Chiricahua Mountains: Between Two Deserts

Sitting on the northwestern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chiricahua Mountains mingle cataclysmic geology with a bloody history. The 150-mile-long (241 km), 9,700-foot-tall (3 km), ecologically extravagant range of tormented rock is the most extensive and varied of southeast Arizona’s famed Sky Islands and serves as a vivid lesson in how geology shapes both human and biological history.

Surrounded by desert grasslands and tenuously connected to the Chihuahuan Desert that lies mostly to the south and east, the darkly jagged crag of lava, ash, and limestone offers a refuge for a profusion of plants and animals, many of them throwbacks to the Ice Age now stranded on an igneous ark. The mountain’s north-south alignment running down nearly to the Mexican border has shaped the history of the Arizona borderlands, providing a migratory corridor for elegant trogans, ghostly jaguars, doomed mammoths, desperate Apache, footsore soldiers, sweating settlers, saddle-sore rustlers, and lurking outlaws.

No other place in the Southwest has such a concentration of history and biology, all thanks to the jostling of continents, a titanic series of volcanic explosions, the churning of the atmosphere, and the accident of an international border.

The quirks of geography largely account for the violent and vivid characters that have wandered through its rugged canyons, rested alongside its gushing streams, and marveled at its eerie rock formations. Here the Apache chief Cochise waged his fierce and futile war, Geronimo extracted his insatiable revenge, Ike Clanton bought his stolen cattle, Johnny Ringo died in the arms of an oak tree, Wyatt Earp hunted his brothers’ killers, Black Bart Ketchem fled with the loot from the stage, anthropologist-rancher Alden Hayes gathered folklore and pottery shards, and legions of oddballs, lunatics, and hard cases pitted themselves against the mountain and each other.

The Chiricahua National Monument’s fused-ash spires, volcanic castles, balanced rocks, shaded streams and deep canyons offer the most scenic and best-exposed glimpse of the mountain’s geology and ecology. The range also provided the setting for some of the most dramatic events in Western history, including the murder or suicide of outlaw Johnny Ringo, Wyatt Earp’s bloody revenge for the death of his brothers, the adobe ruins of Fort Bowie where a young lieutenant provoked a decade-long war with Cochise, and a host of battlefields in that terrible war. Moreover, because of its remarkable geology, the range also harbors 83 mammal, 368 bird, and 75 reptile and amphibian species.

The story of today’s landscape starts 27 million years ago when shifts deep in the Earth triggered millions of years of upheaval. These deep-seated geological forces cracked the crust, pushed up lines of mountains, and then stretched out the long, sunken basins separating those high ranges, isolating the Chiricahuas with low, wide valleys to the east and west. Meanwhile, molten rock accumulated miles beneath the surface, rising along fault lines and fractures until it hit the groundwater and carbon dioxide stored in buried layers of sediment, which prompted the magma to expand in volume 50-fold and created an unimaginable explosion of steam, lava, and ash.

Massive clouds of superheated ash and pumice blasted out of a gigantic crater, down which broils of semiliquid rock hurled at 100 miles (161 km) an hour. The eruption ejected 100 cubic miles (416.8 cubic km) of debris, darkened the planet with its ash cloud, and covered 1,200 square miles (3,108 sq km). This volcanic ash flow eventually cooled and fused, creating the raw material for the spectacular rock formations of the Chiricahuas. The now-emptied magma crater collapsed, forming a 12-mile-wide (19 km), 5,000-foot-deep (1,524 m) crater.

Smaller eruptions continued for another 15 million years before the Earth’s fury subsided and the eons of wind, ice, and erosion went to work to create the current landscape. Erosion filled in the giant crater, leaving only traces of its walls. Weathering and chemical deterioration sculpted the stone spires of the National Monument while fractures, erosion, and frost created the soaring monoliths of Cave Creek Canyon.

That long-ago volcanic outpouring shaped all subsequent history in the Chiricahuas. The Chiricahuas remain one of the most varied ecosystems in North America because of the overlap of four different zones, the Rocky Mountain, the Sierra Madre, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert. As a result, the mountains represent the northern limit for many tropical species, the southern limit for many North American species, and a migratory corridor for hundreds of others, including one of the most diverse collections of birds in the nation. The mountains serve as a northern equivalent of a rain forest.

During the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, abundant streams and an oak-juniper woodland connected the Chiricahuas with other mountain ranges. But as the climate dried out and a newly evolved desert scrub and grassland isolated the mountain, many species retreated to the wet upper elevations, nurtured by the establishment of summer monsoon patterns that deliver more than half of the annual 15 inches (381 mm) of rainfall during the normally heat-stressed summer months. As a result, the diversity of plants and animals here is astonishing, especially at the intersections of two of the world’s great deserts.

