took was the 5-mile roundtrip course to the Natural Bridge. This up and down trail provides some interesting views, but none as good as those you get from the Massai Point parking lot or from Echo Canyon.
While I usually love a good natural bridge, I was very disappointed with this one, particularly with the effort it required. The trail ends quite a distance from the bridge, and the vantage point is not particularly notable. Unless you are one of those people that likes to hike every trail offered, this is one I would skip.
The Hailstone trail diverts off of the Mushroom Rock Trail that you will take to get to the Heart of Rocks Loop and connects to the Echo Canyon trail already covered. It is actually rather pretty and geologists may find the hailstones themselves of interest. The reason it is on this list is only because it is just not as pretty as the alternative trails to which it connects (Heart of Rocks and Echo Canyon Grottoes). If time is plentiful, do the whole loop! Otherwise, give this one a miss.
Planning Your Visit to Chiricahua National Monument
The remote location and smaller size of this national monument combine to keep visitation numbers fairly small. For those of you who are willing to make the effort, the reward is certainly worth it!
Below is a compilation of the most frequently sought-after planning points to help you prepare for your visit.
When to Visit Chiricahua National Monument
Winter is peak season out here in the desert, but I feel spring is the best time to visit Chiricahua. The temperatures are moderate at elevation, there is little in the way of crowds, and the Milky Way is visible for those who do not get the opportunity to see it often.
How Many Days to Spend in Chiricahua NM
Most visitors will only require one full day to explore before they begin to become desensitized to the land of rocks. All the trails seem to be similar and even connect to each other, so you are seeing largely the same landscapes and scenery throughout.
Those who are not willing or able to hike will likely need less time than that, as there are really only a handful of viewpoints along the Bonita Canyon Drive.
Hikers and photographers could easily spend 2-3 days appreciating the scenery as the light changes and enjoying the night skies as well.
How to Get to Chiricahua NM
You will need a vehicle to get to and explore Chiricahua National Monument. The entry gates are located 35 miles southeast of the gateway city of Willcox, AZ, which is the closest place with full amenities.
From the I-10 freeway, you will turn onto AZ Route 186 and connect to AZ Route 181.
Getting Around Chiricahua NM
The Canyon Bonita Drive is the only road through the monument. It spans 17 miles from the entry gate to Massai Point at the end.
Between September and May, a free shuttle for hikers operates. It leaves the visitor center at 9am and takes hikers to the Echo Canyon or Massai Point trailheads. The shuttle is available on a first-come, first-serve basis and you will need to sign up for it in person at the visitor center the day before or morning of your hike.
Gas and Supplies
The closest place to get gas and supplies is 35 miles away in the gateway city of Willcox. The visitor center does have drinking water available, but you will otherwise need to plan accordingly!
Where to Stay in Chiricahua National Monument
The only place to stay within Chiricahua National Monument is at the 26-site Bonita Canyon Campgrounds, which fills up even in the off-season. At the time of this blog, the cost per campsite is $20.
If you need RV hookups or prefer a hotel, you will need to make your reservations in Willcox. I stayed at the Willcox KOA and cannot recommend it highly enough! They have options for cabins, RVs, or tent camping, and have put a lot of money into thoughtful upgrades recently. This includes blazing-fast Wi-Fi no matter where you go, a hot tub, pool, playground, and recreation room with a full-service kitchen.
You can also check here for current prices and availability for other accommodation options in Willcox.
Packing List for Chiricahua NM
While your individual packing list will vary depending on the type of vacation you intend to have, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you to Chiricahua National Monument.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual national park pass costs $80 and provides access to all 63 national parks in the US. Additionally, it grants admission to over 2000 federal recreation sites! Discounted passes are offered to some groups, including seniors, military personnel, and 4th graders. Check the NPS website for up-to-date information and to purchase your pass.
Chiricahua National Monument is beautiful – don’t forget your camera! We use the Sony a7riii and have loved it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners, you may wish to consider an entry level DSLR. This will allow you to start learning manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
Much of the national park is exposed and can be very hot in the summer so ensure you have good protection from the sun. Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as a minimum. We use Stream 2 Sea sunscreen as it’s eco-friendly and most of their bottles are made from sugarcane resin rather than plastic.
As mentioned, to really explore the park hiking is required. You’ll therefore want to ensure you pack some comfortable shoes. Closed-toe, sturdy hiking shoes are better than hiking sandals. This will help to reduce risk of injury to your feet in the desert environment.
The temperatures in Chiricahua can vary by 30°F (~18°c) from day to night. It is also at a relatively high elevation, causing the temperatures to be cooler than other nearby locations. Additionally, if you visit in the summer you can expect rain! In fact, nearly every afternoon from July into September, thunderstorms occur in the area.
With this in mind, you’ll want to pack layers of clothing. A wind and waterproof jacket is also likely to come in handy. I love my Columbia jacket as it’s comprised of two layers. This allows me to just wear the outer waterproof/windproof shell, inner insulated layer or combination of both, depending on the weather.
Reusable Water Bottle
We don’t travel anywhere without a reusable water bottle. Remain hydrated while preventing the waste of single-use plastic bottles!
It’s likely you’ll be using your phone to navigate, take photos, and more! Bring a power pack with you to keep your phone charged on the go.
You’ll want a backpack that’s comfortable and sturdy to carry around during the day. I use the GoGroove camera backpack as it also provides easy side access to my camera while out and about.
Mini First Aid Kit
When out hiking, we always have a mini first aid kit in our bag just in case. You never know when it may come in handy (particularly as Sophie’s clumsy)!
What To Do If You Encounter a Mountain Lion
I had my first-ever cougar encounter on my visit to Chiricahua NM while returning from the Heart of Rocks Loop trail after sunset. It was perhaps the scariest moment of my life, but fortunately, I knew what to do and was able to avoid tragedy.
It is extremely unlikely you will encounter a cougar at all, but very important you know what to do should it occur.
- Keep your head on a swivel during hikes, particularly keeping an eye on the high ground and checking behind you from time to time. They are most likely to stalk from the rear and from high ground.
- DO NOT RUN! If you make eye contact with a mountain lion, do not even retreat! When a mountain lion is stalking you, they may be ascertaining whether or not you are a prey animal. Retreating will activate their instinct to hunt.
- Maintain eye contact, stand your ground, be big, and make loud noises. Hope that the big cat will recognize you are not to be trifled with and head off.
- If the cat begins approaching or will not relent, quickly pick up some large rocks and throw them. Launching projectiles demonstrates that you are not prey and will fight back, at which point the cat will almost always retreat.
- Never show the back of your neck as this is where they look to strike. Even as you bend down to gather some stones, be sure you never show the back of your neck.
My Experience With a Mountain Lion
In my encounter, I first happened upon the animal in front of me on the trail, at which point it immediately darted off into the bush. Cougars like to stalk, rather than confront. I continued on the trail but kept my head on a swivel and frequently checked behind me.
At one point I decided to get a second flashlight flashlight to hold behind my head so that I appeared to have eyes there as I needed to keep my eyes on the trail to get back. When I turned to glance behind me, it was about 10 yards from me and froze when my light hit its eyes.
We squared off for about 1-2 minutes with neither of us moving until I took my first slow step backward. It immediately began its approach the second I took that step backward. At this point, I picked up a large rock and threw it. The rock landed near the cougars head startling it and causing it to run off into the bush. I never saw it again but for the rest of the hike back I was sure to keep my lights moving at all times and to check the high ground and my rear frequently.
Useful Tips for Visiting Chiricahua NM
- Drive straight to Massai Point or Echo Canyon to begin your journey, saving any pull-offs for your return drive: All pull-offs are located on the right side of the road as you are driving back and many are on blind corners, making them far more convenient and safer to stop at when exiting the park.
- The Visitor Center is open daily: Be sure to stop in and pick up a trail guide, local map, and water if necessary.
- Bring supplies and fuel up first: There is nothing in the way of services nearby, so you need to come prepared.
- Arrive early: The temperatures get very hot as the day wears on and there is not much in the way of shade. Also, the lighting is better on the rock formations during the early hours.
