Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Coronado National Forest and Chiricahua National Monument

Coronado National Forest
Chiricahua National Monument, Willcox, AZ

Red dust kicked up behind my wheels as I hugged the inner curve of the dirt road. Through the passenger-side window on my right, I could just make out the 1500-foot drop to the gorge below.
I was glad I had taken the advice of the old cowboy. Last night, I stayed at the Portal Peak Inn, a rustic hotel that was clean enough, though I was glad I’m not squeamish about lizards and spiders. At dinner, I struck up a conversation with Doug, a skinny, toothless guy with four empty brown bottles on the table in front of him. A pick-up drivin’, hat-wearing, boot-clad, honest-to-goodness cowboy, he was a construction worker when not out on the range and a self-proclaimed drywall artist.

I asked him what was good on the menu. “Beer,” he said, as his gap-toothed smile broadened. Wanting something a little more substantial than brewed barley, I pointed to the faded picture of a steak on the yellowed menu when the waitress came by. I included a bottle of cheap beer and winked over at Doug. He grinned and held his bottle up. Greasy french-fries rounded things out.
The fluorescent lighting turned everything gray. It didn’t matter much, since the grizzled beef, which I struggled to hack through with a butter knife, would have been gray in any lighting. Across the six feet of worn linoleum that separated us, a friendly banter with Doug drifted to more serious talk about my travels. I told him I’d be going through the Coronado National Forest on my way back to Tucson.

Portal, Arizona lies at the entrance to the wilderness area, and only one road carves its way thorough the red rock. I filled my tank the day before in New Mexico since Portal does not boast a gas station. The park beckoned with a wide funnel formed by the encroaching ridges, but this welcoming embrace soon narrowed, and Cave Creek Canyon swallowed me whole. Brilliant birches contrasted with the ginger walls, and a giant coyote carved by the elements in a rock formation howled to a cerulean sky.

My route took me over the mountain, and Doug had advised me to leave by sunrise to avoid any vehicles coming in the other direction. Now, as I maneuvered over the oddly-slippery dust and scree at unguarded elevations, I thanked him silently. The baked red clay was only wide enough for one vehicle, maybe one and a half if they were small.
I had left Portal just as the onyx sky brightened to the shade of faded denim. I met only two vehicles the entire time and, thankfully, our meeting was on broader ground. My trip was only eight miles as the crow flies, but it took me more than two hours to navigate the winding switchbacks.
After I crested the mountain, the road widened. Here the expansive vistas and steep drop-offs were replaced by the embrace of Ponderosa Pines whose tops were level with the roadbed. I stopped for a quick lunch in a deserted picnic grove. I recharged in the solitude and cool air and resumed my journey.

The rugged mountains soon gave way to open highway and flat expanses of tall, flaxen grass. I had a side trip planned to Chiricahua National Monument, and the route snaked through terra-cotta canyons and Pinyon Pine. For a while the drive to 7,000-foot Massai Point looked no different that the previous forty miles of cliffs but, as I crested the summit, the difference became obvious. Standing like the Moai of Easter Island, the weatherworn rock formed sentinels in this remote canyon of Arizona.

Rhyolite tuffs—vertical deposits of volcanic ash—had eroded away and left columns of rock known as hoodoos. Hundreds of these spires were formed in this valley, and it was that vista that I admired now.

Chiricahua National Monument comprises 12,000 acres in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. These volcanic mountains rise above the surrounding grasslands to elevations ranging between 5,100 and 7,800 feet.

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