From Verdant Cathedral to Thorny Moonscape
Hiking the Crest Trail in Chiricahua Wilderness, we once traversed halls of a great cathedral: shuffling on needle-carpet among towering forest giants: old-growth Douglas fir, white fir, ponderosa pine and even a few Engelman spruce (southern-most extension for this species).
But tonight in April 2018—four decades after our first visits to this “sky island” in southeast Arizona—the cathedral seemed defiled. Anita Park, once a swatch of green carpet among big old-growth trees, now was a mangy mass of yellow grass, black logs, snags and thin young aspen shaking in a cold sundown wind.
The 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire—third and largest in a string of wildfires torching the Chiricahua—burned 223,000 acres including most of the 87,000-acre wilderness. It removed most mixed-conifer old-growth on the crest and slopes; and, assisted by rain events, transformed shady canyons into washed out boulder fields. It reburned Chiricahua Peak and the Crest initially torched in the 1994 Rattlesnake Fire, decimating most of the remaining mixed conifer.
In 2013, we climbed to the denuded Crest from Turkey Creek and wandered around dazed all day circling Chiricahua Peak trying to get our bearings from poor map, burned signs and changed landscape that did not fit our memories.
We did not get lost on longer visits in 2015 and 2018—but found many trails gone, down logs, brush, and only remnants of species rich old-growth forests. On high ridges only a few remnant trees remained of formerly towering Douglas-fir, white fire, southwestern white pine, ponderosa pine, Chihuahua pine, Apache pine, aspen, and even Engelmann spruce (southernmost range). In lower country we found a few remnants of grassy oak-madrone-pinyon woodlands but in many areas, burned out rocky canyons in place of the lush sycamore-walnut-cypress riparian area where birds once serenaded.
Chiricahua Mountains recent historyAmong first wilderness areas 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 (We saw several in 2013 and in 2018.) Various Indian cultures lived here; Chiricahua Apaches were removed by U.S. military in the late 1800s.
Spectacular rock pinnacles fostered the Chiricahua National Monument north of the wilderness. In the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps crews built many roads and facilities in the monument, Portal and Rucker facilities, and in the wilderness, Cima Cabin and Fly Peak Lookout and cabin (long deconstructed), and much of the vast trail system. Southwestern Research Station in Cave Creek Canyon, operated by the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY) studies ecosystems and biotas of the Chiricahua mountains.
In the 1970s we often visited the area, just 3 hours’ drive from Tucson. A favorite start was Rustler Park at 8800 feet for a short mellow hike to pretty Anita Park, a nice base camp for an easy 7-mile round trip to Monte Vista Lookout. Forest cover allowed only glimpses of the valley 5000 feet below and rugged purple walls of Painted Rock and Raspberry Peak towering above. We also liked to hike up from the bottom to camp at Cima Cabin just off the crest; then open to the public with a register and sign instructing campers to leave the cabin clean and to 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 longer weekends we added a day hike looping down and back into Cave Creek or Rucker canyons. Twenty-plus miles easy for young hikers on good trail.
Today it is not the same. Previous small fires and the massive Horseshoe 2 fire severely altered forests, watersheds and trails of the Chiricahua mountains. The Forest Service spent $50 million on Horseshoe 2 and a bit under a million for post-fire trail stabilization. The Douglas Ranger District (which administers the area) has used non-government organization service trips, a volunteer trail cadre and contracted crews to saw logs, trim brush and rebuild slumping trail surfaces of the trail system. It’s an ongoing battle; down trees, post-fire brush, and slope erosion seem to be winning by a small margin.
Post-fire Chiricahua visits: a different placeIn 2015, we tried to redo a 1992 hike from Rucker Canyon area but the trail (on map) up a washed-out red rock canyon ended at a saddle above Price Canyon with a large cairn and no more trail. Returning to Rucker, we hiked up Red Rock Canyon to join Price canyon higher up the watershed; clambering over black logs past young pine, oak, and Arizona cypress and mincing through flowery, thorny post-fire desert ceanothus.
