Chiricahua National Monument – Big Loop Hike

Willcox, AZ

On Saturday we left the Bisbee, AZ area and drove about a hundred miles to the northeast to the little town of Willcox, AZ, right along I-10.  There are a number of RV parks here and they all looked about the same in reviews, so we chose Sagebrush RV Park because friends stayed there for their visit to the area.  This park is really an old trailer park where they removed some of the permanent units and made a large gravel area with full hook-ups for RVs.

Site 11 at Sagebrush RV

This park defines the description “no frills” but the sites are level and very long, the power is good, and the Wifi is dependable.  We had the RV area to ourselves during the day while a few overnight guests joined us at night, as this is a very convenient stop if you’re traveling through Arizona on I-10.

The empty RV area at Sagebrush RV


Sunday morning we were up bright and early (for us) and on our way to Chiricahua National Monument, about thirty-five miles to the south.  Our main reason to visit this area was to do The Big Loop Hike, a 9.5 mile loop that combines a number of trails in the heart of the Monument.  We read about the hiking in this area in two blogs (Lowes RV Adventures and Metamorphosis Road) and were anxious to check it out.  After a brief stop at the visitor center to talk to the ranger and pick up a map, we headed up Bonita Canyon Drive, a nice paved road leading up to the trailhead.

Bonita Canyon Drive

Not far from the visitor center we were fortunate to observe the little guy pictured below crossing the road in front of us.

We’re not sure but we think he (she?) is a Red Fox.  If you know for sure what he is, let us know with a comment.

About six miles up Bonita Canyon Drive, we pulled in to the Echo Canyon parking lot.  This is one of two places where you can pick up a section the Big Loop called the Ed Riggs Trail.

The trailhead by the Echo Canyon parking area

Heading out on the Ed Riggs Trail

Not far down the trail we were already hiking next to many cool pinnacles and balanced rocks.

The many hiking trails in Chiricahua National Monument are very well-marked.  The trails here are among the many trails around the country built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) during the Great Depression.  We were very impressed with the trails and the numerous steps and retaining walls built by the CCC.

CCC constructed retaining wall

Less than a mile on the Ed Riggs Trail we came to a junction where we turned on to the Mushroom Rock Trail.

Mushroom Rock

As we hiked the Mushroom Rock Trail we could see evidence of the Horseshoe Fire that went through the park in 2011.

After hiking a little over a mile, we came to another junction where we left the loop and turned on to a half mile trail leading out to Inspiration Point.  Along this trail we could see the rock formation known as “Head of Cochise” to our north.

Head of Cochise

The views from Inspiration Point made the extra mile hike worth the effort.

Three residents enjoying the sun on Inspiration Point

After returning back from Inspiration Point, we re-joined the loop on a segment known as the Big Balanced Rock Trail.  We soon came to a rock that we thought was the inspiration for the trail’s name.

We continued along the trail as it meandered through beautiful rock formations.

As we rounded a bend the real inspiration for the trail’s name came into view.

A fellow hiker enjoying the Big Balance Rock


At the next trail juncture we turned to our right on to the Heart of Rocks Loop Trail.  This is a very cool trail worthy of its own blog so we’ll save pictures from it for our next post.

After the Heart of Rocks Loop, we returned to the main trail and continued on what is called the Sarah Deming Trail.  This trail is a bit over a mile and a half in length and descends down the Sarah Deming Canyon to the next trail junction.

Descending the Sarah Deming Trail

After going down what seemed to be a long mile and a half, we came to the next trail junction.  At this point we turned to the right and continued up the Upper Rhyolite Trail for a bit over a mile, then on to the Echo Canyon Trail for 1.6 miles to the parking area.

At the visitor center we were told this portion of the trail, while going uphill, was not as difficult as the Mushroom Rock Trail.  We respectfully disagree!  We found the Upper Rhyolite Trail to be the most difficult part of the entire hike.  Not only was it up hill, the trail was very rough all the way.

Going up the Rhyolite Trail

Once we joined the Echo Canyon Trail for the final mile and a half the trail continued to gain elevation but became very interesting as we wound through the rock spires.

Looking down at the trail below

Still going up! Thanks CCC for the steps.

The final “scenic spot” on the trail was an area known as “The Grottoes.”

The end of the trail at last!

We finally returned to the Jeep after almost ten miles on the trail.  We both feel that this has been one of the best hikes we have ever done.  While a bit long and strenuous, we were constantly surrounded by great rock formations and scenic vistas.   The trails are clearly marked and very nicely maintained.

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Coronado Cave – Coronado National Memorial

Naco, AZ

The day after hiking to Coronado Peak we returned to Coronado National Memorial for a visit to the Coronado Cave.  The cave has been called by several names, including Montezuma’s Treasure Vault and Geronimo’s Cave.  Legends claim that it was used by the Apaches as a hide-out when being pursued by the U.S. Army and in the late 1800’s it was not uncommon to find arrowheads in the cave.

