When making our travel plans for this recent spring break, we were looking to have an outdoor experience in Arizona but wanted to stay off the beaten path a bit and explore a region of our state that is sometimes easily overlooked.

These needs were met by a trip to the Chiricahua (meaning "wild turkey") Mountains in the southeast corner of the state. Over the years, we had periodically heard of the beauty and serenity of the Chiricahuas and decided to see for ourselves what this hidden gem had to offer.

EASY, INTERESTING ROUTE

While the trip looks daunting on the map (about 380 miles one way to Chiricahua National Monument from Flagstaff) the route is an easy one of mostly interstate and is made easier still by interesting stops such as Picacho Peak State Park south of Phoenix, which gives the visitor an opportunity to visit an actual Civil War battlefield and hike to the top of an impressive volcanic peak.

The route also winds through Tucson, where we were able to visit historic San Xavier del Bac Mission. Established by Franciscan Missionary Padre Kino in the 1600s, it continues today to be a functioning Catholic parish for the Tohono O'odom Reservation.

In Tucson, we also visited Saguaro National Park, which offers hiking and driving through giant saguaro cacti and beautiful desert landscapes and is adjacent to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum -- a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden that gives a great orientation to the ecosystem in the southern half of our state.

WONDERLAND OF ROCKS

From Tucson, it is about one hour to Willcox, where we left the interstate and traveled another 45 minutes to the monument nestled in the heart of the isolated Chiricahua Mountain Range.

This area lives up to its nickname, "A Wonderland of Rocks." That is just what is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument.

The rock pinnacles loom over the 8-mile paved scenic drive and offer 17 miles of day-use hiking trails to lead you to the discovery the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this nearly 12,000-acre site.

The history of this area goes back to about 27 million years ago, when a volcanic eruption of immense proportions shook the land around Chiricahua National Monument.

One thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens, the Turkey Creek Caldera eruption eventually laid down 2,000 feet of highly siliceous ash and pumice.

Over time and with the help of erosion, weathering and ice, this mixture fused into a rock called rhyolite and eventually eroded into the spires and unusual formations, pinnacles and balanced rocks of today.

DOWNHILL ON BICYCLES

The monument is a mecca for hikers, campers and birders.

Chiricahua features maintained trails in a monument that is 90 percent wilderness.

Trails vary in degree of difficulty from wheelchair accessible nature trails to all-day moderately strenuous hikes through the enormous formations and forested canyons.

The National Park Service staff at Chiricahua are knowledgeable and welcoming and offer a free daily shuttle for hikers to be dropped off at the Massai Summit and then trek about 8 miles back to the visitors' center through some of the most scenic areas of the monument.

This is mostly downhill and took about 5 hours at a leisurely pace that included lunch beneath a massive balancing boulder.

A highlight for us was to leave Massai Point on bicycles and ride the 8-mile scenic Bonita Canyon road (a 1,400 foot drop in elevation) through oak, cypress and pine trees to the Bonita Campground.

SOUTHEAST SKY ISLAND

The Chiricahua Mountains are one of the many "sky island" ranges in southern Arizona. They rise like islands from the surrounding grassland "sea."

Plants and animals from four ecosystems -- Rocky Mountains, Sierra Madre Mountains, Sonoran and Chiricahuan deserts -- meet here.

Mammals to see include black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, Arizona white-tail deer, coati-mundis, javelina, striped and spotted skunks, the Chiricahuan fox squirrel, chipmunks and even a rare jaguar.

Lizards and reptiles to be on the lookout for include the black-tailed rattlesnake, coral, king and bull snakes, Gila monsters, the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog, spiny lizards and horned toads.

In addition to butterflies, the Chiricahuas are also home to a variety of birds, including magnificent hummingbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds, Scott's orioles, Hepatic tanagers, acorn woodpeckers, Mexican jays, Painted redstarts, yellow-rumped warblers, red-faced warblers and black-headed grosbeaks, to name a few.

ORIGINAL APACHE SPRING

The area is filled with human history as well, and this can be explored at the nearby Fort Bowie National Historic Site.

Located about 22 miles from the Bonita Campground at the Chiricahua National Monument, the visitor center for Fort Bowie can only be accessed by a 1.5-mile gentle hike through the desert, which makes it unique among all other national sites in that the visitors' center is not accessible by vehicle.

The trail takes one by the Apache Pass Stage Station once operated by the Butterfield Overland Express mail company and a historic military cemetery that was operational in the 1850s through 1890s and includes graves of fallen soldiers, officers, civilians and Apaches, including one of Geronimo's sons.

