You can explore Chiricahua National Monument from the scenic drive or some short hikes from the viewpoints, but to really appreciate everything the park has to offer, you need to gear up for an all-day hike. Chiricahua’s “Big Loop” is a 9.5 mile journey that consists of eight smaller trails. The Big Loop is necessary, if you want to see some of the park’s best rocks, in the “Heart of Rocks” section of the park.
I had always wanted to hike the Big Loop — ever since my visit to Chiricahua National Monument in 2006. At that time, I only spent a few hours here, at the end of the day. Just before sunset, I was at Massai Point, and several hikers came up the trail. They couldn’t stop talking about their exhausting, exciting hike, and everything they had seen on the Big Loop. Then and there, I knew I’d be coming back. But, it took 8 years to get there.
For this visit, I had planned to spend an entire day in Chiricahua — something that’s essential, if you want to do the “Big Loop” trail. Looking at the map, I estimated that I could save 1/10 of a mile by starting at Echo Canyon, rather than Massai Point. In reality, it’s such a small difference, that it probably won’t matter.
Before driving to Echo Canyon, I headed out to Massai Point, which is located at the end of Chiricahua’s Scenic Drive.
Massai Point provides a great view of Chiricahua’s rocky landscape. Facing east, you’re looking down into Echo Canyon — the first leg of the Big Loop. In the distance, you can also see Rhyolite Canyon, which leads to the entrance to the park. That big hill is Sugarloaf Mountain, elevation 7,310 feet (2,228 meters). During my 2006 visit, I hiked the trail that leads to the old fire tower atop Sugarloaf.
Back in 2006, I captured a nice view of the sunset at Massai Point, then drove back to Willcox in the dark — which, by the way, is not preferable. It’s a long, lonely road that passes through an open range.
Once I had checked out the view from Massai Point, I headed over to the Echo Canyon Trailhead, where my long hike would begin.
From the trailhead, you have some decent views of the surrounding landscape (that’s Cochise Head in the distance — we’ll get a much better view during the hike).
Echo Canyon is a fun trail, right from the start. The trail immediately heads downhill, as it squeezes in between some towering columns of rhyolite rock.
From a distance, Chiricahua’s rocks may appear to be uniform, but once you’re up-close, you’ll see they have a lot of character.
The trail takes you past huge boulders, like these. You’ll need to remind yourself that you don’t have to take a picture of each one — because there are plenty more ahead.
Before you get to Echo Park, you’ll squeeze through an area called the Grottoes.
Be sure to step off the trail and into the Grottoes. This weird section of eroded passages takes you into some small, interconnected caverns, where only slivers of the sky can be seen.
A little later, you’ll pass through Wall Street. The trail passes between two towering rock walls.
A few years ago, Echo Park was probably a highlight of this hike — and it could have been a worthy destination for anyone who wanted a shorter, in-and-out hike. But then in 2011, a lot changed. Parts of Chiricahua were ravaged by the Horseshoe 2 fire. Some parts of the Big Loop escaped without any, or much, damage, but Echo Park looks post-apocalyptic.
It would have been a much more beautiful place, before everything burned. I shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.
Echo Park used to be nice and green, thanks to the water that trickles through here. The trail hops across a trickle of water, near a few small ponds, at Echo Park.
Echo Canyon Trail continues downhill from Echo Park, as it heads toward the junction with Upper Rhyolite Canyon Trail and Hailstone Trail. If you take Hailstone, you can make a 3.3 mile loop back to the Echo Canyon Trailhead. Hailstone Trail serves as a short-cut over to the Ed Riggs Trail, which is the final leg of the Big Loop. I don’t think you’ll see nearly as much on this shorter loop — but it is an alternative to the Big Loop for anyone who doesn’t have time to do it all.
Before you reach Hailstone trail, you’ll have a great view of Rhyolite Canyon, looking east towards the park entrance.
This is the junction of Echo Canyon, Hailstone, and Upper Rhyolite trails. For the Big Loop, stay to the right…
… and you’ll continue downhill. This section of the trail zig-zagged a bit, but overall it heads east, which is somewhat disorienting, since you ultimately want to head west. It’s a necessity, though, in order to get to to the next section, Sarah Deming Trail.
Just before you reach the next junction, the trail starts to climb again. Brace yourself, it’s a sign of things to come. For the moment, though, you’ll have a nice view …
… in both directions.
At this junction, the Big Loop follows the Sarah Deming Trail. You could also take the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail to the visitor center, about 1.5 miles away from this spot. This trail provides an alternate way to reach the Heart of Rocks: instead of taking the Big Loop, you can hike in from the visitor center. The distance will be slightly less (7.3 miles, versus 9.5 miles on the Big Loop), but you’ll have to backtrack, and you won’t see as much, so I don’t recommend it.
As you could see on the sign, the Sarah Deming Trail is 1.6 miles. The reward is great: at the end, you’ve reached the Heart of Rocks area, which is the ultimate goal of the entire trip. But, you have to pay dearly to get there. All of Sarah Deming’s 1.6 miles is uphill…
… and while the views are nice at first…
… the trail also passes through a wooded area (thankfully untouched by wildfire). I stopped for a rest at this odd combination of rocks.
