Exploring Chiricahua National Monument is 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 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 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 masters of erosion-water, wind, and ice began sculpting the rock into odd formations.
Erosion carved along weak vertical and hori-zontal cracks forming the fascinating rock forms preserved today in Chiricahua National Monument.
The Chiricahua Mountains are a world apart from the surrounding Sonoran and Chihua-huan Deserts.
In these cool, moist forested “sky islands" dwell many plants and animals of the Southwest and - what makes these mountains different - a number of Mexican species.
Mexico is 50 miles to the south, yet the Chiricahuas special mix of life is more like that found in the Mexican Sierra Madres than in these highlands.
Influence from the south is strong; many trees, wildflowers, and animals have crossed the border into Chiri-cahua National Monument.
Most conspicuous are the unusual birds, such as Hepatic tanager, Red-faced Warbler, and Elegant trogon, which make the area a natural mecca for birders.
Mexican influence includes mammals, such as the Chiricahua fox squirrel, coatimundis, and peccaries, and trees, including the Chihuahua pine and Apache pine. Mexican species intermingle with plants and animals more common to Southwest Mountains.
The plant variety is rich, from cactus in the lowlands, to oaks, alligator juniper, and Arizona cypress in canyon forests, to manzanita-buckthorn-skunkbush chaparral on ridges, to ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and aspen that cover the highest slopes.