A half mile trail leads up to the cave entrance

The Coronado Cave is one of the few caves in areas maintained by the National Park Service that you can explore without a guide.  A park ranger does leads a hike into the cave on Saturday mornings but, since we will not be in the area on Saturday, we decided to explore it on our own.

The final climb to the entrance

We arrived at the entrance just as two young guys were climbing out.  They said that none of the small side caves inside lead anywhere.  They had spent considerable time and effort crawling in to each one, and the dust and dirt covering each of them attested to their efforts.  One of them asked if there was water available at the visitor center.  Apparently they were in need of water, but they did have some liquid refreshment in their packs.  As we  were about to descend into the cave, one of them pulled out a bottle of beer, removed the cap, and began enjoying it as he and his buddy rested before heading back down the trail.  When we got into the main part of the cave, we could also smell the evidence that they were smoking (cigarettes!) in the cave, a no-no on the park rules.  Ah, the stupidity of youth!

One of the young hikers climbing out of the cave

The entrance to the cave requires scrambling about twenty-five feet down a rocky slope to the cave floor.  The cave interior extends 600 feet in length, with 20 foot high ceilings.

Ready to enter

Climbing down into the cave

Looking back up toward the entrance

A cheerful spelunker

The cave has several interesting formations.  The most prominent is the sentinel, a huge symmetric stalagmite standing in the center of the last chamber.

The Sentinel


The cave includes numerous formations including stalagmites, stalactites, columns and scallops.  Although today it is dry, geologist examining the scallops along the walls estimate that at one time as much as 50,000 gallons of water per minute flowed through the cave from east to west!

We picked a great day to visit Coronado Cave.  Outside the weather was cold, windy, and rainy.  But inside it was dry, calm, and 68 degrees!

We are now approaching the end of our two week stay in the Bisbee area.  Turquoise Golf and RV Park  in the little town of Naco is a great place to stay, even if you don’t golf.  While it is right on the Mexican border, the place is swarming with Border Patrol vehicles and we always felt safe.  And nearby Bisbee is a town that is very interesting.  While a nearby grocery store has a small Starbucks stand, we really enjoyed visits to the Bisbee Coffee Company.  It’s located right in the center of Old Bisbee and is a great place to sit and watch the odd mixture of people walking by the coffee shop window.

Bisbee Coffee Company


Be sure to put Bisbee on your list of “must visit” locations!

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Coronado National Memorial

Naco, AZ

Just twenty miles to the west of our RV site in Naco is Coronado National Memorial.  A National Memorial is a designation for a protected area that memorializes a historic person or event.  This memorial commemorates the first organized expedition into the Southwest by Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado that passed nearby in 1540.

We began our hike on the Joe’s Canyon Trail that begins across the street from the visitors center.  From the trailhead  the trail climbs about 1000 feet in the first mile, with scenic views of Montezuma Canyon and the San Pedro River Valley.

Joe’s Canyon Trailhead

Typical sign on a trail near the border

The first mile has a pretty steep increase in elevation

After reaching the saddle at the top of Smuggler’s Ridge, the trail continues westward with southerly views deep into the grasslands of Sonora, Mexico.  The wind was very strong as we made our way across the ridge.  Our goal was to reach the top of Coronado Peak, shown in the distance of the photo below.

No smugglers on Smuggler’s Ridge today

A zoom photo of the peak reveals a ramada covering a bench.  That looked like a great spot for lunch!

As we hiked across the ridge toward the peak we could see the Montezuma Canyon Road below us.  This is a dirt road that leads up across Montezuma’s Pass, just below Coronado Peak, and continues west through the memorial.

Montezuma Canyon Road

Blue skies and thin clouds added to the beautiful views along the trail.

Great view along the ridge

The line visible on the plains is the fence marking the International Border

At the end of Joe’s Canyon Trail (3.1 miles), we joined the Coronado Peak Trail for a climb of .2 of a mile to the summit.

Made it!


Once at the peak we enjoyed great views to the south into Sonora, Mexico.

Lunch with a view

After enjoying lunch at the peak, it was time to head back down the trail.  As we went back across Smuggler’s Ridge the wind really began to get strong.  It’s difficult to show this in a photo but if you look at the one below you can see the grass leaning to the left.  And John is carrying his hiking poles because the wind kept blowing them sideways.  Fortunately, the day was warm so the wind was not a big deal.

This was just the kind of hike we like.  It was not extremely long (6.5 miles), but had some challenging elevation gains.  The views along the way were impressive.  Also, we had the trail all to ourselves, as we didn’t see a single person as we hiked!