After a long hike through the woods, the Sarah Deming Trail finally emerged, and a few hoodoos were visible…
… and then a few more.
Just before the Heart of Rocks section, the trail required one final uphill push, over these stair-steps…
… and these steps…
… and these steps. In 1.6 miles, the Sarah Deming Trail climbs 880 feet. That means the average incline is a little more than 10%!
The trail levels off, just outside the Heart of Rocks loop. This park is a nice place to take a break, gulp some water, and raid your supply of trail snacks. From the outside, you’ll have a nice view of Big Balanced Rock — I’m pretty sure you can figure out which one it is.
The Heart of Rocks Loop begins and ends here. I was surprised to discover that this section of the trail requires some minor scrambling, and you’ll also need to squeeze through a few tight spaces.
So, what will you see in Heart of Rocks? First off, there’s Pinnacle Rock (an even bigger version of Big Balanced Rock).
Squeeze through here…
… and up and over there…
… and you’ll see the Old Maid…
… and Camel’s Head.
Some patches of rock don’t have names, but are still quite interesting.
This is Thor’s Hammer.
We’re starting to get a better view of Cochise Head, in the distance.
Also, watch for a nice view to the west, towards the open desert beyond the park entrance.
This is Punch and Judy — named after the stars of a marionette theater show, that dates back to the early 1700’s.
This is, quite obviously, “Duck on a Rock”.
No named rocks here…
… or here, but I still thought they were interesting.
These are the “Kissing Rocks”.
As the Heart of Rocks trail loops around, you get a different view of some of the notable formations. Here, in the distance, you can spot Thor’s Hammer once again.
Shortly beyond this point, the Heart of Rocks Trail ends. The next leg of the journey is the Balanced Rock Trail.
The first thing you’ll see is the Big Balanced Rock. A sign explains that it measures approximately 22 feet in diameter, with a weight of 1,000 tons.
Balanced Rock Trail passes by some more interesting rocks, on the edge of the Heart of Rocks area…
… but after a while, the landscape grows less interesting. This split in the trail is un-signed, so I took a guess, and went left.
The side-trail to Inspiration Point is well-signed. The turnoff is located in another area that was heavily damaged by the 2011 wildfire.
Inspiration Point Trail is a half-mile, one way, out to a dead-end with a great view of the entire area.
This is where you’ll find the best view of Cochise Head…
… as well as an excellent view down Rhyolite Canyon.
You can even get a nice shot of the fire lookout atop Sugarloaf Mountain.
I like to think that this burned tree is laughing at the fire devastation, knowing that the forest will eventually make a comeback.
From the end of the Inspiration Point Trail, you have to backtrack to the junction. The next section of the Big Loop is known as the Mushroom Rock trail. It’s named for the only thing that even remotely comes close to being worth seeing along the way:
That’s Mushroom Rock, through the trees and across the canyon from the trail.
Mushroom Rock Trail is mostly downhill. You’ll lose about 600 feet in elevation, over 1.2 miles. Of course, if you’re hiking clockwise around the loop, you’ll be hating this portion of the trail (and loving the Sarah Deming portion, later on).
After you lose all that elevation on the Mushroom Rock Trail, you have to gain some of it back, to get to the trailhead and the end of the loop. The final stretch is Ed Riggs Trail, which gains about 280 feet in elevation. Ed Riggs Trail begins at the junction with Mushroom Rock and Hailstone – remember Hailstone? That’s the shortcut trail that turns Echo Canyon into a 3.3 mile loop. Just think of all you would have missed, if you skipped the good stuff in the middle!
Ed Riggs Trail flirts with a few more hoodoos, as you climb up the shelf on the side of the hill.
This part of the trail is nice, and I suppose you’d be very impressed with it, if it’s all you did.
Just before you arrive back at the trailhead, the trail splits, allowing access to either Massai Point or Echo Canyon. When I finally dragged myself back to the car…
… I took a shot of my watch. The entire 9.5 mile loop took me 5 hours, 56 minutes, 8 seconds. The data from my Fitbit fitness-tracking device was even more impressive:
Yes, hiking the Big Loop every day would make for a very effective diet plan!
The Bottom Line
The Big Loop is a big undertaking. Make sure you are physically prepared, and that you’re carrying enough water and food to survive for a day, totally alone. I saw only about 8 people on the entire hike (one of whom told me it was a busy day — he had done the hike several times before, and seen no one for the entire loop). While it’s a challenge, it’s also very rewarding. You’ll get to see some of the most interesting areas of Chiricahua National Monument, and you’ll finish with a sense of satisfaction.
Chiricahua National Monument is located in extreme southeastern Arizona. From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east to Willcox, then follow Highway 186 and 181 into the park. The scenic road will take you to Echo Canyon and Massai Point – both of which provide access to the Big Loop.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Willcox into Chiricahua National Monument: