The Southwest’s “Wonderland of Rocks” could be our next national park

The Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona is due for an upgrade and a bill to make it a national park currently in Congress could do just that

Early morning at Chiricahua National Monument; photo credit: John Fowler via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Julia Dinmore

Cover photo: Early morning at Chiricahua National Monument; photo credit: John Fowler via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Tucked between the Sonoron and Chihuahuan deserts at the southern edge of Rockies, the Chiricahua National Monument is one of Arizona’s unsung natural gems. Its distinctive rock formations were created by a volcanic eruption about 27 million years ago, resulting in an extraordinary landscape dotted with hoodoos and balancing rocks. The 18-square-mile area was established as a national monument in 1924 in order to protect the area’s unique geology and cultural history, but now, locals and state officials alike are calling for a higher designation: Chiricahua National Park. 

Hoodoos in Chiricahua; photo credit: Al_HikesAZ via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The Turkey Creek Volcano eruption—responsible for creating the craggy topography—was nearly 1,000 times greater than the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens, spewing ash and siliceous debris over an entire 1,200 square mile area. Once the particulates had cooled and melded together, they formed a rock called rhyolitic tuff. Over time, the rhyolitic tuff eroded, leaving behind an astonishing assortment of striking spires and gravity-defying balancing rocks. 

The monument pictured above is not nicknamed the “Wonderland of Rocks” for nothing. Walking through the forest of sentinel-like pillars that date back thousands of years is truly an otherworldly experience. All sorts of people, including hikers, birders, researchers and photographers, venture into the heart of the region to contemplate the stunning geology or study the unique flora and fauna that thrive in the region. Reaching 9,763 feet at its highest point, the 12,000-acre region offers a diversity of habitats depending on the elevation, sun exposure and precipitation. Some 1,200 species of plants can be found from Apache pines and Douglas firs on the higher slopes to yuccas, agaves and prickly pear cacti at lower elevations.  

More than 200 species of birds have been documented in the monument, and visitors planning a trip in the spring or fall can expect to see multitudes of migratory birds making their journeys to and from Mexico and South America. Towhees, wrens, jays and woodpeckers are all common, but rarer species, including the elegant trogon and Rivoli’s hummingbird, have been recorded as well. Visitors may also spot critters like the western box turtle, white-nosed coati, but avoid close encounters with black bears and rattlesnakes! 

Elegant trogon (Trogon elegans); photo credit: BW via Flickr BY-NC-ND 2.0

Named for the native Chiricahua Apache who first inhabited the land, the monument commemorates their cultural heritage as well as natural history. In 1886 they were relocated by the government to reservations in Oklahoma and New Mexico. But today, representatives from the Chiricahua Apache play an integral role in the management of the monument and act as spokespeople for their nation in order to preserve their cultural heritage and regional history. 

It’s been nearly 100 years since the Chiricahua was designated as a National Monument, and Arizonans are ready for an upgrade. Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly introduced the Chiricahua National Park Act in the Senate in 2021 and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick introduced a version in the House of Representatives earlier this year. Supporters of the proposed park argue that an “upgrade” in the status would increase the proposed park’s recognition, which in turn would increase visitation. As with many communities in the immediate vicinity of a national park, the tourism would generate significant revenue, benefitting the local rural counties hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Tribal leaders, park advocates and local stakeholders all contributed to the drafting of the bills, ensuring that the highest form of environmental protection be established and the history and current presence of the Chiricahua Apache is sustained and recognized. If the bill makes it through Congress, the Chiricahua will become Arizona’s fourth national park. 

The Southwest is sometimes overlooked as some people gravitate to the granite cliffs of Yosemite or the snow-capped mountains in Glacier or the Tetons. But Chiricahua has just as much to offer in the way of stunning views, untouched landscapes and abundant biodiversity. So when planning your next trip, take the road less traveled to what could become our newest national park.

This blog was coauthored by Environment America intern, Holly Eberhard


Julia Dinmore