Yosemite of Southern Arizona: Two Nights Around the Chiricahua Mountains

The often overlooked Chiricahua Mountains sit between Las Cruces and Tucson. Sitting on the edges of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the range boasts incredible scenery and biodiversity. Spencer and some buds spent a long weekend bike camping around the Chiricahua mountains. Check out one of the most underrated areas in Southern Arizona and all it has to offer.

Most people know of the Chiricahua Mountains due to the National Monument under the same name. The monument preserves some amazing rock formations and hoodoos. The hoodoos are the remnants of a large layer of Rhyolite Tuff from the Turkey Creek Caldera explosion some 27 million years ago. This same layer of rock also forms the soaring walls of Cave Creek on the east side of the range. Cave Creek is just outside of the town of Portal and is the highlight of the route for sure. Some have even dared to call it the Yosemite of Arizona. A brave claim in the Grand Canyon state.

The core of the mountain range consists of designated wilderness, which forced our loop down to highways on either side of the mountains. I pedaled this route with Sarah Swallow last spring as the culmination of her adventure ride series. That day was just a century ride with a sizeable amount of climbing. It would be my final ride on the Specialized Diverge STR and I was quite glad I had that bike for the day. Our much pokier group planned for three days and two nights. The first two days hovered around 45 miles and the final day around 20 up and over Onion Pass. A much chiller pace with a much heavier bike and an equal amount of snacks.

Our summer was about as dry as could be, so water was going to be our crux of this route. Luckily, I was in the area the weekend before and found us an abandoned USFS campground with a barely trickling stream nearby. With a reliable halfway point water source, we were good to go! The following weekend we grouped up in one of the plentiful dispersed camping areas along Pine Creek and threw some legs over bikes.

The Chiricahua Mountains have this vortex of winds that seem to swirl around them. Every time I ride on either side of the range there is always a headwind. Frustrating as ever, we persist. Our first afternoon had us gently climbing most of the way up toward the pass at the end of Rucker Canyon. We pedaled past a lovely and large campground with pit toilets, but the water spigot was dry. We carry on up the north fork of Rucker Canyon until we find that sweet sweet stream. The ancient Ponderosa pines sway gently in the wind and lull us to a cozy night’s sleep.

We backtrack a few miles in the morning. A short climb leads up to the pass for our summit of the day. The aforementioned headwind robs us of our swift descent. We look out and see many mountain ranges as they extend into the Chihuahuan desert biome. Existing right between the Sonoran and Chihuahua eco regions makes the Chiricahua Mountains uniquely positioned. Many bird and animal species from Mexico and Central America found this area as their northernmost limit. A few young Nothern Jaguars have even shown up on game cameras this year.

The only shady respite we get for many miles is a covered roadside table. A large stone monument sits beside the table, celebrating the nearby surrender of Geronimo. While Geronimo did surrender near here, he was deceived into doing so. The US army lied about having shipped all the remaining Chiricahua Apache to Florida to try to break Geronimo. After years of running and quarreling with a quarter of the US Army at the time, Geronimo gave up. He led one of the most successful resistance campaigns against Mexico and the United States. The monument celebrates the end of the Indian Wars. An end to violence can be something to be celebrated, but the brutal subjugation and destruction of Native American culture that ensued is nothing to be celebrated with a monument.

Geronimo gained his notoriety from his fearless behavior in battle. After his wife was killed by the Mexican military, his wife’s voice came to him one evening on the wind. It said “You will never die in battle, nor will you die by gun. I will guide your arrows.” From then on he would famously and fearlessly charge into battle. The name would ironically be adopted by various branches of the US military and became secondhand for jumping out of planes and the like. I think Duncan sums up my sentiments handily, but I digress…

We once again swung our legs over our bikes and made way for our resupply near Rodeo, NM. The Sky Island cafe has everything one touring cyclist might need. Especially a large plate of tater tots smothered in grilled onions and cheese sauce. With our pockets stuffed with candy and bellies full, we start our gentle climb back to the mountains.

Many quaint cob and natural material houses line the road as we pass through the town of Portal, AZ. I doubt many places are as aptly named as Portal. Leaving town transports us from the desert scrub into a canyon of soaring Tuff formations. Everything is green again, sycamore trees mingle with cactus and yucca. After a day of wide open roads and high UV levels, we left the cool air and high cliffs envelop us.

Our final day contains a lion’s share of the climbing for the weekend. Onion Pass sits some 3,000 feet above Portal. Beautiful views of high mountain meadows treat us by showing their fall colors. After a lengthy morning with ample breaks, we summit the pass. To our south, Cochise Head Mountain looms on the ridgeline. After a brief taste of fall, we descend the west side of the pass back to our cars.

The Chiricahua range is often overlooked as it sits just a bit too far from Tucson or Las Cruces alike. They hold a treasure trove of scenery and wildlife for those who make the trek. If you make it all the way down to the Sonoran Desert I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to pedal, hike, or just camp down in the Chiricahuas.