Wandering Lizard

An online magazine with information related to attractions, lodging, dining,
and travel resources in selected areas of the Western United States

A Hike to The Heart of the Rocks
in Chiricahua National Monument

A Hike to Heart of the Rocks

I had been looking forward to making this classic pinnacle hike for several years, but one thing or another always seemed to get in the way. This time I made it the principal objective of a trip to Southeastern Arizona. I staged out of Tucson so that I could take advantage of the restaurants the night before and got an early start after coffee at my inn. An hour or so out of Tucson I stopped for bacon and eggs in Wilcox and then headed south to the National Monument.

A Hike to Heart of the Rocks

My first stop was at the Visitor's Center where I checked to make sure all of the trails that I wanted were open and then I drove up to the overview at Massai Point. It was a delightful early spring morning with the temperature in the high fifties. My objective was the Heart of the Rocks loop trail in the center of some of the very best rock formations in the park. My route was through a network of short trails that included the trail down off of Massai Point, Ed Riggs Trail, Mushroom Rock Trail, Big Balanced Rock Trail, and Heart of the Rocks Loop Trail. I also took a short side trip out to Inspiration Point on my way back to Massai Point. The round trip was just under twelve miles, the trail was in excellent condition, and very well marked.

A Hike to Heart of the Rocks

Massai Point sits at an altitude of 6,870 feet. The first couple of trails take you down to 6,400 feet and then the Mushroom Trail takes you back up to 7,010 feet. From there you drop down to 6,860 feet at the start of the heart of the Rocks Trail. Trail grades are moderate. Both the Ed Riggs and Mushroom Trails run through forest areas and I appreciated the shade on the return trip when temperatures climbed up into the high seventies. Because there had been rain a few days earlier the stream beds had a trace of water in them but nowhere was it enough to filter drinking water. This is a hike where you have to carry all of your water with you.

A Hike to Heart of the Rocks

As it turned out only one couple was on the trail ahead of me and I did not catch up with them until I entered the Heart of the Rocks. On the way out I ran into three other couples. The rest of the time the rocks were mine and I spent half a day admiring them. Their fantastic shapes worked on my imagination and it was easy to project back to a time when the Chiricahua Apache lived here. The labyrinth of spires and pinnacles made it easy to understand why leaders like Cochise and Geronimo took refuge here during their wars with the Anglo-European settlers who were pouring into their ancestral lands. (Anyone planning to visit these rocks ought to seriously consider reading a bit about the Apache before entering this magical place.)

Many of the formations have been named. The extraordinary shapes to be found here make this inevitable. Most of the time I find this compulsion of ours mildly irritating, but there are a couple of formations here that have names that actually fit. The Apache called them "Standing Up Rocks." Recent visitors have named a slew of individual formations. Among the most appropriate are: Big Balanced Rock, Pinnacle Balanced Rock, and Punch and Judy. I find it more interesting to try to get my mind around the way in which these rocks were formed. Geologists tell us that it all started about 27 million years ago when a nearby volcano spewed forth a deep layer of super heated ash which melted together to form a thick layer of rhyolite. Subsequent weathering and erosion created the spires and cut the rock into these unbelievable forms. Big Balanced Rock for instance, 22 feet in diameter and twenty five feet high, is estimated to weigh 25 tons and is balanced on a point only inches across.

A Hike to Heart of the Rocks
A Hike to Heart of the Rocks
A Hike to Heart of the Rocks

The weather was good, the trail was not difficult, and I had plenty of water - even so I was surprised to find that I was tired at the end of the day. The Heart of the Rocks Loop is just 12 miles long but it is an endless series of very short ascents and descents as one climbs up and down between closely packed spires and pinnacles. I know that I was excited to be there and presume that I lost track of how much extra energy I exerted in my explorations. I am definitely going back again and this time I intend to take more sustenance than my usual bag of peanuts. I also hope to camp in the park so that I can visit the rocks in early and late light.

Abecedarius, 4/07

"Walking is Man's Best Medicine."


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