Chiricahua Peak • Highpoint: Cochise County
• Range Highpoint: Chiricahua Mountains
• Highpoint: Chiricahua Wilderness

The Chiricahua Mountains from the north

The summit from the nearby trail

I make my way through the burned forest

Beth stands near an interesting downed tree

The summit team

The Chiricahua Crest

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Date: (1) February 20, 2000; (2) November 8, 2003 • Elevation: 9,759 feet • Prominence: 5,139 feet • Distance: 11 miles in 2000, 7 miles in 2003 • Time: 6 hours in 2000, 3 hours in 2003 • Gain: 3,300 feet in 2000, 700 feet in 2003 • Conditions: Cold and icy in 2003, drier and nippy in 2003 • Teammates: Beth Cousland in 2003

The Chiricahua Mountains are located in southeastern Arizona and are the result of a single massive volcanic event from over 27 million years ago. The "Turkey Creek" eruption spewed out an ungodly amount of ash, which fused into solid rock called tuff. Over the ensuing millennia, the tuff has eroded into the range that exists today, a sprawling complex of rounded summits, ridges, and in places, bizarre pillar-shaped hoodoos. The Chiricahua National Monument is located in the range and is the best example of these formations, which are similar to those found in Bryce Canyon (Utah), but of a different geological background.

The range is so large that it can play tricks on the eye. Instead of one principal summit dominating the skyline, the Chricahuas appear to be more like a one long, unbroken ridge, occasionally interrupted by a pointy peak rising a few hundred feet above the main crest. The highest point, Chiricahua Peak, is not obvious from most vantage points, but it does have a vertical relief of over 5,000 feet, making it one of the most prominent mountains in the United States. Chiricahua Peak is just one of many destinations within the range. There are dozens of other summits of interest, plus canyons and long ridges, a perfect blend that makes this range ideal for multi-day backpack tours. Most of the high summits are rounded peaks with few cliffs or other natural barriers, and are reached by a network of trails that cross the range.

The Chiricahua Mountains get their name from the Chiricahua band of the Apache Indians, who lived here and roamed the surrounding country for centuries. In the late 19th-century, this was a true no-man's-land. The Chiricahua Apache were not at all pleased to be under American jurisdiction after the land came into the United States in 1853 via the Gadsden Purchase. The Federal Government desired this land for its use as a cross-country railroad route, as well as an overland stage route. The Chiricahua Apache, led by Chief Cochise (for whom the county is named), and later, Geronimo, fought a guerrilla-style war against the United States Military for over 30 years, often with no more than a few dozen warriors at a time. Only after Geronimo was captured in 1886 did the land become "relatively" safe. Cochise himself is buried in the rocky canyons of the Dragoon Mountains, which lie across the valley to the west of the Chiricahuas.

Chiricahua Peak is an easy mountain to climb, with a few possible starting points ranging from easy half-day hikes to longer overnighters. The most popular route comes in from the north via Rustler Park campground, high on the main range crest. A secondary option is from lower down via the two Mormon Creek routes. I have climbed the peak twice, in 2000 alone, and again in 2003 with Beth. On my first visit, the main challenge wasn't cliffs or other technical aspects: it was the downed trees that blocked the upper 300 feet of the trail to the summit. By 2003, these trees had been removed. The range has seen two massive fires in recent years, in 1994 and again in 2011.

First Visit, February 2000: I had actually come here a month ago to try my luck with Chiricahua Peak, intending to hike it via the Crest Trail out of Rustler Park. I was able to coax my truck up to the campground, which was empty. The day was mild but cold, and a big snow from a few days ago was still evident everywhere. The whole place looked just beautiful. I was able to hike up about a mile before the snow along the trail was waist-deep, and very soft. I wasn't keen on battling this for another five miles, so without much delay, I abandoned this attempt and returned to my truck. I salvaged the day with a trip up the Coronado Highway and an easy hike up the Greenlee County Highpoint.

I wasn't even intending to hike the peak this weekend, but on the spot, I decided to gather my stuff and make another trip to the Chiricahuas. The weather had been mild and I hoped that the snow had melted off. Secondly, I would try one of the lower routes, too, to avoid the snow higher up. Thus, I left home at 4:15 a.m. and arrived to the Chiricahuas by 8:00 a.m. I followed Turkey Creek Road into the range and into the Mormon Creek trailhead area. After gathering my gear and talking with some guy camping, I hit the trail. There are two trails that run parallel along the Mormon Creek drainage. I took the "lower" one, the one literally in the creekbed (the "upper" one's trailhead is about a half-mile west of the lower's trailhead, but there is no convenient parking for that trailhead). The trailhead's elevation is approximately 6,400 feet.

The trail begins at the end of the Sycamore campsites off a little spur from Turkey Creek Road. It's fairly flat for a few hundred yards, then swings left, at which a sign mentions the distance to the peak as 5 miles. From here it was a consistently moderate uphill grade along nice wide trail. After about a mile, it came to a spring, where remnants of an old pump station remain. The trail resumes but was noticably more primitive. It parallelled the creek on the right as one faces uphill. Parts are nice easy trail, parts have downed trees and branches obstructing the way, and all of it was covered under a heavy matte of pine needles, cones and leaves. After another 3/4 mile, it crossed the creek bed, and paralled up the left side for another 1.5 miles. Quality of the trail ranged from good to scant. The creek itself had running water down low, fed by springs.

