Behind the Shot: Chiricahua, Arizona
By: Talor Stone March 1st, 2018
“The wind made the strangest sounds as it wound its way through the towering rock formations. Large gusts sounded like an entire stadium collectively oohed and ahhed. Like the wind itself was amazed by the landscape it traversed. The softer breezes made a quiet shhhh constantly reminding me that this was hallowed ground.”
~ Journal Entry
If you’re hunting for a park in the Southwest that’s a little different than the rest, then Chiricahua National Monument in Southern Arizona just might be what you’re looking for. It’s an incredibly unusual landscape far off the beaten path that offers sweeping views and incredible hiking without any of the large crowds seen in the more popular national parks of the Southwest.
Exploring and Camping
Part of the reason Chiricahua National Monument is a true hidden gem is location, location, location! It is well off the beaten path 120 miles southeast of Tucson, 36 miles south of Wilcox, and just a short distance from the Mexican border. Unlike the more frequented national parks, no “tourist city” has been built up outside of the gate offering food, fuel or lodging. This means bring your own supply of food, stock up on fuel, and prepare to take in this stunning park without having to share it with swarms of tourists. This lack of tourism build-up has helped ensure Chiricahua remains a stronghold for those of us who have a bit more robust love for the wilderness than others.
The raisons d’etre for Chiricahua are the unique rhyolite rock pinnacles, also called hoodoos, some of which tower hundreds of feet in the air. These impressive towers are formed of compressed ash from a volcanic eruption over 27 million years ago making them unique from the hoodoos viewed at Bryce Canyon in Utah. The hoodoos create a strange world when viewed from elevated overlooks, but the true experience comes from following some of the trails that meander between, over and around these behemoths.
The miles of hiking trails available range from easy to quite strenuous. They conveniently intersect in many locations allowing hikers to make their own loops and combinations. My personal favorite was Echo Canyon because it winds through some of the largest formations in the park. The sound of the wind through the pinnacles was quite unusual and gave me the constant feeling that there were people talking in hushed tones on the trail around me.
“I know why it is called Echo Canyon. An unseen male hiker in the distance sneezed and the sound reverberated through the towers in the canyon. ‘Gesundheit!’ I yelled back. A connection was made despite the distance and the man was never seen.”
Limited camping is another factor which has preserved Chiricahua National Monument as a quiet haven. Only 25 basic sites and 1 group site are available within the park, and RV size is restricted preventing an abundance of tour bus sized vacationers. Without basic tourist infrastructure outside of the park, the only remaining options are within a section of the Coronado National Forest which is located immediately before entering Chiricahua. There are some campsites available as well as free dispersed camping in designated areas. Because of the remoteness of Chiricahua National Monument, I highly recommend you do some prior planning to ensure you have a place to bed down at the end of a fun-filled day.
Photographing the Hoodoos
The incredible rock pinnacles are simply awe-inspiring and are the reason for the park’s designation as a national monument. But, despite how cool they are, the hoodoos can be surprisingly difficult to photograph in a compelling way. The sheer size of them alone requires that you get a fair amount of distance from your subject. And the overwhelming number of them renders the landscape chaotic and busy making it difficult to highlight any single point of interest.
The most effective strategy that I found was taking advantage of the oblique light of dusk or dawn which cast deep shadows and allowed the hoodoos to stand out apart from the otherwise distracting backdrop.
Chiricahua National Monument is truly a hidden gem. Although it is off the beaten path, this grants you the amazing opportunity to experience a true geological wonder without the distraction of crowds of tourists. I certainly wouldn’t miss the opportunity to enjoy this otherworldly landscape!