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Hiking to the “B” in Bisbee

Naco, AZ

Like many towns nestled along hillsides in the west, Bisbee has a large “B” located above the town on Chihuahua Hill.  During the day it looks a bit like it could use a fresh coat of paint, but at night it looks very nice as it is outlined in lights.


After reading Amanda’s blog about their hike up to the top (Watsons Wander), we decided we needed to go up and check out the view.  We found a trail description online that would take us up the back of the hill past a couple of interesting sites.  The trail begins at the end of OK Street, which is the easternmost street in downtown Bisbee, paralleling Brewery Avenue.

After reaching the end of the road we found the trail on the right just before a gate.  We followed the trail up as it meandered to the top of what is known as Youngblood Hill.

Our first point of interest was a Buddhist Shrine that someone has built at a curve in the trail.

We continued up the trail headed for the cross that can be seen at the top of the rocks in the photo below.

This turned out to be a quite elaborate shrine made of whitewashed concrete sprawling  across a rock formation,.  A plaque attached to the construction attributes the work to “Adolfo D. and Mary Vasquez, May 1980.”

The shrine contains a crucifix, a statue of Mary, a statue of Jesus, a cross made of horseshoes, and devotional bottle candles. A series of steps are built into a pathway around the structure.  No one knows precisely who built the shrine as no records of its construction exist.  Local legend has it that the many sacks of concrete mix needed for the work were hauled up a narrow path from the end of OK Street on mules.

View of Bisbee from the shrine


From the shrine on Youngblood Hill we hiked down a very steep, rocky path as we headed for Chihuahua Hill nearby.

As we made our way down the steep path we came upon a shrine dedicated to Martin Luther King.

The reference to the Struggle for Justice in the Borderlands in the photo below refers to a breakfast held at a local church on MLK Day.

We made it down the steep trail from Youngblood Hill onto an unused Jeep road leading up to the top of Chihuahua Hill.

The top of Chihuahua Hill is covered with brush, but if you bushwhack through it, you can find great views of the pit mines and Old Bisbee below.

North end of the huge copper pit mine


Old Bisbee – the white along the hillside is the “B”

Another view of Old Bisbee from above the “B”

Heading back down on a side trail


This hike is just over two miles over some fairly rough trail.  But the shrines along the way and great views from the top make it well worth the effort.

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Breakfast and Burials

Naco, AZ

Present day Bisbee now includes what was at one time the nearby small communities of Warren, Lowell, and San Jose.  The original Bisbee is now known as “Old Town.”  Lowell was at one time a sizable mining town located just to the southeast of Old Bisbee.  The majority of the original townsite was consumed by the excavation of the Lavender Pit mine during the 1950s. All that is left today is a small portion of Erie Street, along with Evergreen Cemetery, Saginaw subdivision and Lowell Middle School.  These days Lowell is considered by most of the local residents to be more of a place name than an operating community.  One of the only business left in Lowell is the Bisbee Breakfast Club.  We stopped in one morning and enjoyed a great breakfast.

The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch.  They also have a similar restaurant in Tucson and Mesa.

After breakfast we took a walk down Erie Street.  It appeared to be a one time hub of activity for the town, but today looks more like a large museum with old autos and a few motorcycles parked along the way.

The view down Erie Street

After our brief tour of Lowell, we drove about thirty miles to the north for a visit to the legendary town of Tombstone.  Friends had told us that the town is mainly just a tourist trap, but we were interested in visiting the Boothill Graveyard.

Located on the northwest corner of the town, the graveyard is believed to hold over 300 persons, 205 of which are recorded.  This was due to some people (especially Chinese and Jewish immigrants) being buried without record.  However, most of the loss was due to neglect of grave markers and theft of these wooden relics as souvenirs.  The cemetery was closed in late 1886, as the new “City Cemetery” on Allen Street opened.

You enter the cemetery through a small gift shop pictured above.  There is no admission fee but for a three dollar donation you receive a flyer containing information about many of the people buried there.  The most famous of the graves is Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury; the three men who were killed during the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Graves of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury


Below are the graves of Tex Howard, Bill Delaney, and Dan Kelly.  They were legally hanged in 1884 after being found guilty of killing several people during a robbery in Bisbee.

John Heath also participated in that robbery and was considered the leader of the group.  The law-abiding citizens of Bisbee apparently couldn’t wait for the wheels of justice to finish turning as he was taken from the county jail and lynched by a mob.

Apparently some people couldn’t tolerate the harsh life in the area as there were a number of graves where the cause of death was marked a suicide.  John King died from ingesting strychnine, a very painful way to die.

We spent some time looking around Tombstone but agree with those who say it is mainly a tourist trap.  But if you’re passing through on your way to or from Bisbee it is worth a brief stop.

