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One of the country’s first, (designated in the Wilderness Act of 1964), the Chiricahua Wilderness lies astride a mountain massif in southeastern Arizona where two deserts (Sonoran and Chihuahuan) and two ranges (Rocky Mountain and Sierra Madre) meet, providing unusual diversity of wildlife and plants. “Chiricahua” is thought to be an Opata Indian word for “wild turkey.” Turkeys disappeared around mid-1900s, but Gould’s wild turkeys were reintroduced in 2003; I saw a dozen. Various Indian cultures lived here; Chiricahua Apaches were removed by U.S. military in the late 1900s. Spectacular rock pinnacles fostered the Chiricahua National Monument on north end of the range. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps had work camps at the Monument, Cave Creek, Turkey Creek and Rucker Canyon. CCC crews built Portal Ranger Station, the monument’s Bonita Highway and administrative buildings, several campgrounds, Cima Cabin and Rustler Park administrative sites, Fly Peak Lookout and cabin (long deconstructed) and much of the vast trail system.  

In 1955 a ranch in Cave Creek Canyon became the Southwestern Research Station, a field station operated by the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY) to study diverse ecosystems and biotas of the Chiricahuas.

About two hours from Tucson, this soaring range was a favorite weekend backpacking site as University of Arizona students in late 1970s. Easiest start was forested Rustler Park, at 8800 feet a gentle climb into wilderness on the Crest Trail. We’d camp at Anita Park, and hike 7-miles round trip to Monte Vista Lookout. Forest cover allowed only glimpses of the valley 5000 feet below and rugged purple roots of Painted Rock and Strawberry Peak above.

In more ambitious hikes we climbed to the ridge from Turkey Creek, and camped at Cima Cabin, an old administrative site just below the crest. In the 1970s it was open to the public with a register and sign instructing campers to leave the cabin clean and restock any supplies used. A big fireplace was welcome on cold winter nights. (Now the Forest Service reserves use to trail and fire crews.)  

On three-day trips we’d take a long day hike looping down and back into Cave Creek or Rucker canyons. Twenty-plus miles no problem for young hikers on good trail. Once David and I counted on a full moon to guide our way back on the Crest. Instead there was no moon and we had to feel around on the trees for the Cima turn off sign in pitch-blackness!

I would not try this today. The Rattlesnake of 1994 (27,500 acres) Horsehoe of 2010 (around 3000 acres) and the giant Horsehoe II (more than 200,000 acres) fires trashed trails. The Forest Service spent $50 million on Horseshoe II fire and a bit under a million for post-fire trail stabilization. The Douglas Ranger District (which administers the Chiricahuas) uses non-government organization (NGO) service trips, a volunteer trail cadre and contracted crews to saw logs, trim brush and rebuild slumping trail surfaces of the vast trail system. It’s an ongoing battle; down trees post fire brush and slope erosion seem to be winning by a small margin.

So we experienced on our 2018 return. Lighter burned rangeland along Turkey Pen and Rock Creeks offered good hiking on old ranch roads and trails; most creeks were running or at least had pools even after a dry winter. We were surprised at extensive check dams on Turkey Pen side drainages, a private-government erosion control project (see Helpful Links).

But the fire’s worst aftermath met us at Witch Ridge and rendered Fife Canyon below into a thorny brushy wash. Finding the creekside trail impassable, we scrambled down the boulder creek bed for 4.5 miles. Here we found a lovely remnant pine nook for camp just inside the wilderness boundary and a mile or so from confluence with Pine Creek.

The next day we hiked road outside wilderness on a bone-dry creek with more charred stumps than live pine and returned to the ridge via Hoovey Canyon; brushy and burned at the bottom, climbing steeply up piney slopes above red rock pools, then grassy with remnant pine and switchbacks to Witch Ridge. The “ridge” trail east was awful. Tread inches wide as it contoured around the head of Hoovey, cloaked in brush and downed trees. We clambered up slippery gravel, following game trail above a big deadfall. We rejoined trail to a saddle, climbed through manzanita and gave up for the night, making a nest in the brush. Next day we got as far as Rattle Rock Saddle, a trail sign but no sign of trail contouring east. The cross-country plunge down steep pine slope and brush into Rock Creek left my knees shaking, even after a nice breakfast break in a beautiful pine nook on the creek. The hike out, mostly on grassy road along the creek and over a ridge into Turkey Pen, was moderate; some washed out creek crossings and a slippery descent notwithstanding.

