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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51 Responses to Chiricahua National Monument – Big Loop Hike

  1. Finally you made it! I knew you will be mesmerized by these amazing rock formations and pinnacles. It’s interesting to see the park from your perspective with out the snow and showing us what we missed. Gorgeous photos of gorgeous rock formations.
    Now you can check that off your list!

    • placestheygo says:

      You said we would love it and boy, did we ever. It took us almost seven hours to complete the hike with all the stopping to look at each formation and take photos. And we didn’t dare miss an overlook or hidden view in the trees. It was a perfect day:) So wish you had had a day without snow. Now you can come back and do it again when it is a little warmer:) Thanks again for the recommendation:)

  2. libertatemamo says:

    What a hike…impressive!

  3. I glad those rocks stayed in place long enough for you to get past! Amazing formations!

  4. explorvistas says:

    We will definitely check that out when we get out that way. What a perfect way to spend a beautiful day!


  5. Jodee Gravel says:

    I have only been to that area once for a quick day trip but am so looking forward to getting back there for a longer visit. The trail has so many wonderful formations (the steps did not look inviting today) and vistas to see. That is the best photo I’ve seen of Cochise Head – you really captured his profile perfectly! Never would have seen the third one if you hadn’t said three 🙂 I hope you get out to the fort while you’re there. It’s a flat and easy trail but the kids and I loved the fort and its history.

    • placestheygo says:

      To be honest, Jodee, Cochise’s Head was taken totally by accident! It was actually the burned tree trunk with the background we were after. When we got home and John started to do some reading, he came across the reference to this Indian Head. And low and behold we got it:) What great luck because I wasn’t up to rehiking to see it again!!!

      We are headed to Fort Bowie today. Should be a nice day:) Thanks for suggesting it!

  6. Okay, when you said you did a loop (on Facebook) at first I thought you made our 10 mile one-way hike into a 20 mile loop! THAT would have been crazy! Looks like you had a fabulous hike that took in most everything that we saw on our one way hike. We loved the Chiricahuas and knew you would too!

    • placestheygo says:

      Haha!! I would still be laying out there if that was the case. The only real difference in our two hikes was the elevation. We came out Echo Canyon and you entered there. We missed the Hailstone Section by doing the Loop. You missed the joy of climbing up the Upper Rhyolite Trail! This was the worst part of the trip because it crossed back and forth several times through a wash full of large boulders and the climb was steep and rough. If we had done it in reverse, then you have to climb 1.6 miles up the Sarah Deming Trail which was enough just coming down. It was a wonderful hike either way you choose to it:)

  7. gumo says:

    What a great weather day for your awesome hike. I was there in the 1980’s so your blog reminded me of that great trip. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • placestheygo says:

      I’m sure it hasn’t changed much since 80’s! It is a magnificent place. We saw we had that one day of warm temps and sun before the rain so we made the move to get there.

  8. Gay says:

    Looks like an awesome hike…I am most impressed with the directions you gave as I am always lost! Beautiful rocks and vistas! The fox looks like a grey fox to me.

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, Gay! We went back and compared our “buddy” to the grey fox and we agree with you. We think it is a grey fox, also:)

      Thank goodness the park map is very detailed and the signs at each turn are some of the best we have seen in any National Park or Monument,so this would be a hike for even those of us who are directionally challenged:)

  9. Janna says:

    What a hike! We’ve been in the Chiricahuas many times but haven’t done much hiking.

  10. Mary says:

    What a great place! Reminds me of hikes I have done in Utah, except not red rocks. I love rock formations like that. Have to check that out if we get that way next year.

    • placestheygo says:

      Mary, the park does resemble Bryce Canyon in many ways without the red rocks. You hike down in so you are looking up at the giant formation and there are so many vistas with amazing views of all this beauty. We mentioned that it reminded us of Bryce as we hiked. It is not to be missed:)

  11. jcgc50 says:

    When we visited in 2011 on a quick day trip we just did Echo Canyon and another short trail. We have always wanted to return, and after seeing your photos we definitely must!

  12. LuAnn says:

    Your photos and descriptions make me want to do this trail again. I think this has to rank as one of our top 5 hikes we have ever done. 🙂

  13. pmbweaver says:

    “No frills” works great for us too.

    Anything that we have done that involves the CCC has been excellent, and this trail is a great example of their work. Mushroom Rock and balance rock are awesome. How does a huge rock like that just stand there?

