Wonderland of Rocks

Chiricahua National Monument

San Simon, AZ

March 22, 2003

For the sun worshipers of this land, hanging out in southwest Arizona during January and February is a normal yearly experience.  It is dry, brown, and for the most part very flat.  Here, the Sonoran Desert is home for such famous characters as the coyote and roadrunner.  Most of the land is pretty much uniform.  Having hiked out on many occasion, through the chaparral landscape, I was quite familiar with its geographic structure which was often flat.  Being a hiker, I was immediately interested when Laura announced that we were going to a place where hiking trails abounded and the mostly drab scenery was quite different.  We were in Tucson at the time so off we went east on I-10 until we made a turn onto a county road and then wandered into the southeast corner of the state and onto the lands once under the control of such infamous Indians as Geronimo and Cochise.Exploring Chiricahua National Monument is like exploring a fantasy world of extraordinary rock sculptures that were created by the forces of nature over millions of years. Called the Land of the Standing-up Rocks by Chiricahua Apaches and later the Wonderland of Rocks by the pioneers, this northwest corner of the Chiricahua Mountains harbors towering rock spires, massive stone columns and balanced rocks weighing hundreds of tons that perch delicately on small pedestals. Where hundreds of these rocks occur together, such as in the Heart of Rocks, the landscape appears as a rugged badlands. The Chiricahua Mountains are a world apart from the surrounding Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. In these cool, moist, forested sky islands, dwell many plants and animals of the Southwest and surprisingly, many species found otherwise, only in northern Mexico. The story behind the rocks is not completely understood, but geologists believe that about 27 million years ago violent volcanic eruptions from nearby Turkey Creek caldera spewed forth thick white-hot ash. The ash cooled and fused into an almost 2,000 foot thick layer of dark volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains formed from this rock upheaval, and then the master of erosion, water, wind and ice began sculpting the rock into odd formations. Erosion carved along week vertical and horizontal cracks creating the fascinating rock forms preserved in the monument park. The dramatically poised rock are great examples of  how weathering is guided along the weak spots in the layers. Weathering formed the pillars along vertical cracks; the balanced rock, along horizontal layers, the hottest ash welded into dense, hard rock. Other ash layers were cooler and did not weld as completely. These softer layers eroded more rapidly, forming the narrow pedestal, undermining the large rock mass above. In time, perhaps centuries, the softer pedestal will weather away and the rock will tumble into the canyon.  The forces that have sculptured these towers, pillars and balanced rocks from the ancient welded tuffs are still at work. Erosion bites more deeply into the rock canyons with each passing year. heating and cooling, freezing and thawing constantly weaken and crumble the rock. I learned that even as I watched,  the rock formations around me were changing a grain of sand at a time.  I tried to visualize that  single crystal of ice growing and splitting off a flake of rock. Understanding that these  tiny changes add up over the ages, Eventually the forces will wear down the mountains until even they are only a memory. But for now there was the view and the fabulous trails that wandered  anywhere from a mile to over 3 miles.  If your not in real good shape when you start out, you will be, a few days after you get back.  This is a top list item for the nature lover, hiker and amateur geologist. 

*** THE END ***