Thursday, June 16, 2005

Chiricahua Powah

The Chiricahua Mountains, in the extreme southeastern corner of Arizona, are one of the biggest "sky islands" in the region. Despite rising to over 9700 feet, the Chiricahuas are not as imposing as the Pinaleños (Mount Graham) or the Santa Ritas just south of Tucson. Most southern Arizona peaks -- of any elevation -- offer clear, unobstructed views of the surrounding deserts. The Chiricahuas, however, rise gradually to their heavily wooded heights. Marching in a north-south line along the New Mexico border, the range gathers more rain and snow from passing clouds than other ranges to the west. Snow often lingers late in the springtime along the high ridge at the center of the range, and everything seems just slightly less arid than the other sky islands.

We left Tucson on Friday evening, in the 100 degree heat. Driving east on I-10 we passed a familiar series of linear mountain chains and their associated linear valleys. We're still in the Basin and Range, albeit near the very southern end. First we climb up out of the Tucson valley, up onto Cienega Gap, the pass on the spine of highlands connecting the Rincon Mountains to the north with the lofty Santa Rita Mountains to the south. The temperature drops by 10 degrees as we leave the heat-island of Tucson and gain six or seven hundred feet of elevation. Next we see the Little Rincons to the north, with the rugged Galiuro and Winchester Mountains behind, looking like foothills to the distant and massive blue-tinged edifice of the Pinaleños Mountains. Even as we drive along the freeway, I can clearly pick out the hillside above Jackson's Cabin, where I spent several days over spring break. The hillside is cris-crossed with dikes and sills - planes of intrusive rock that lend the hill a distinctive cross-hatched look. After descending into the valley of the San Pedro River, we rise again to cross the Dragoon Mountains at Texas Canyon. The pink, rounded granite blocks and domes are reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park. Truly beautiful stuff to the geologist or any other passerby. The tough and knobby granite also provides excellent climbing. Just a few miles south of the highway, as the crow flies, are dozens of multi-pitch climbing routes on 600-foot-high loaf-shaped domes of very similar granite. Over the pass, and we are treated to a vista of the rest of Arizona, and a fair bit of southern New Mexico. To the left, we get another view of the towering Pinaleños, with their telescopes and endangered red squirrels. The Pinaleños are close to Tucson, but difficult to access. The road to the top is paved but twists and turns to the extreme. A trip from Tucson to the top of Mt Graham, only 50 air miles away, takes four hours by car. I've been up there twice, but foolishly never brought camping gear, so I was always faced with a four-hour drive home again. This tends to diminish the fun one can have on a casual day trip. The vista continued ahead, with some unidentified ranges marching off into New Mexico. To the right was the giant Apache coal-burning power plant, looking like a towering, complex spaceship crashed out in the desert. Ahead and to the right was the vast Wilcox Playa -- southern Arizona's equivalent of Death Valley. The playa is essentially a vast, flat-bottomed lake with no outlet. Rain fills the last to a depth of several inches up to a few feet at most. Because it is so shallow, the lake has a high surface area to volume ratio, and quickly evaporates in the Arizona heat, leaving behind a variety of minerals called evaporites. These include gypsum and salt. During rainfall, the rivers and streams flowing into the playa also carry clay and silt from the surrounding hills and mountains. After the lake dries up, the fine particles of gypsum, salt, and silt are picked up and blown around in huge dust clouds. Today, however, the winds were quiet, or perhaps the playa was damp from recent light spring rains. Behind the playa to the east we could see the Chiricahuas trailing off to the south. Straight ahead was the relatively charming desert town of Willcox, which has a great view of a number of surrounding ranges, but must also endure dust clouds blowing off the playa. Behind Willcox stands the moderate Dos Cabesas Mountains, which we would visit later in our trip. The mountains were pink and orange with light from the setting sun, behind us, as we idled down Main Street, Willcox at 25 mph, which felt like a walking pace after driving on I-10. Darkness arrived fast as the sun dropped behind the Dragoons, and we traced along the west side of the Chiricahuas. We have planned to drive up Rucker’s Canyon, where the map showed several campgrounds and a lake tucked away about 30 miles from the main road. It was late, I was tired, so we decided to try Turkey Creek Road. The map showed a couple of National Forest campgrounds about ten miles up the road. We started up in full darkness, and I started to get my usual case of the creeps. Arizona is not a deserted state like much of Nevada or even Utah. Even three hours from Tucson, in a remote corner of Arizona, we weren't "out in the boonies". We passed a ranch sign and a beat-up galvanized mailbox every two miles or so. But we didn't see any lights in those distant ranch houses. In fact, they looked abandoned. We also did not meet any other cars. I expected the campgrounds to be deserted and silent. After the ten-mile drive down the fairly good gravel road, we came around a bend in the road and suddenly came upon the campground, which was occupied by two large groups. We pulled in between them, staking out our little patch of ground, and pitched our tents in the darkness. The cool mountain air felt good as it flowed down the valley, infusing itself with the scent of pine trees. Five paces from our tents, a small stream gurgled down the mountainside on its way to the dry plains below. At 6000 feet, far from the city, it was almost cold, even on this mid-June night. I pulled on a long-sleeve jacket and looked up at the stars. The sky was almost overwhelming. Ten times the regular number of stars were visible. City dwellers forget about the night sky, and it was good to be reminded. Our campground neighbors were the typical sort you find when seeking peace and solitude. That is, they were noisy and obnoxious. One group was clearly made up of high schoolers, grouped around a large campfire and practicing making a variety of loud noises - screams, yells, whistles and hollers. The other group turned out to be a massive family-reunion style gathering, with about 20 tents scattered across a half-acre of campground. These people, clearly unaccustomed to "camping out", were doing their best to convert the quiet outdoors into the indoor world they were more familiar with. Everyone of the group wielding amazingly bright, search-light-like flashlights, which they pointed at random around the campground, sending blinding beams of white light into the darkness. A simple trip to the restroom involved much yelling and flashing of lights. Two or three infants were screaming at all times in a morphing cacophony one couldn't quite tune out. Car doors slamming, mothers yelling, men laughing uproariously at the latest campsite shenanigans. We sat in the darkness and rolled our eyes, although we both felt a strange comfort in the presence of these rambunctious city folk. They had hardly noticed our arrival at the campground, and it seemed pretty clear they would leave us alone to our dark and quiet existence. I say dark because I'd forgotten my flashlight at home.

Next day we pulled out some hiking maps and realized we were positioned well for an assault on Chiricahua Peak, the zenith of both the range and the county. After casting about in the forest for a half-hour, trying to find the trail, we discovered it and headed up. The hike was beautiful but uneventful. We took several breaks. Sabkha chased unseen lizards and ground squirrels, and I let her drink from my backpack drinking tube. The peak was comfortably grassy and wooded. Between the trees we could see a suggestion of the distant brown desert.

Back down in Turkey Creek Valley, we pulled camp and moved up-canyon to a solitary camping spot near Mormon Springs trailhead. Down at our original campsite, some hillbillies with ATV's had moved in, bringing their circular saws with them. We approached the camp and heard the distinctive sound of steel teeth tearing through plywood. I'm not sure what they were building, but the presence of several pickups, a half-dozen ATV's and a circular saw does not bode well for the peaceful serenity of any campground. A half-mile up canyon, we found peace. Tucked into my sleeping bag that night, I could hear every little sound outside my tent. As usual, my sleepy brain attributed each little sound to an advancing black bear. I missed the screaming children and partying teenagers who, the night before, had muffled any such sounds and let my anxious mind rest...

On Sunday we cooked up some breakfast and studied the map. Although Rucker's Canyon was our original planned destination, I didn't feel up to driving 50 miles of gravel roads for a few hours near a tiny lake. Instead, we went north, back toward Willcox and away from the high 9000-foot ridge of the Chiricahuas, which we had climbed the day before. Just where the Chiricahuas begin to dip down from their lofty highs is Chiricahua National Monument. Here, the true nature of the geology of the Chiricahuas is laid bare for visitors to observe and ponder. We drove slowly up to the high point and gazed out at the wonderland of rock pinnacles, carved from welded volcanic tuff by the water and the wind. The day was mild, and Sabkha had to stay in the car. As Erin and I took a short walk around the top of the hill, we heard the approaching jingle and jangle of dog tags. Sabkha had managed to work her way into the front seat and then jumped out the car window, sniffed around, and followed us down the path.

Cherished National Monument deserves more of our time, but with a dog in tow, we couldn't legally get out among the rocks. We slowly left the park and headed north again, alongside the Dos Cabesas Mountains, with two rock outcroppings at the summit giving the range its name. Here at a low pass lies the site of former Fort Bowies (there were two), dating from the latest 19th century, when settlers and travelers clashed with the local Apache Indians. A series of sad battles drove the natives from the area. The walk to the Fort covers 1.5 miles, passing a variety of historic sites. Sabkha enjoyed frolicking in the desert, but everyone was hot. We came to "Apache Spring" and Sabkha wallowed a bit in the mud. The ruins of the fort were unimpressive. Nothing but foundations remain. In several places, new "adobe" partial walls have been erected atop the old foundations. More impressive to me were the nearby hills, made up of white and light gray carbonates and covered with ocotillo, which love limey soil. Apache Spring, just below these hills, must emerge from a cave system within the limestone. Next to the ruins is a modern Park Service building, with a small museum and some things for sale. We sat for a while in the shade on the varnished wraparound porch, enjoying the brisk, almost-cool breeze. A rare thing for Arizona in June. Our imaginations refused to bring us back to the 1890's with only the sparse ruins before us for inspiration. But it was good enough to be there in the present day.

[I didn't take any pictures on this trip! Sorry.]


Mauder said...

Interestingly shared. Reading Chiricahua Powah was like being along for the trip.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are a crazy psycho. Quit stalking me, I am only a 2D cartoon character unable to defend myself. I don't like the woods or streams.