A Hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains and an Inadequate Introduction to Chiricahua National Monument

The combination of government shutdown and uncharacteristically poor weather that had steered us to Picacho Peak State Park had the additional benefit of allowing us to stop in Tucson where we were able to visit friends. It was then we learned that the road to access Chiricahua National Monument was apparently open despite the shutdown since two of our friends had just come from there. Despite another cold front moving in we decided to give the area a try but first we took half a day to drive (most of the way) up the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway into the Santa Catalina Mountains. The drive is always a pleasant one and we easily found a section of the Arizona Trail to walk where the snow had mostly melted between storms. It was chilly for sure at 5,000 feet, but the sunny afternoon was not be complained about.

The morning we departed Tucson for Chiricahua the forecast changed yet again however with snow forecasted that evening and the following 2 days. Seeing as the weather seemed to be in constant flux we decided to gamble that we might get less snow and so we arrived in the town of Willcox in late morning, dropped off the RV, and drove the truck down to the mountains under promising partly cloudy skies. As we approached the small Chiricahua range and turned onto the scenic drive we began to catch glimpses of the red columns overhead — but we also caught a glimpse of a sign stating the monument was closed. We thought we’d luck out as our friends had and be able to continue up the canyon but as we ascended past the visitor center there was a second sign that warned us the road was closed just ahead at the campground. Bummer.

We were not to be deterred quite so easily however and parked close to the gate continuing the tour by walking up the road. Other visitors clearly had the same idea and we chatted with a couple walking down the road regarding hiking suggestions that would be accessible to us since we wouldn’t be able to get into the heart of the formations (those trailheads still lay a couple thousand feet and miles up the road). They suggested the Natural Bridge Trail just ahead, past one of the more remarkable organ spire formations.

The route to the natural bridge was varied and began by crossing a nondescript meadow before climbing the mesa overlooking the canyon from the north, both of which offered us some really nice views. I assumed we’d stay near the top of the mesa but the trail then took us down some snowy, icy switchbacks into a small valley, also largely covered in snow in the shady sections. Once down we walked amongst the ponderosas until approaching the end of the box canyon. Here a sign helpfully pointed out the natural bridge across the way; this was fortunate because it was none too apparent nor was it easy to pick out once you knew where to look. We then retraced our steps and returned to our parking spot, satisfied that we’d had a pleasant hike, but also slightly disappointed we wouldn’t be able to see more of the stately pinnacles or learn about the rich history of the area.

I had hiking alternatives lined up for us outside the national monument for the following days but overnight it started snowing and didn’t stop for a day and a half. I thought about venturing out the next afternoon for a hike as the the temperature approached freezing and the flakes became smaller but one look out the window told me visibility was reduced to under a mile, and so that concluded our Christmas break trip.