|It was hard to believe that we were about to celebrate our
first anniversary. The year had gone so fast, during which time we had had
some incredible adventures: our honeymoon in Glacier National Park, our
backpacking trip to Aravaipa Canyon, several disastrous weekends that we can
now laugh at, a new house, a baby due to arrive soon... I guess it's no wonder
the year passed so quickly, what with all of the adventures we crammed into
To celebrate our anniversary, John and I went against the advice of our friends and family to stay home. Instead, we decided to take our chances and go on a much-needed trip. At first, I suggested that we take a three-day weekend and go camping somewhere. Now that most of the forest restrictions had been lifted with the onset of monsoon season, we could go camping anywhere we wanted. Unfortunately, two weeks prior to our anniversary, just as John was getting ready to e-mail his boss to let her know that he wanted to take July 17 off, he looked on his calendar and discovered that he would be in a training class for work that week, starting on July 17. It looked as though our three-day weekend would be cut short. I wasn't upset, though, because there wasn't anything I could do to change the circumstances. We could still have a nice weekend anyway, and I decided to keep July 17 as a vacation day so that I could have a day of rest.
After tossing up a lot of different ideas for places to go camping that weekend, John suggested a different idea, one that we normally wouldn't have even entertained. A week before our trip, he said, "You know, we could go camping as we planned, or we could do something else...like go up to Strawberry and check into the Windmill Inn and spend the weekend there."
Now who would say no to that?! Although it would have been much easier on the household budget to go camping, I loved the idea of pampering ourselves on our anniversary, of sleeping comfortably in a hotel room and eating out at a nice restaurant. Besides, the zipper on our tent was broken, and it would be very difficult for me at this stage in my pregnancy to get up off of the air mattress in the middle of the night when nature called.
That following week, John tried to make reservations for us at the Windmill Corner Inn in Strawberry - the little motel where John and I spent the weekend after getting engaged. Unfortunately, all of the rooms were booked up. Though we were disappointed, we weren't discouraged. John continued to look for motels around Pinetop/Lakeside, Show Low, and Flagstaff in hopes of finding openings for the weekend. Unfortunately, everything was already booked solid, but he still didn't give up, knowing that there had to be something we could do. That was when he started to look south instead of north; that was when he decided that we should finally go to the Chiricahua National Monument.
We had been talking about going there for a long time. Last April, right after Janice's wedding, Aunt Lotte and Uncle Richard had camped there on their way back to South Carolina, and they called us to tell us that we had to visit it someday as it was absolutely breathtaking. Naturally, we were fascinated, but still we hesitated because it was so far away - it would take us nearly four hours to drive there! Now, as we were planning our trip, John decided that the Chiricahaus would be the perfect place for us to visit, especially since neither one of us had ever been there. It would be a new experience for us to share together...what a perfect way for us to celebrate our anniversary!
Using Travelocity.com, John booked us a hotel room at the Best Western in Willcox, which was the town closest to the monument. Then, on Saturday morning, at six o'clock, our adventure began. After making our obligatory stop at Einstein's Bagels for breakfast, we began our journey to the Chiricahua National Monument.
To get there, we took I-10 south towards Tucson, then continued east until we reached the town of Willcox. The total drive time to get there was three hours, but surprisingly, we only had to stop once for me to go to the bathroom - and that was also when we decided to top off the gas tank, too. We then continued on towards the Monument, which was thirty-five miles south of Willcox on SR 186.
The drive from Willcox to the Chiricahuas is very scenic. We passed through lush green grasslands that lay at the base of the Dos Cabezas Mountains, where there was a wilderness area that we had not yet explored (but I think you need a four-wheel drive to get there). These mountains were named as such - "Dos Cabezas" is Spanish for "two heads" - because of its twin peaks, which resemble big, round boulders sitting side by side on top of the mountain, giving it the appearance that it has two heads. At the base of the mountain is a ghost town bearing the same name. Dos Cabezas is a quiet little town, with clean, new houses sitting next to old, crumbling stone buildings. Just outside of town, there were cows belonging to some of the local ranches grazing in the fields at the base of the mountain, and just a few feet away we saw five or six deer grazing alongside of them!
Around 10:00 a.m., we finally arrived at the Chiricahua National Monument. Our first stop was at the visitor's center, where we picked up maps of the monument and all of its trails. (We also bought postcards to send to Aunt Lotte and Uncle Richard, to show them that we had finally gone there!) While we were there, we were surprised to notice that there weren't a lot of people there. There were only a few cars in the parking lot and just a handful of people in the center. I found that rather interesting, considering that it was a very nice Saturday morning in July. I imagined that the Chiricahuas would be a lot more popular than it seemed that day, especially for those who live closer to the monument.