- It gets hot: The dry desert heat can quickly cause dehydration and the sun can be intense. Make sure you carry plenty of water and sunscreen.
- Leave no trace: Please be respectful of the park. Keep to the trails, dispose of waste properly, and leave any plants etc. that you find.
- Beware the wildlife: Chiricahua National Monument is home to a variety of wildlife, including large populations of rattlesnakes and mountain lions. On my visit, I encountered 2 rattlesnakes and was stalked by a cougar all within 2 hours. It is important to be mindful and to know what to do should you encounter any of these animals. If you skipped it, be sure to go back and read the section of this guide on how to deal with a cougar encounter.
- Drive carefully: The roads can be busy and are very narrow, particularly for large vehicles. Please adhere to speed limits and drive responsibly.
Fun Facts About Chiricahua National Monument
- The formation of Chiricahua began 27 million years ago with the volcanic eruption of the nearby Turkey Creek caldera.
- It is one of 18 National Monuments in the state of Arizona.
- The native Chiricahuan Apache people called the area The Land of Standing-Up Rocks.
- The name Chiricahua is thought to have derived from the Opata word Chihuicahui or Chiguicagui, meaning ‘mountain of the wild turkey’.
- Wild turkeys once roamed the Chiricahua Mountains but were hunted to near extinction in the area by the mid-1900s. In 2003, wild Gould’s turkeys were released and by 2014 over 1200 turkeys were counted in Arizona and New Mexico.
- Chiricahua is pronounced cheer-i-cow-ah with a long e and short i vowel sounds.
- Arizona whitetail deer are the most frequently spotted animals in Chiricahua. However, you may also spot a black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, grey fox, or coati-mundi crossing. Chiricahua is also home to a number of lizards, snakes and birds.
- Despite being primarily desert, Chiricahua National Monument receives an average of 12 inches of snowfall each year.
- In April 2021, Chiricahua became a designated International Dark Sky Park.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are dogs and pets allowed at Chiricahua NM?
Pets are allowed within the park but are NOT ALLOWED on most trails. They are only allowed on some of the “Easy Trails”, which include the Bonita Creek Loop, Bonita Creek Trail, Silver Spur Meadow Trail, and the small trail between the Visitor Center and the campground.
Is Chiricahua NM worth visiting?
As part of a greater road trip, absolutely! Nowhere in the world will you see a collection of balanced rocks, pinnacles, and columns like you will discover at Chiricahua National Monument.
Additionally, the Ed Riggs Trail to Heart of Rocks is one of the prettiest hikes I have done in any of the Southwest National Park.
I would not consider it a standalone destination, but would certainly include it on any road trip itinerary that includes Southern Arizona.
Is Chiricahua NM handicap accessible?
Yes, some parts. Those who have mobility limitations or are unable to hike can still appreciate the unusual landscape from the various viewpoints and pull-offs throughout the park. However, note that none of the trails, unfortunately, are wheelchair accessible.
There is a ramp into the Visitor Center where more information can be found, as well as handicapped parking and accessible restrooms here.
What causes the rock formations of Chiricahua National Monument?
It began with a volcano, wherein the super-heated ash melted together and eventually cooled, forming large cracks. Those cracks were carved deeper by eons of ice, wind, and water. The result is a unique display of pinnacles, balanced rocks, and columns.
Final thoughts on Chiricahua National Monument
Anyone with an interest in unique landscapes and natural phenomenons will enjoy their visit to “The Wonderland of Rocks” designated Chiricahua National Monument. Come for the otherworldly scenery, and stay for the famously dark night skies.
If you are passing through as part of a broader road trip and have found help or inspiration in our guide to Chiricahua NM, you may be interested in some of our other Southwest National Park Guides as well:
- White Sands National Park Guide
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park Guide
- Sitting Bull Falls Guide (near Carlsbad Caverns)
- Big Bend National Park Guide
As always, help us improve this guide by pointing out any errors or omissions in the comments below… or just say something nice because that’s a lovely thing to do!
Finally, feel free to browse our Chiricahua professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration ?