If the Chiricahua Mountains took human form, they’d be a creative, enigmatic, tobacco-spitting, bare-knuckled, hard-living holy man — brimming with explosive life, bitter insight, raucous laughter, deep silence, fresh joy and old sorrows. Cruel and generous, careless and nurturing, blustering and mysterious, he’d have classically handsome features with crazy orange thrasher eyes. You would come upon him vivid and unexpected — and never forget his outlandish gestures, the gravely, theatrical sound of his voice or the disconcerting way his eyes glittered as he studied you.
But since the blood and history-drenched, 150-mile-long, 9,700-foot-tall, ecologically extravagant, comma-shaped range of tormented rock is instead the most extensive and varied of southeast Arizona’s famed Sky Islands, the Chiricahuas serve as a vivid lesson in how the accidents of geography shape both human and biological history.
Surrounded by desert grasslands, the darkly jagged cataclysm of lava, ash and limestone offers a refuge for a profusion of plants and animals, many of them throwbacks to the Ice Age stranded now on an igneous ark. The mountain’s north-south alignment running down nearly to the Mexican border has shaped the history of the Arizona borderlands, providing a migratory corridor for Elegant Trogons, ghostly jaguars, doomed mammoths, desperate Apache, footsore soldiers, sweating settlers, saddle-sore rustlers and lurking outlaws.
No other place in the Southwest has such a concentration of history and biology — all thanks to the jostling of continents, a titanic series of volcanic explosions, the churning of the atmosphere and the accident of an international border.
The quirks of geography largely account for the violent and vivid characters that have wandered through its rugged canyons, rested alongside its gushing streams and marveled at its eerie rock formations. Here Cochise waged his fierce and futile war, Geronimo extracted his insatiable revenge, Ike Clanton bought his stolen cattle, Johnny Ringo died in the arms of an oak tree, Wyatt Earp hunted his brother’s killer, Black Bart Ketchem fled with the loot from the stage, anthropologist-rancher Alden Hayes gathered folklore and pottery shards — and legions of oddballs, lunatics and hard cases pitted themselves against the mountain and each other.
Strangely enough — after all our struggles, we have come full circle in our relationship with the mountain — abandoning our search for a vein of gold and embracing the ecological complexity which drew the humans to its forested bounty in the first place.
The long, rugged sweep of the Chiricahuas, penetrated by a handful of good dirt roads, a scattering of hair-raising jeep trails and a wealth of scenic hiking trails, also offers a wealth of experiences for visitors willing to wander off the beaten path for a glimpse of a wild land, haunted by history.
The Chiricahua National Monument’s fused-ash spires, sculptures, hoodoos, volcanic castles, balanced rocks, shaded streams, deep canyons and meandering trails offer the most scenic and best organized glimpse of the mountain’s geology and ecology — although it remains one of the most lightly visited national monuments in the state.
On the remote east side of the range, the towering lichen-mottled, ash-fused cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon — often called the Yosemite of Arizona — harbor the birder paradise of Portal, with a handful of hotels, cottages and guest ranches. On the west side, the understated, low-rise, Turkey Creek Canyon hides a luxury guest ranch catering to birders and astronomers just downstream from where infamous outlaw/rustler Johnny Ringo met a violent end — probably by suicide, but maybe by a vengeful Wyatt Earp. The northern end of the range includes Apache Pass and the unsettling adobe ruins of Fort Bowie, where a blundering lieutenant provoked an Apache War that led to the biggest set-piece battle of that whole conflict. The southern edge of the range includes Rucker Canyon with its shaded campground near where Cochise waged a brilliant battle against determined but exhausted pursers — and where the courageous Lt. John Rucker drowned trying to pull his best friend from a monsoon-flooded stream.
All of it — the 83 mammal, 368 bird and 75 reptile and amphibian species, the Apache Wars and rustler shootouts and the extravagance of beauty — stem from the remarkable geology of the Chiricahuas, most dramatically exposed in the national monument.