After leaving the visitor's center, we continued to make our way slowly through the monument - slowly, because we stopped frequently to take pictures of the amazing things that we saw there. Now, we had seen pictures of the Chiricahuas before, but once we actually saw them with our own eyes, we were awed by the beauty that we found there. On either side of the road, we found ourselves surrounded by towering hoodoos and monoliths and balancing boulders, which had been intricately carved by the forces of nature (rain and ice and snow) throughout the millennia. All we could do was look up and say, "Wow!" because it was so incredible.
The main road continued to wind upwards towards the top of the mountain, to a place called Massai Point. We stopped there and got out of the van to take more pictures of the hoodoos and rock formations, this time from above. In order to get a better view of the hoodoo forest below us, we decided to hike the Massai Point Trail, which was a quarter-mile long loop trail that took us to a vista point. At the vista point, there was a view-finder, labeled with the names of the peaks in the Chiricahuas as well as other points of interest. We spent several minutes there, sightseeing, before we continued along the trail.
Just before we completed the loop, we came to a set of steps leading us between several tall hoodoos towards a huge, balancing boulder and two smaller hoodoos. John stared at them for several seconds then decided that he wanted to climb the shorter hoodoos. Although it was an easy climb for him, as he stood atop the hoodoo, he seemed to lose his balance for a second. After climbing back down, he told me that it was very scary to stand on top of them. I guess he feared falling off of them.
I was tired but happy when we completed the quarter-mile hike - tired, because it is difficult to hike when you're nine months pregnant, but happy because I had had a chance to do so and see some incredible things. Once we reached the van, John announced that he wanted to go hiking again. He had chosen a four mile hike (one way) that lead from the Echo Canyon Trailhead to the visitor center - the Echo Canyon Trail/Rhyolite Trail. Although it was mostly all downhill, he knew that the distance would probably be too tiring for me, so he asked if I would let him do the hike by himself. I agreed, so I dropped him off at the Echo Canyon Trailhead, which was just below Massai Point, and I drove the van back to the visitor's center, where he would meet me between noon and one o'clock.
I spent a very peaceful hour and a half at the visitor center. Since there weren't very many people around, it was very quiet, which made it easier for me to hear the chorus of birds in the trees. Apparently, the Chiricahua Mountains are famous for bird-watching, as there are hundreds of species of birds living there. As I sat down on a park bench at the Rhyolite Trailhead, I listened and watched.
A bit later, I decided to hike the Fire and Flood Trail, a 0.1 mile loop trail that departs from the Rhyolite Trailhead. Unfortunately, I was unable to follow the trail for two reasons. 1) The signage at the loop is missing. I could see where the signs used to be, but they must have been removed by the ranger. I was able to find an educational sign, which gave information about the fires and floods caused by the summer monsoons in the Chiricahuas. That was my only clue as to where to find the trail. 2) Beyond the sign, it was not possible for me to continue on the trail, as it seemed to have been washed away. After the sign, there were a series of steps that led down to the creek (which was dry). At the bottom, though, there was a large gap in the rocks, where I would have had to jump to get to the other side to continue along the trail. In my condition, that just wasn't going to happen, so I turned back and returned to the trailhead.
My guess is that the Fire and Flood Trail was recently washed out by monsoon flooding and that the park rangers decided to close the trail - which would explain why the signage was missing. I was a little discouraged that I couldn't hike the trail, but instead of dwelling on it, I decided to pass the time by bird-watching. After returning to the trailhead, I sat down on the park bench and watched the birds flit from one tree to another.
Around noon, the monsoons began to roll in. In the distance, I could hear the low rumble of thunder, and I could see thick, gray clouds coming closer and closer. With that came a nice, cool breeze, which caused the temperature to drop about ten degrees. Although I expected it to begin raining at any minute, I remained on the park bench, enjoying the weather and waiting patiently for John.
He didn't arrive until 12:30 p.m., a half an hour later than he had anticipated but very happy that he had had the chance to hike the trail. He explained that, although he had run most of the trail, he somehow managed to get lost en route and had trouble finding his way back. Instead of following the trail, as he was supposed to do, he began to follow Rhyolite Creek and got lost as a result. He tried to look for the trail to no avail; at that point, he was just about to give up and backtrack to the last point where he had been on the trail. Then, he heard voices, and when he looked up he found a pack of girl scouts some two hundred feet above him on the trail! He had been saved by girl scouts, because had it not been for them, he would have had to backtrack.
