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Southeast Arizona - Part I
April 2022

    Chiricahua National Monument
    Rustler Park, Chiricahua Mountains
    Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains
    Carr Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, Hauchuca Mountains
    Las Cienegas National Conservation Area

| Synopsis | Pictures | Bird/Critter Lists |

Our first foray into the new world of living in a pandemic (or rather epidemic?) was to southeast Arizona (which was at the time a hotbed for COVID deaths). Like so many of our vacations nowadays, it’s a trip that we’ve been meaning to take for years now. We had gone to SE AZ almost 10 years ago and had a great time exploring the area, camping, hiking, and doing some amazing birding. Rather than neader our way around the corner of Arizona, we decided to focus our trip on a few of our favorite places and a few places that we didn’t get to see last time. Demand was high for campsite reservations at the Chiricahua National Monument. We resorted to using a campsite reservation bot that notifies you when reservations were canceled. It worked out well, and we had booked several nights at the Chiricahuas for the first part of our trip. The rest of the trip we had to go in blind - and hope to find sites at campgrounds that didn’t take reservations.

The first time on the plane since the beginning of the pandemic was a little nerve racking. Especially since two days before our flight, the judge overruled the mask mandate for airlines. I’m happy flight attendants no longer have to police fussy passengers (over masks specifically), but being surrounded by maskless people in close quarters for hours was going to be mentally challenging. Pandemic and mask issues aside (a big aside!), flying, TSA checkpoints, and the airport routine was pretty much as remembered.

We flew out of Paine Field in Everett for the first time. The little airport was really nice and modern. Plus being closer to home, it was easy to get to (hardly any traffic!). The flight down was pretty smooth as was picking up our rental truck from National. After the struggle and slog of getting through Tucson to pick up provisions and supplies for the trip, we headed down toward Willcox to spend the night at Tor’s parent’s place for the evening.

Chiricahua National Monument
In the morning, we headed out to the Chiricahua National Monument, which was a relatively short drive away. A recent wildfire had scorched the sides of the road, and firefighters were checking hotspots to make sure there weren’t flare ups.

Bonita Canyon Campground and Trails
Using the reservation bot, we reserved 4 nights between 2 different campsites at the Bonita Creek Campground - the only campground in the monument and was relatively small with only 25 sites. The campground was located near the entrance of the park in oak trees and alligator junipers close to visitor center and Faraway Ranch.

A family of Mexican Jays were collectively raising young in a nest above our first campsite. Adult jays forgaged throughout the campground and the nestlings would squawk and peep upon their approach. The Mexican Jays often traveled in troops throughout the oak forest and their constant calling and wing flapping announced their presence. Bridled Titmouse and Acorn Woodpeckers were also common in the oak forests. And the ever present Black-throated Gray Warblers were never far away. Yellow-eyed Juncos fearlessly fed in the dry oak leaves at our feet and below the picnic tables.  At night, we heard Common Poorwil, Whiskered Screech Owl, and Great Horned Owl calling in the distance.

From the campground, the Silver Spur Meadow and Bonita Creek Trails crossed dry grass meadows, gravely washes, dense oak forests, the Faraway Ranch, and down to the more open and scrubby desert. Mornings were the most productive birding. A single Lark Sparrow fed in the grass with a large flock of Chipping Sparrows. Ash-throated and Dusky-capped Flycatchers sallied over open meadows. A Red-naped Sapsucker tended wells in an oak tree while chasing away an interloping Yellow-rumped Warbler and Summer Tanager who tried to take a few sips. One afternoon, we watched a tom Wild Turkey repeatedly display for 3 hens, who seemed more interested in eating than the male. A surprisingly late season White-throated Sparrow sang from the golden meadows of Bonita Creek. Cous’ white-tailed deer frequented the fields around the ranch. A coatimundi watched us from a rock as it waited to cross down to the creekbed.

Sugarloaf Trail
The first day at the national monument, we hiked up Sugarloaf Mountain to the fire lookout. The trail wrapped around the mountain, providing great views of hoodoo-lined Echo Canyon. Numerous cloudywing butterflies flitted around the manzanita at the top of the mountain. Yarrow’s spiny lizards basked in the sun on granite rocks, ready to flee into nearby crevices at our approach. A pair of Rufous-crowned Sparrows called from the cliff side above. The short hike was a good introduction to the area and not as popular (i.e. busy) as the other trails.

Natural Bridge Trail
The least used trail in the national monument is to the Natural Bridge. We hiked this trail during the heat of mid-day, which probably accounted for the lack of birds and wildlife. The trail started with a climb up the canyon wall through recently burned oak forest (meaning no shade). It topped off on a granite plateau with agave, sotol, bunchgrass, and the occasional dwarfed oak. Dropping down into the next canyon, we could see the dust storm down below the mountains as the winds were picking up that day. The trail wound through a thin stand of apache pine and ended at a sign that pointed to the natural bridge up on the far side of the canyon. In the distance, we saw the blocky rock suspended by two walls on either side. Its lack of luster wasn’t helped by the backdrop of more rocks and the fact that we were pretty far away from it to understand how big it was. It was a natural rock bridge, but definitely not Arches.

Echo Canyon - Ed Riggs - Maasai Point - Hailstone Trails

Probably the most popular trial at the national monument is Echo Canyon. Starting at the trailhead, we hiked in a clockwise direction, counter to what most people do. We took the side spur up to Massai Point where we enjoyed views of the hoodoo canyons and Cochise Head in the early peaceful morning hours without anyone else around. Hiking down the Ed Riggs and Hailstone Trails, our perspective of the hoodoos changed from being above them to being dwarfed by them. We craned our necks looking up at the rock columns towering above us. Across the valley of douglas fir and apache pine, the top of the canyon was lined with more hoodoos: tons of columnar rock balanced and leaning in all shapes and sizes. The Hailstone Trail was named after the spherulites, volcanic formations, that lined part of the canyon wall along the trail.

Rounding from the Hailstone Trail into Echo Canyon was rather dramatic - going from the wide expansive Rhyolite Canyon to the narrower Echo Canyon. Climbing the Echo Canyon wall, the trail entered the hoodoos, winding through narrow slots in the rock columns. Eventually, the trail returned us above the hoodoos, giving us a new perspective of these formations after being so close. By mid-morning, the trail was busy with families and groups heading down Echo Canyon. It was nice to enjoy them during the quieter parts of the morning.

Lower Rhyolite Canyon - Sarah Deming - Heart of Rocks - Big Balance Rock - Inspiration Point - Mushroom Rock - Hailstone - Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trails
For a full day hike, we walked from the campground one morning down to the visitor center to the Lower Rhyolite Canyon trailhead. With the air still full of the previous night’s chill, the hike up the canyon in the early morning light was pleasant and relaxing. After a gradual climb up the canyon, the trail split to Echo Canyon or to Sarah Deming Canyon. We stayed right continuing our climb through Sarah Deming Canyon and toward the Heart of the Rocks. We stopped when a swarm of warblers and vireos surrounded us on the trail. Through the foliage, we saw Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Townsend’s, Wilson’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers. I was delighted to catch sight of a Red-faced Warbler in the flock. And as quickly as we were surrounded by the warbler frenzy, they quickly dissolved into the brush and canopy.

As the trail continued to climb, the oak forest gave way to tall apache pine and firs. Plumbeous Vireo and Brown Creeper sang from the pines. Above the treeline on the Heart of the Rocks Loop, we strolled amongst the hoodoos, squinting our eyes and tilting our heads to make out the Camel, Thor’s Hammer, and Kissing Rocks. Pinnacle Rock was still an impressive sight, and even Punch and Judy were fun to see again.

Continuing our all day hike, we passed the Big Balance Rock and took the spur to Inspiration Point. From the viewpoint, we could see down the impressive Rhyolite Canyon with the Hailstone Trail cutting across the canyon wall.

Dropping in elevation on the Mushroom Rock trail, we were back in a mixed forest of pine, oak, and juniper. I startled a Banded Rock Rattlesnake off the trail, but it paused enough for us to admire the greenish body and bold brown bands down its back. Another mixed flock of warblers, flycatchers, and vireos had us pausing along the trail before we were on the Hailstone Trail once more.

Completing our loop, we took the Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail down the canyon wall and across the bottom returning to the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail. Up to this point, all of the trails were in good condition, but the Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail needed some TLC. A lot of loose rocks made the trail uncomfortable to hike down, but would have been worse to hike up. The day spent hiking this large loop was rewarded with great views, impressive flocks of warblers, many spiny lizards, and sprinklings of wildflowers.

Although we had campsite reservations for 4 nights at the Chiricahuas, we decided to leave one day early since we had hiked all of the trails by the third day. We decided to head to other parts of the Chiricahua Mountains.

Chiricahua Mountains
The next morning, we drove out of the national monument and up Pinery Canyon Road. There were many things I didn’t exactly remember about the previous trip and I think this road was one of them. Although the gravel, dirt road was fairly well maintained, it was narrow, windy, and with many blind corners. Oh and yes, I couldn’t forget to mention that it was on a steep mountain side often without pull outs or places for two cars to pass. It was a little nerve racking, but a beautiful and scenic mountain drive.

Rustler Park, Long Park, Barfoot Park
Near the mountain pass, we turned up the road to Rustler Park. We had visited Rustler Park on our previous trip, but it was closed out of safety concerns due to the recent wildfire. Evidence of the wildfire from 10 years ago was everywhere - large swathes of gray snags and very few young trees. At the Rustler Park campground, there was still a large stand of pines that were spared from the wildfires. All of the trails that started at the campground were burned up - meaning open and exposed on the ridges.

We were initially indecisive about camping at Rustler Park because of the openness, but we decided to walk around at least since we were up there. Large numbers of American Robins and Steller's Jays seemed to relish life in the natural “park” setting. We parked in the living stand of trees and walked the road from Rustler Park to Long Park, which was only a couple of miles away. The road between the two parks was pretty rough - gouged by weather and not well maintained, but it made for a good hiking trail.

We didn’t get far on the road before being inundated with Broad-tailed Hummingbirds feasting on the blooming currants that grew densely along the road side. In the trees above, a small flock of warblers glean the branches. Craning our necks, we were able to catch glimpses of color between pine needles and oak leaves. A Red-faced Warbler added a splash of red amongst the yellow, blue, and grays of Townsend’s, Hermit, Yellow-rumped, and Wilson’s Warblers.

Yellow-eyed Juncos foraged on the ground, while families of Pygmy Nuthatches peeped from the tops of the Apache pines. At Long Park, an endemic Chiricahua Fox Squirrel searched the grounds for food while the plentiful robins and jays made a ruckus in the park. Warbler flock watching is good exercise for the neck. I certainly had to stretch mine as I searched for a Mexican Chickadee. I heard it first while studying the warbler flock. After picking my way up a steep hillside, I managed to get a good but brief view of this SE Arizona speciality. It was a treat to see one again on this trip.

Returning to the truck at Rustler Park, we decided to stay the night in the half bare campground. The bird life was excellent and the views of the valley below were also amazing. We set up camp in the mostly empty campground (there was one other person there). And went for an evening hike to enjoy the sunset and more warbler flocks that tested our necks again. A small group of Wild Turkeys foraged in the tall grass, Painted Redstarts tittered in the tree, and Western Bluebirds sailed over the open meadows.

The next morning, we awoke to the distinctive calls of Greater Pewee. After a short walk around the park, we found the bird calling high up from an Apache pine. Also active in the morning were a pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds that were likely nesting near the campground. We decided to take advantage of the morning by walking up the road toward Long Park, but not going too far. Around the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds’ feasting grounds, a Rivioli’s Hummingbird buzzed in to check out Tor’s red bandana. Greater Pewees continued to call from the treetops.

We packed up and took the short drive over to the other side of the ridge - to Barfoot Park (not Barefoot, as I thought for a while there). There was another campground on this end of the ridge, but no vault toilets and campsites were not as well established. The wildfires grazed Barfoot Park, leaving most of the pines intact.

As we walked through the pine forest and the campground, we did not hear much bird activity until later in the morning. A Greater Pewee began calling, and a Grace’s Warbler was feeding in the ends of the Apache pines. Also at the park were a Mexican Chickadee pair, a Williamson’s Sapsucker, and the seemingly ubiquitous Yellow-eyed Junco.

After our morning at Barfoot Park, we drove back down the mountain and continued over the pass toward Cave Creek Canyon. Thankfully, we made it down the mountain without encountering any oncoming traffic the entire way. We stopped at the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon - another very popular birding destination. Even during mid-morning, there were many cars lined up along the road. Birders milled along the road searching the sycamores for the target bird - the Elegant Trogon. We drove to the end of the road to scout out the trail. We didn’t go far on the trail, but there were many birders and photographers. The start of the trail looked fairly easy - following the creek through sycamore and oak forest. Red canyon walls peeked out from the forested hillsides. Despite the lateness of the morning, the warblers and flycatchers were still gleaning and singing. It would be a good trail to hike farther along, as I imagine most birders don’t go too far on the trail.

We continued through Portal, stopping at the Coronado National Forest Visitor Center to chat with a friendly volunteer about birds and sights. It might have helped to talk to him before going up the road, but I don’t know if it would have changed our plans for camping. Out of Portal we turned south, then west again to cut across the bottom of the Chiricahua Mountains through Rucker Canyon. The road went through the flats of the desert - making travel much easier. The inholdings in this part of the national forest meant the roads were much wider and easier to travel quickly on.

For the night, we stopped back at Tor’s parents place to refresh and recharge a little before heading back out on the road for the second half of our trip.


Continue on to Part II of Southeast Arizona trip

Pictures (click on thumbnails to enlarge)

Continue on to Part II of Southeast Arizona trip


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