A bath, campout and re-stock at the lovely piney dispersed camp on Turkey Creek, and we were ready for Loop #2, revisiting the Crest.

Waking to sun and cold wind at Anita Park, we packed and hiked down a well cleared switchback trail through burned logs to the spring, a brimming stone box. After we filled up, ready for a mostly dry day, I took spur trail back to the crest trail, where I met my first hikers: two guys returning to Rustler Park from a morning conquest of Chiricahua Peak. Wind seemed strongest on west side of the ridge, so we enjoyed a quiet and mostly unburned contour around east side of Chiricahua Peak. At barren Aspen Saddle the wind met us full blast and threw us around on the eroded Crest Trail southeast to the Snowshed Trail turnoff. Contouring the basin beneath Snowshed Peak, the trail was fair and out of the wind.

After a mile, trail went bad and continued two more long miles working its way around the mountain, crossing many side canyons. Hard to believe that a well-designed, nearly level contour trail could be so bad but minimal trail, heavy vegetation, washed out drainage crossings and trail finding created a tiring, three-hour slog. On the last stretch of thick oak brush and desert ceanothus, David grabbed his hand clippers and clipped our way down to the Park, a cold graveyard of blackened logs and stumps formerly a pine park. Herb Martyr Trail descending to Cave Creek was good, switchbacks and contours through lightly burned pine and oak, but I was worn out. We met an enthused hiker up from the campground below. He returned from his short sunset jaunt just as we set up camp in oak and pine above Cave Creek. That night a whip-poor-will briefly serenaded from the creek but abruptly left, maybe displeased by human voices.

Clambering up rocky jeep trail and heavily-burned Greenhouse Trail the next morning, it was hard to believe we had dashed down and up this loop in a day years ago. Last year’s volunteer work was evident in clipped raspberries now inundating trail again, but tread was poor and trampled by cows. I chased two out of my way. Many cairns (rock markers) seemed needless; the trail was discernible, just unpleasant. After long switch backs up a burned side canyon, we reached the sign for Winn Falls: a little ribbon descending from Cima Creek. Contouring on pine slope, trail was not too bad until entered the burned-out creek-then slow going over rocky crossings and downed pine. Finally, it left the creek for pine slope and intact Cima Cabin; no doubt saved by fire crews.

Earlier in the day we saw two hikers; one on jeep road; another coming down Greenhouse. He was short on water and quit before Winn Falls view.

Later that day we met a volunteer trail crew at Fly Peak Saddle, wearing hard hats and carrying saws and shovels, recruited by the Forest Service to clear the Crest Trail to Monte Vista Peak to pack in lookout staff later this year. That night we camped in remnant pine on Centella Ridge along a well cleared trail. A sunset hike to Centella Point yielded views of colorful pinnacles above Cave Creek and a wildlife moment: I froze as seven hens ambled along, followed by a big ‘patriarch’ tom with red head. David came with the camera right after the turkeys had disappeared down the drainage.

Next morning, on brief hike out of the wilderness to revisit Rustler Park, we heard a short bark. This time we both saw the young tom on the side slope, courting or seeking a fight. We descended to piney Rustler Park Guard Station where volunteers milled. Further down, the Forest Service had rebuilt Rustler Park Campground in a barren burn with brand new restrooms and metal boxes to protect food from bears, and ramadas replacing lost forest canopy. On a weekend morning, not one camper in this new facility. (I later learned that the campground was temporarily closed due to hazard trees; see Forest Service Follow Up). The trail crew and day hikers were the only people we saw in a week in this once popular wilderness.

After a last contour in the cool pines, the route down Saulsberry Trail was poor: eroded side slope trail, downed logs, brush. Trail from the saddle was better but steep. We made a dry camp in oak and a few pines on the last flat spot before the plunge to a confluence of Saulsberry, Ward, Turkey and Mormon creeks. Next day I skittered down, negotiated washed out crossings and a few pools and hiked the last bit of road into Turkey Creek.

David, a bit behind me, photographed a green tent just inside the wilderness boundary. Guess I missed the only other backpackers in the Chiricahua Wilderness.