After eating our sandwiches at the visitor center, John and I left the monument and went for a scenic drive along Pinery Canyon Road to Portal - which, of course, was all dirt! (Would it be a Verley adventure without a dirt road? I think not.) Our plan was to see if we could make it all the way to Portal, which was about twenty-five miles away; but since we were trying to beat the monsoon, we weren't sure if we were going to make it all the way there or not. (If not, there was always the next day...)
Pinery Canyon Road begins near the entrance to the monument. At the end of SR 181, the road forks; to the left is the road leading into the monument, and to the right is Pinery Canyon Road. For the first few miles, the road passes by private land. There are signs all along the side of road indicating "Private Property, No Trespassing, Keep Out". Then, finally the road enters the Coronado National Forest.
Just before we crossed into the forest, we almost hit a rattlesnake in the road. Fortunately, he coiled up to avoid the tires of the van, and there he remained. John stopped the van so that he could get a closer look at him - but not too close, of course! He snapped a few pictures of the snake then jumped back into the van.
As we continued along Pinery Canyon Road, we found many campsites, and hardly any of them were occupied. We were surprised by that, because we figured that the area would be so popular that there would be crowds of people, all crammed in there to escape from the city heat. Personally, I couldn't think of a better way to do so, because the forest was so beautiful. I guess everyone had gone up north!
We only managed to travel about six miles along Pinery Canyon Road before we had to turn around because of the rain - and because the road was getting too muddy. For fear of getting stuck in the mud, we turned around. "That's okay," John said, "we can always come back tomorrow, as long as it's not raining."
As we returned to the main road, John and I passed once more by our friend, the coiled-up rattlesnake. Again, John stopped the van to take more pictures of him. Then, for fear that the poor snake would be run over if he remained in the road, John began to pelt him with rocks to get him to move. He stood about twenty to thirty feet away and threw small stones at him, but he kept missing the mark. Finally, he hit the target, and the snake slowly uncoiled. As he slithered away to the other side of the road, he kept his head cocked, watching us the whole time...but he never once rattled his tail at us, nor did he try to come after John. I guess he got the hint!
Before returning to Willcox to check into the hotel, we decided to explore one more road: Turkey Creek Road. This road, which began from SR 181 south, would take us through another part of the Chiricahua Mountains, past several more campgrounds and trailheads, until it dead-ended at the Moore Canyon Trailhead, several miles away. Again, there weren't very many people camped in the area. John pointed out that we could very possibly do a camping trip there, because there would be plenty of secluded places for us to camp and plenty of trails for us to hike (the area was full of them!). I agreed with him, because I already loved it there.
Around three o'clock in the afternoon, John and I drove back to Willcox. After a brief stop at Safeway to buy a few snacks for the hotel room, we checked into the Best Western, where we relaxed and pampered ourselves. That evening, we went to the pool and swam for a little while; then, we went to dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Michael's Fine Dining. The food was delicious, and the wine was exquisite. After dinner, we retired to our hotel room and fell asleep early.
The next morning, we awoke at 6:00 a.m., as usual, but it ended up being a very slow morning for us as we just couldn't find the motivation to get moving. We didn't make it to breakfast until 7:30 a.m., and we didn't check out of the hotel until after 8:00.
Although we took our time getting out of Willcox, we still had plenty of time to do all that we wanted to do that day, since we really weren't pressed for time. Our plan for that day was to complete the trip to Portal along Pinery Canyon Road. Then, from there, we would head north towards I-10, which would place us about twenty miles east of Willcox. After that, we would drive west to Benson and exit on Cascabel Road, another dirt road that would take us through Reddington Pass. Next, we would merge onto SR 77 at the town of Mammoth and continue north until we reached Superior. Finally, we would take US 60 back into Phoenix, finishing a complete loop. Most of our journey would be on dirt roads - except for Pinery Road, they were all-weather roads, too - and we expected the trip to take us most of the day.
We awoke to a nice, sunny day, which quickly dried up all of the mud along Pinery Road, making passage much safer. As a result, we were able to get past the muddy area and make it all the way to Portal. Along the way, we passed by a number of campgrounds and trailheads - for example, the Rustler's Park Campground, which was three miles from Onion Pass, at an elevation of 8,500 feet (a perfect place to escape the heat). Onion Pass itself was at 7,900 feet, so it was nice and cool outside.