It also leads one by a traditional Apache home as well as the original Apache Spring, which made this area so desirable in the first place as it was the only consistent water source for 50 miles in any direction.

WEALTH OF INFORMATION

The Fort Bowie visitors' center offers shade through a lovely wrap-around porch where hikers are encouraged to enjoy their lunch before touring the ruins of what is left of 38 structures.

Along the trail and Calvary site are plaques that provide a wealth of information regarding the history of the indigenous Apaches and their encounters with the European settlers and U.S. Army in the latter half of the 19th century.

For more than 20 years, Fort Bowie and Apache Pass were focal points of military operations by the U.S. Army against the Chiricahua Apaches for control of the region. The Chiricahua Apaches had initially lived in this area and later took refuge in the nearby mountains during hostilities with the white man.

The Battle of Apache Pass in 1862 led to the establishment of Fort Bowie to protect both the pass and Apache Spring.

Fort Bowie was constructed on a hill overlooking the spring and was named for the regiment's commanding officer, Colonel George Washington Bowie.

Between 1862 and 1886, Fort Bowie served as the center for military campaigns against hostile Chiricahua Apaches led first by Cochise and then by Geronimo.

Geronimo's defeat in 1886 ended both the Apache Wars and the usefulness of Fort Bowie as a military installation.

The last troops were withdrawn in October 1894 and Fort Bowie was closed.

HISTORIC DISTRICT RANCH

Neil Erickson was a Swedish immigrant who joined the U.S. Army in 1881 and was stationed at Fort Bowie with the 4th Cavalry during the Geronimo campaigns and was discharged from the Army in 1886.

Emma Peterson was also a Swedish immigrant working for an officer's wife at Fort Bowie.

Erickson and Peterson met at Fort Bowie and wed in 1887, settling in a small cabin on 160 acres in nearby Bonita Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Over the years, the Ericksons made several improvements to the cabin and grounds while Neil was employed by the National Forest Service.

In 1917, Neil was assigned to Walnut Canyon National Monument, and he and Emma moved to Flagstaff where they remained until Neil's retirement in 1927, when they returned to the ranch in Bonita Canyon.

During their tenure in Flagstaff, two of the couple's daughters turned the simple homestead in Bonita Canyon into a guest ranch that included a central lodge, cowboy house, guest cottages, dining room, swimming pool, saddle horses, pack trips and hunting expeditions into the Chiricahua Mountains.

The ranch was operated as a guest ranch from about 1917 into the early 1970s, and it owed much of its success to the establishment of Chiricahua National Monument as part of the National Park System in 1924.

The homestead was named Faraway Ranch by the family and the property was sold to the National Park Service in 1979 and became a historic district within the monument. Daily tours of the ranch are available to visitors to learn the story of how one family lived on the land, shaped the land and was in turn shaped by the land.

A RANGE OF WEATHER

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Winter temperatures in and around the Chiricahua National Monument range from highs in the 60s to lows in the 20s.

Snow should be expected from November to March, and just prior to our arrival over spring break, 7 inches of snow dusted the Chiricahuas. Lucky for us, it had all melted by the time we arrived to enjoy temperatures in the mid-70s by day.

Spring brings warmer temperatures and sunny skies to the monument and May and June are hot and dry.

With July comes the monsoon, with daily cooling thunderstorms until early September.

Bonita Canyon Campground has 25 sites and features restrooms with flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, fire grills and trash pickup.

There are no RV hookups or showers in the campground and RV lengths are limited to 26 feet.

Campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis only, and it is best to arrive at the campground no later than 10 a.m. to secure a spot.

There are no food services, gasoline or other lodging in the monument.

Supplies can be obtained, along with these services, in Benson, Willcox or Bowie, but it is really important to make sure you fill up with gas before heading to Chiricahua or Fort Bowie.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Noah and Sofie Linskey at beginning of Echo Canyon Trail

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Chris, Noah and Sofie Linskey speeding down the 8-mile Bonito Canyon Road from Massai Point.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Pinnacle Rock.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Chiricahua vista from Massai Point.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Chiricahua vista from Massai Point.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Sofie Linskey zooming in on rock formations from Massai Point Nature Trail.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

View of American flag and pole seen through ruins at Fort Bowie.

Photo by Brenda Linskey

Noah and Sofie Linskey at ruins of officer's barracks at Fort Bowie.

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