    Inspiration Point lives up to its name. I remember Inspiration Point in Yosemite. Love, love, love that place! I see why you two HAD to do this trail. Absolutely beautiful at every turn.

  14. jimandbarb says:

    Wow! That is a really interesting place with lots of cool formations. We should be back that way in two weeks, and cannot wait!
    The fox is definitely a grey fox, cool picture!

  15. Chiricahua is a fabulous place isn’t it? If you’ve time, and the road is open, there’s a lovely dirt road drive across the mountains to Portal.

  16. We have been on some of those trails you were on but we never went as far as you guys did. I recognized a few of the trail names you mentioned. Those Chiricahua trails are some of the most scenic we have ever been on as well. Cochise’s head can be seen for many miles from the west & we would always look for it traveling up the valley from McNeal. Another great hike is over in the Dragoon Mountains across the valley & goes up into the area referred to as the Cochise Stronghold. On the way to the trail head you go through the old mining town of Pearce. Interesting cemetery here as well as other old original buildings. We have attended a couple of Pearce’s ‘Heritage’ days. While in the area a little ‘sluething’ will lead you to the gravesite of Johnny Ringo too. You are also in the area of another old ghost town…Gleeson. The old saloon where Johnny Ringo was last seen is still standing although in major dis-repair. Another great challenge to find is old Fort Rucker also in the Chiricahuas & the old homestead of author Mary Kidder rack. Your in a great area for things to see & do.

  17. What a great hike!! I especially like the retaining wall pic because my son worked on that wall! He is 21 years old and does conservation work. October, 2014 thru December he was in Chiricahua rebuilding the CCC wall near Mushroom Rock. The wall was damaged in a flood. Working on the wall is hard work! No power tools are used. He wrote a guest post on his girlfriends blog, Two Girls and a Subaru, about working on the wall. Check it out if you are interested.

    • placestheygo says:

      Ruthi, this is so exciting to hear. The wall was amazing. It made us stop and look at the craftsmanship in it. Make sure you tell your son what a great job he and the other workers did on the wall. We’ll look into the blog post. Thanks so much for sharing:)

  18. Ingrid says:

    Love all those rocks. What an amazing hike. You’ve convinced me we need to check that place out 🙂

  19. Sherry says:

    I can sure see from your fabulous pictures why this is such a highly praised hike. What a wonderful day – well maybe not the very end difficult part but still well worth it. I was shocked when I read that you hadn’t intended that great shot of the Chochise profile. I could tell it was going to be a fabulous day when that gorgeous fox appeared right in front of you on the way in. So glad to hear how well this trail is marked and thanks so much for such fine details and great pictures of it. We’ve come to really appreciate our National Monuments in our travels and go out of our way now to see these great and less heavily visited areas. This one just went up on our Arizona List. Many thanks!

  20. Laurel says:

    Whoa — absolutely awesome hike!! We want to follow exactly in your footsteps — except I’ll make sure that Eric gets a good night’s sleep the night before, haha! The rock formations are just spectacular. I love that you took seven hours to complete the hike so that you could enjoy the gorgeousness along the way.

  21. I looked through your comments and didn’t see anything about the Fox. It is actually a Gray Fox, one way to tell the difference between it and a Red Fox is the lack of black “stockings”. The Red Fox has them and the Gray doesn’t. Wonderful pictures and commentary.

  22. Nancy says:

    WOW the views, the rock formations, the well marked trails. Thank you for taking me there. 10 miles… whoa! I applaud you!
    The fox looks like a Gray Fox… and a beauty!

  23. Debra says:

    Great hike.

  24. Suzanne says:

    Oh, man, I gotta do this hike! A loop….great rock formations….elevation gain…and well marked for the directionally challenged! Thanks for planting the seed!

  25. rommel says:

    I remember this from Luann’s post. I featured one of her photos from her visit here. An Oh My Greek, it’s like you nudged my blog-reading memories, I am highly, highly, impressed with all these rock formations. Very very cool. My hiking trails dreams keep piling up. 😦 😀

  26. Pam Leonard says:

    That trail looks pretty amazing, great rocks, lizards and lichens, what more could you want?

  27. We just got back from a trip to the Monument, so I enjoyed your photos very much. I found your blog because of the fox photo. Since you asked, it’s a beautiful Gray Fox, a very cat-like fox of dry regions.

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