After going over Onion Pass, we began to descend towards Portal, which was still about sixteen miles away along Pinery Road (FR 42). The road eventually crossed over Cave Creek, which, despite the dry weather we had had earlier in the year, was flowing swiftly. The area around Cave Creek, which was at an elevation of about 5,500 feet, was very lush and green, and it would probably be an ideal place to camp during the fall and spring. It was also an ideal place for bird-watching, as there are thousands of birds there. (We had read that Portal was famous for its birding.)
As we arrived in the town of Portal, we found a visitor center, and despite the fact that it was Sunday, the forest ranger was in. We stopped there for a while to chat with the ranger and possibly to get trail maps. The ranger gave us a map of different trails that we would like to hike someday, and he also pointed out that they now had a map dedicated entirely to the Chiricahua Mountains for $5.00. (Needless to say, we bought one.)
We ended up staying for quite some time at the ranger station, because there were so many interesting things to see. The ranger had quite a display of caged rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, and gila monsters. At first, John thought that they were stuffed, so he nearly wet himself when one of the snakes began to rattle at him! "Oh, shit, these are alive!" he exclaimed. The ranger and I chuckled. He explained that he had caught three Blacktail Rattlesnakes around the Portal area, but one of them had escaped. "It may still be around here," he concluded, in what I thought was an attempt to scare us. I told him that I would be looking out for him.
Once we left Portal, we began to head north towards I-10 on what appeared to be one of the straightest roads I had ever seen - the San Simon Paradise Road, which would take us to the town of San Simon. At first, it was an all-weather road as it descended from the forest towards the high desert. Then, about ten miles before it connected with I-10, it was paved. There wasn't much to see out there, except for a lot of ranches at the base of the Chiricahuas. John pointed them out and said, "That would be a great place to live. Buy a piece of property out there and put a house on it. Then get some horses and you could spend the rest of your life just exploring the Chiricahuas." That would be the good life.
We made it to I-10 by 10:30 a.m. - much earlier than we had expected, considering our late start that morning. Before 11:00 a.m., we were passed through Willcox again, where we saw black smoke billowing from the highway. (John asked me, "Did you remember to turn off the coffee pot in the hotel room?") As we drove closer to town, we discovered that the smoke was coming from an SUV that was completely engulfed in flames. The fire engines had not yet arrived, but there were two police cars there to block the highway.
We arrived in Benson sometime around 11:30 a.m. and took exit number 306, which would take us first through the small town of Pomerene (on Pomerene Road) before connecting with Cascabel Road. The first ten miles of the road was paved, but soon the pavement ended and we were once again on dirt road - an all weather road that parallels the San Pedro River. Cascabel Road passes through the communities of Cascabel and Reddington, where, on either side of the road, there are ranches and farms. The scenery here reminded us a lot of Aravaipa Road because of the foliage and the ranches.
After going through Reddington Pass, to the left of which we could see Mount Lemmon, we descended into high, open desert until we reached the mining town of San Manuel, which is northeast of Tucson. As we found pavement again, it was about 1:00 p.m., and we had just completed about eighty miles total on dirt road (including our journey to Portal and beyond). From that point on, though, we would be on paved roads, meaning that our tailbones would be getting a break from all of the bouncing!
We merged onto SR 77 just south of Mammoth, Arizona. SR 77 also took us past Aravaipa Road - the west entrance - and into the town of Winkelman, where we stopped to stretch our legs and use the bathroom. By that time, we were getting exhausted from the long trip, but we still had about two hours and two more highways to go! In Winkelman, we merged onto SR 177, which took us north to Superior. Then, in Superior, we took US 60 back to Phoenix.
As we approached Superior, I pointed out a mountain that had been recommended to me as a fun place to go on a day trip: Apache Leap. One of my co-workers had told me about an adventure that he had had there, as well as the history of the mountain. Apache Leap is a series of cliffs, where, in the 1800's, a group of hostile Apache Indians had found themselves surrounded by the U.S. Calvary. Instead of surrendering, though, they decided to leap to their deaths from the cliffs. It is rumored that, at the bottom of the cliffs, you can find Apache Tears there. Apparently, there is a dirt road leading to Apache Leap that is fun to explore. We were too tired to do it that day, but we will definitely return someday to check it out.
Our weekend adventure ended as we finally arrived back in Phoenix, after traveling over 700 miles in just thirty-six hours. But the adventures continue, and they will for a long time to come.
Return to Naked in the Woods.
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