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The Bisbee 1000

Naco AZ

Unique to Bisbee is a system of old and deteriorating stairways that meander through its steep hills, with great views of the town’s quaint houses and colorful gardens.  The stairways originally followed the mule paths worn into the terrain during the heyday of Bisbee’s copper mining past.  During the Depression the Work Projects Administration (WPA) built the concrete stairs over those same pathways.

Beginning in 1990 the town began a yearly event they call The Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb.  Held the third Saturday in October, the event is a five-kilometer run through the city that traverses 1,034 stairs.  Billed as “the most unique physical fitness challenge in the USA!” by the organizers, the Climb includes runners being serenaded by musicians at various locations among the stairs.

We began our exploration of the Bisbee 1000 next to the High Desert Market on Tombstone Canyon Road across the street from the starting line.  The race itself takes runners on a figure eight loop through the town.  We skipped the long running segments and focused on climbing the stairways.

Whew, we made it!

Going up and down the many stairways is a great way to see some of the funky decorations near houses on the hillsides above the main streets of the town.

They keep the window down

Two beautiful flowers on a hillside


A town built in a canyon has to have many retaining walls to reinforce the houses built up on the steep hillsides.  In Bisbee many retaining walls are covered with colorful murals.

The black lines on this mural are shadows from nearby utility lines

We ended our trek right where we started.  After climbing up and down well over a thousand stairs we enjoyed lunch at the High Desert Market and Cafe.

A climb up and down some of the many staircases is a great way to see some of the many interesting (and sometimes strange) sites in Bisbee.  You don’t have to do the thousand stairs to do this, just pick a staircase or two and you’re sure to see something that catches your eye!

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Visit to Bisbee Mine and History Museum

Naco, AZ

While we are staying in Naco, a tiny community right on the Mexican border, the main attraction of this area is the nearby town of Bisbee.  Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold, and silver mining town in 1880, and named in honor of Judge DeWitt Bisbee, one of the financial backers of the adjacent Copper Queen Mine, a very productive tunnel mine.  In 1917 open pit mining began nearby due to the high demand for copper in WWI.  Mining continued in Bisbee until 1974.

Above is a picture of the Lavender Pit Mine.  It is #1 on the picture below taken of a display board at a viewing area next to the mine.  The mine was dug in three phases over sixty years: (1) The Sacramento Pit, (2) The Lavender Pit, and (3) The Holbrook Extention,

As the mines declined Bisbee became a destination in the 1960s for artists and hippies.  Today much of the town has been restored and the population is a combination of quirky artists and retirees supported by a thriving tourism business.  One of the most visited places in the town is the Bisbee Mining and History Museum, located in the old headquarters of the mining company right in the center of town.

The first floor is dedicated to highlighting the history of the town.

The main street around 1900

Below is a picture of George Warren who worked as a prospector in the region during the late 19th century.  He is credited with having located a body of copper ore, which later became the Copper Queen Mine.  George had some personal problems (mostly related to alcohol) and never profited from his discovery.  In 1880 a pioneer photographer visiting Bisbee took a photo of Warren posing as a miner. This image was used as a model for the miner posing with long-handled spade in the Seal of Arizona.

In the photo below a high ranking mine official looks over the Brass Board.  When a miner went into the mine he would be given a brass token with his name on it.  The token was used to make sure all miners had exited at the end of a shift, as well as, identify a body in case of a mine accident.  The mines of Bisbee had very good safety records, so the tokens were rarely needed.

A high quality turquoise promoted as Bisbee Blue was a by-product of the copper mining. Many high-quality mineral specimens have come from Bisbee area mines.

Azurite and Malachite on Goethite


Many early mines had their own Ten Commandments. Bisbee was no exception


Diorama of a miner at work

Tire of one of the larger trucks used in the pit mine


After touring the museum we took a walk up into one of the hillside neighborhoods.  Below are pictures of some of the interesting sites.

Below is the main entrance of the old Bisbee High School.  The school was a state-of-the art when it opened in 1914 in the center of town.  It was in operation until overcrowding made the building of a new school necessary in the mid-1950s.

It is the only four story building in the country with a ground level entry on each floor. The entry shown is on the 2nd floor and was the main entry to the school. The first floor is under this and held the shop classes and the bus garage. The 2nd floor held the offices and general class rooms. The 3rd floor also was general classrooms while the 4th floor was the gym/auditorium.  In the picture shown above, if you walk up the hill to the right you pass a  ground level entry half way up for the 3rd floor.  Walk a bit further up the hill and you come to the ground level entry for the Gym (pictured below).

Tiered fish ponds in a back yard near the old high school

And the ponds are active

Hey, anything can be called “art”

In our next blog we’ll check out an event held each year in Bisbee called The Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb.

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