For instance, the Chiricahuas boast just about the greatest diversity of hummingbird species in North America, plus 20 percent of the ant species found in the United States and Canada. The range also harbors hundreds of species of bees and four species of horny toads, bizarre, spiked flat-bodied throwbacks to cheesy dinosaur flicks, whose prominent spikes make them a potentially fatal snack for snakes. Each lizard consumes a couple hundred ants a day with their long, sticky tongues.

Two of the horny toad species in the Chiricahuas are based in the harsh and arid Chihuahuan desert, one crawled up out of the wetter Sonoran desert, and one normally hangs out on mountaintops in Canada. They somehow divide up the terrain of the Chiricahuas thanks to fascinating adaptations. For instance, they stand in the rain and drink rainwater channeled to the corners of their mouths by the scales on their backs. They can also squirt blood out of their eye sockets that is especially irritating to coyotes, foxes, and unwary dogs.

This biological diversity explains why Cochise and Geronimo and a host of Apache warriors fought so desperately to hold onto the Chiricahuas during the Apache Wars that started when the Spanish ventured into the area in the 1500s and continued until Geronimo’s surrender within sight of their pine-crowded peaks in 1886. The biological diversity of the mountains provided the Apache food in any season, crucial to the survival of a hunter-gatherer culture.

Cochise’s Chiricahua Apache claimed the range when the Americans first arrived in the early 1800s and tried to maintain peace with the Americans when they wrested the region from Mexico in 1848. But a foolish army lieutenant trying to recover a rancher’s son kidnapped by another band provoked a war with the formidable Cochise. His band killed hundreds of people in the course of the 1860s, until the government finally offered him a reservation that included the Chiricahuas and the nearby Dragoon Mountains farther west in the Sonoran Desert.

However, soon after Cochise died the government shut down the reservation on the pretext of continued raids into Mexico. Most of the Chiricahua Apache sorrowfully marched off to the malarial flats of the San Carlos Reservation to the north. But others resumed the war, including Geronimo, resulting in another decade of bloody warfare that claimed hundreds of lives.

The mountains remain speckled with unmarked battlefields, especially in the infamous Apache Pass, with its stage line, Fort Apache, and the only reliable water for horses within 40 miles (64.4 km). Cochise, who once said that the rocks of the Chiricahuas and the Dragoons (shown in the color insert on page C-5) were his only friends, fought stubbornly for the mountains his people held sacred, but the Apache leaders who came after him could not hold onto them. A vivid new cast of characters moved into the mountain range once the army finally broke the stubborn resistance of the Apache and loaded them into cattle cars for what proved to be a devastating 28-year exile from the Southwest to a succession of disease-ridden prison camps.

Alden Hayes, who described himself as a “failed farmer, bankrupt cattleman, sometime smoke-chaser, one-time park ranger, and would-be archaeologist,” spent decades gathering the remarkable stories of local ranchers who had hung on for generations, which he distilled into the wonderful A Portal to Paradise. He offered up the local versions of vivid Western history, including the feud between the Earps and the Clantons that produced the gunfight at the OK Corral, the Indian massacres, the strange death of gunfighter Johnny Ringo from a shot through the temple as he reclined bootless against a giant oak that still towers over Turkey Creek, the violent but inept career of Black Bart Ketcham who turned out to be two outlaws with the same name, and the remarkable life stories of hard cases like rancher-preacher-vigilante-pioneer-sometime-killer John Augustus Chenowth who first passed through the mountains in 1854, only to return in 1881 to make a life there. Chenowth led a massacre of probably peaceful Indians, faced down outlaws, killed his too-critical opponent for sheriff in a controversial case of “self-defense,” said sermons over the people he killed, and founded a family dynasty that persists today in the wide, hard spaces of the Chiricahuas.

All of that biology, history, and geology remains mingled extravagantly on the steep, forested, fused-ash slopes of the Chiricahuas where hummingbirds zoom past the sites of forgotten massacres; butterflies flutter above lonely cemeteries crowded with crosses for the “unknown Mexican”; elegant trogans draw birders from distant continents to clump down dirt roads where Wyatt Earp hunted Johnny Ringo; and day hikers pause to marvel at the rock formations where 130 years ago the warriors of Cochise waited for the signal to begin shooting. And above it all, the mountains loom like a monsoon thunderhead, grim and joyful, brimming with life and utterly without pity.