The barren Crest Trail was hell-hot in April at 9000 feet, but passable thanks to volunteer work to clear brush and saw logs. Cima Cabin and Monte Visa Peak lookout were saved by fire crews.
The 2018 visit was two loops from Turkey Creek. The first explored the northwestern end of the wilderness. 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.
The fire’s worst aftermath met us at Witch Ridge and rendered Fife Canyon below into a thorny eroded wash. Where trail was brushy, we hiked down the rocky creek bed. Near the bottom we found a remnant oak-pine nook for camp just inside the wilderness boundary, and a seep the next morning in Fivemile Creek below camp (which supplied us to next water, 6 miles further).
We hiked road up bone-dry Pine Creek through charred stumps to Hovey Canyon; brushy and burned at bottom but offering piney slopes above red rock and two pools (water for rest of day and night) higher up. After nice switchbacks to ridge, the Witch Ridge trail east was awful. Tread was inches wide, cloaked in brush and downed trees. Avoiding a huge slump, we clawed our way up game trail on slippery gravel, then rejoined trail climbing a ridge, but soon gave up clambering through manzanita and made a nest in the brush for the night.
Next day following mostly ridge above the trail, we got as far as Rattle Rock Saddle. We found broken trail sign and a switch back trail into brush down to Rock Creek. David chose instead to plunge down steep but less brushy slope into Rock Creek, which left my knees shaking. Hike out along a creek and over a ridge into Turkey Pen was moderate. A bath, nice camp on pine needles and re-stock at vehicle on Turkey Creek, and we were ready for next loop—revisiting the Crest.
The steep but good trail up Pole Bridge Canyon went okay but we lost about three hours when I forged ahead in a burned area and missed a switchback; distracted by downed logs I followed game trail the wrong way. By the time I regained the trail, David was ahead of me. He went on to Monte Vista lookout, then came back to look for me. I went back down the trail twice, thinking he was in trouble behind me. I didn’t notice little notes he left at two junction signs.
Eventually we reunited but with little daylight for hiking fairly level but rough burned Crest Trail to Anita Park: now an ugly flat but above a viable spring in open severely burned area. Cold Crest wind met us full force at the “park.” The aspen provided some windbreak. We skipped dinner and crawled in the tent asap, but clear sky and lingering orange sunset with bright stars above was quite stunning—one advantage of fire removing ridge vegetation!
We woke to bright sun and cold wind. Switchback trail through burned logs to Anita Spring had been cut out. Back at the Crest Trail, I met the first people in the wilderness: two day hikers returning to Rustler Park from a hike up Chiricahua Peak. We enjoyed a quiet contour through partly burned forest on east side of the 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 naked basin beneath Snowshoe Peak—where most tree boles had burned in extremely hot fire—the trail was out of the wind and fair.
After a mile, the trail deteriorated. Amazing that a well-designed, gradual-slope contour trail could be so bad. Minimal tread, vegetation, washed out drainage crossings, and trail finding made for a wearing three hours. On the last stretch of thick oak brush and desert ceanothus, David grabbed his hand clippers and clipped our way down to Pine Park—a lightly burned ponderosa stand.
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 or didn’t like Cave Creek area scoured by post-fire flooding.
Clambering up rocky jeep trail and lightly-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 desert ceanothus now inundating trail and generous cairns (stone piles of rock marking trail) but tread was poor and trampled by cows. I chased two out of my way.
We reached Winn Falls—a little ribbon of water descending from Cima Creek. Trail was fair along pine slope but in the burned-out creek, it was slow going over rocky crossings and downed pine until it left the creek for more pine forest and intact Cima Cabin.
Later that day we met a volunteer trail crew at Fly Peak Saddle, working with Forest Service to clear 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 turkey 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 Rustler Park, we heard a sharp 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). The trail crew and day hikers were the only people we saw in a week in this once popular wilderness.
After a contour in cool pines, the route down Saulsberry Trail was poor—eroded side slope trail, downed logs, and brush. Trail from the saddle was better but steep. We camped 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.
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