At the top of the drainage, the trail began a short but steep series of switchbacks. Parts of the trail were completely obscured, but periodic cairns alerted me to the route. After hiking the steep switchbacks, the trail converged with the upper Mormon trail, meeting at an elevation of 8,700 feet. For the first time I had an actual view of the peaks above me, although Chiricahua's summit was still obscured by trees. However, I could readily see some of the northern satellites, such as Anita Peak. A large fire about 5 years ago had defoliated much of this part of the mountain and the burn scars were still evident.

From point 8,700, I proceeded south about a half-mile to the Chiricahua Saddle, elevation 9,100 feet. From here I had a choice: loop south then east and approach the summit from the southeast, or loop north. I decided to follow the Crest Trail (signed) north about 3/4 mile to the saddle between Chiricahua and Anita Peaks, elevation 9,500 feet. A talus field (with no trees) allowed for excellent views down to the desert floor. It was along this stretch I encountered the first of many downed trees. Crossing these obstacles was easy at first, but soon, especially on the final approach heading south of the saddle up to the peak, the quantity of deadfall was enormous.

For the most part I tried to go underneath as often as I could, preferring not to touch or put any weight on these massive logs. There were also many standing dead trees, and they creaked in the slight breeze. I also saw what appeared to be very recent deadfall, judging by the disturbed ground and freshness of the wood. Soon, after getting past these woody obstacles, I arrived at the summit, exactly three hours after starting my hike. The weather was breezy but very nice, with temperaturess around 50. I stayed about 15 minutes at the top. A sign (mentioned in some guidebooks) that had stood at the summit is no longer there. The summit is marked by a benchmark in a boulder situated at the base of a large tree. The benchmark's elevation is listed as 9,795 feet, which is probably a mistake. There aren't any great views from the summit, unfortunately. In the breeze, I grew chilled quickly, and happy to have summitted, I started down.

I followed the same route as I had come up. I met with a couple of hikers at Point 8,700, the only people I saw the whole day on the route. They had come up the upper Mormon Creek trail and they mentioned there were good views along this route. The hike down was fairly quick, although the loose rocks here and there were more treacherous as I moved downhill. I arrived back to my truck at just before 2 p.m. The weather was spectacular: breezy and cool, but not cold. It was so nice, I laid in the bed of my truck and took a catnap for about a half-hour before packing up, changing into some drier clothes and proceeding home. I was back in Chandler just in time to catch The Simpsons on TV.

With this ascent, I had my 11th Arizona County highpoint completed, a task I would finish a few months later. Then, I met the love of my life, married her, and we came back in November 2003 for another visit, her first time in the range.

Second Visit, November 2003: Beth and I planned to hike another Arizona county highpoint while the weather state-wide remained mild. We drove out to our hotel in Willcox the day before, and enjoyed some authentic Mexican food for our pre-hike dinner that night.

We decided to try the peak via the Crest Trail, with Rustler Park as our first choice but also keeping our options open depending on road conditions and other factors. From our hotel in Willcox we followed State Route AZ-186 35 miles southeast toward the Chiricahua National Monument, then right (south) another 14 miles up the Pinery Canyon Road toward Onion Saddle and Rustler Park (FR-42 and FR-42D). Past the campgrounds and trailheads at Rustler Park we drove to the guard station buildings and found the gate to a lesser road leading to Long Park. If I could get us there, our hike would be relatively short. The road segment to Long Park is rough, needing 4-wheel drive, but I took it slow and we arrived at Long Park in cool, clear conditions. We suited up and got things in order, starting the hike at 9:10 a.m.

From Long Park, we followed a mostly-level trail south for 2/3 of a mile to the Crest Trail (Trail 270). We followed the Crest Trail south, contouring past Flys Peak, coming to a meadow at Round Park, then contoured around some smaller peaks before coming to Cima Park ("Park" is used in these cases to refer to small saddles along the range crest). We hiked up the easy grades, took a breakfast break, and followed the trail past Anita Springs and directly up to the summit, 3.5 miles and 2 hours after starting, in exquisite weather.

Like my first time here, the top is wooded and blocks most views. We spent a little more time here, trying to see things from various points around the summit area. The day was clear and brilliant, with 200-mile views in all directions, or five-foot views into the trees, as the case may be. Still, we enjoyed ourselves and it was nice to be back, especially with Beth. After about 20 minutes, we started the leisurely hike out, following the same route as we took coming up.

The egress took about 90 minutes, and overall, our hike had required just 4 hours of our time. It was hunting season and we came upon a father and son sitting along the trail, rifles on their laps. We met another group back at my truck at Long Park. Our "hunt" had been a success. I eased the truck down the road and from Rustler Park, we drove down to the Chiricahua National Monument. We just drove the roads and took a walking tour of Faraway Ranch, the home of the Ericksons, whose efforts led to the formation of the Chiricahua National Monument years later.

The next day we returned to the Monument and did two hikes: a 3.5-mile loop through the Heart of Rocks and some spectacular rock formations, and a 2-mile quickie up Sugarloaf Peak, which may be the highpoint of the Monument. Later that afternoon we made another 3-mile hike and visited the Fort Bowie National Historic Site, where the Army set up camp to help fight the Apache Wars against the very able "opponents" led by Cochise and Geronimo. The fort was decommissioned in 1894 and today is just some stone foundations and the occasional adobe walls that look like they're melting into the earth.

(c) 2000, 2003, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.