The story of the current landscape starts 27 million years ago when shifts deep in the earth triggered millions of years of upheaval, as the Pacific and North American crustal plates collided, stuck together, then pulled apart. The jostling of these crustal plates piled up mountains, unleashed volcanoes and stretched out long, deep basins.
The process accounts for the creation of the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Mexico’s massive Sierra Madres — plus the Chiricahuas and smaller north-south mountain chains in Arizona and New Mexico. These deep-seated geological forces cracked the crust, pushed up lines of mountains and then stretched out the long, sunken basins separating those compressed ranges — isolating the Chiricahuas with low, wide valleys to the east and west.
Meanwhile, molten rock accumulated miles beneath the surface, rising along fault lines and fractures until it hit the ground water and carbon dioxide stored in buried layers of sediment — which prompted the magma to expand in volume 50-fold and created an unimaginable explosion of steam, lava and ash. Massive clouds of superheated ash and pumice blasted out a gigantic crater, down which broils of semi-liquid rock hurled at a hundred miles an hour. The eruption ejected 100 cubic miles of debris, darkened the planet with its ash cloud, and covered 1,200 square miles. These volcanic ash flows eventually cooled and fused, creating the raw material for the spectacular rock formations of the Chiricahuas. The now emptied magma crater collapsed, forming a 12-mile-wide, 5,000-foot-deep crater about where Turkey Creek now runs.
Smaller explosions continued for another 10 or 15 million years before the Earth’s fury subsided and the eons of wind, ice and erosion went to work to create the current landscape. Erosion filled in the giant crater, leaving only traces of its walls in the cross cut of Turkey Creek Canyon.
Weathering and chemical deterioration sculpted the stone spires of the national monument while fractures, erosion and frost created the soaring monoliths of Cave Creek Canyon. That makes wandering down the trails of the monument a crash course in the geology of cataclysm, especially if equipped with one of the geological trail guides sold at the monument’s bookstore.
That long-ago volcanic outpouring shaped all of the subsequent history in the Chiricahuas.
For starters, the Chiricahuas remain one of the most varied ecosystems in north America. Here, four different zones overlap — the Rocky Mountain, Sierra Madre, Sonoran Desert and Chihuahuan Desert. As a result, the mountains represent the northern limit for many tropic species, the southern limit for many North American species and a migratory corridor for hundreds of others, including one of the most diverse collections of birds in the nation. The mountains serve as a northern equivalent of a rain forest.
During the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, abundant streams and a rich oak-juniper woodland connected the Chiricahuas with other mountain ranges. But as the climate dried out and a newly evolved desert scrub and grassland isolated the mountain, many species retreated to the wet upper reaches of the mountain, nurtured by the establishment of summer monsoon patterns that deliver more than half of the annual 15 inches of rainfall during the normally-heat-stressed summer months.
That’s why the American Museum of Natural History decades ago bought out one of the original hardscrabble homesteads and established the Southwest Research Station in Portal Canyon, which draws researchers from all over the world to study the complex interactions of the creatures crawling, darting, swooping, burrowing, pouncing and dashing about their business. For instance, the Chiricahuas boast just about the greatest diversity of hummingbird species in North America — not to mention an astonishing 20 percent of the ant species found in the United States and Canada.
The range also harbors hundreds of species of bees — a variety so rich that researchers converge from all over the world for intensive classes on how to identify different species of bees.
Dr. Wade C. Sherbrooke, the research center’s director, specializes in horned toads, those bizarre, spiked, flat-bodied throwbacks to cheesy dinosaur flicks, whose prominent spikes make them a potentially fatal snack for snakes. No less than four species of horned toads slither about the Chiricahuas — generally blending into the background and snapping up a couple hundred ants a day with their long, sticky tongues. Two of the horned toad species in the Chiricahuas are based in the harsh and arid Chihuahuan desert, one crawled up out of the wetter Sonoran desert and one normally hangs out on mountain tops up Canada way. They somehow divide up the terrain of the Chiricahuas and Sherbrooke has documented all sorts of strange horned toad adaptations. For instance, they come out in the rain and stand there licking the corners of their mouths, to take advantage of channels on their backs that deliver water through capillary pressure. They can also squirt blood out of their eye sockets that’s especially irritating to coyotes, foxes and unwary dogs.
“I see it as the biological Grand Canyon of the United States,” explains Sherbrooke. “As near as we can tell, it has the highest degree of biological diversity in the United States.”
That might explain why Cochise and Geronimo and a host of warriors fought so desperately to hold onto the Chiricahuas during the Apache Wars, that started when the Spanish ventured cautiously into the area in the 1500s and continued until Geronimo’s surrender within sight of their pine-crowded peaks in 1886.
The biological diversity of the mountains provided the Apache food in any season, crucial to the survival of a hunter-gatherer cultures.
Cochise’s Chiricahua Apache claimed the range when the Americans first arrived in the early 1800s and tried to maintain peace with the Americans when they wrested the region from Mexico in 1848. But a foolish Army lieutenant trying to recover a rancher’s son kidnapped by another band, provoked a war with the formidable Cochise. His band killed hundreds of people in the course of the 1860s, until the government finally offered him a reservation that included the Dragoons and Chiricahuas. But soon after Cochise died, the government shut down the reservation on the pretext of continued raids into Mexico by warlike spirits like Geronimo. Most of the Chiricahua Apache sorrowfully marched off to the malarial flats of the San Carlos Reservation to the north. But others resumed the war, including Geronimo — resulting in another decade of bloody warfare that claimed hundreds of lives.
The mountains remain speckled with unmarked battlefields, especially in the infamous Apache Pass, with its stage line, Fort Apache and the only reliable water for horses within 40 miles. Cochise, who once said that in times of doubt and despair, the rocks of the Chiricahuas and the nearby Dragoons seemed his only friends. He fought stubbornly for the mountains his people held sacred, but the Apache leaders who came after him could not hold onto it. Now, his spirit haunts the place — and the history buffs savor the thrill of searching out his battlefields and in the mostly empty and evocative places where he stood his ground.
A whole new vivid cast of characters moved into the mountain range once the Army finally broke the stubborn resistance of the Apache and loaded the remnants of the Chiricahua Apache into cattle cars for what proved a devastating 28-year exile from the Southwest in a succession of disease-ridden prison camps.
Aldan Hayes, who described himself as a “failed farmer, bankrupt cattleman, sometime smoke-chaser, one-time park ranger and over-the-hill archaeologist” spent decades gathering the remarkable stories of local ranchers who hung on for generations, which he distilled into the wonderful “Portal to Paradise,” published recently by the University of Arizona Press.
He offered up the local versions of vivid western history, including the feud between the Earps and the Clantons that produced the gunfight in the OK Corral, the Indian massacres, the strange death of gunfighter Johnny Ringo with a shot through the temple as he reclined bootless against a giant oak that still towers over Turkey Creek, the violent but inept career of Black Bart Ketchem who turned out to be two outlaws with the same name, and the remarkable life stories of hard cases like rancher-preacher-vigilante-pioneer-sometime-killer John Augustus Chenowth who first passed through the mountains in 1854, then returned in 1881 to make a life of it there. Chenowth led a massacre of probably peaceful Indians, faced down outlaws, killed his too-critical opponent for sheriff in a controversial case of “self-defense,” said sermons over the people he killed and founded a family dynasty that persists in the still wide, hard spaces of the Chiricahuas.
All of that — the diversity and the history and the geology — remains mingled extravagantly on the steep, forested, fused-ash slopes of the Chiricahuas, where hummingbirds zim past the sites of forgotten massacres; butterflies flutter above lonely cemeteries crowed with crosses for the “unknown Mexican”; Elegant Trogons draw birders from distant continents to clump down dirt roads where Wyatt Earp hunted Johnny Ringo; and day hikers pause to marvel at the rock formations, where a 130 years ago the warriors of Cochise waited for the signal to begin shooting.
And above it all, the mountains loom like a monsoon thunderhead — grim and joyful, brimming with life and utterly without pity — both eager and patient for the next turn of the wheel.