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Trail Blazing

Southeast of Tucson, deserted mountain trails, abundant bird life and Apache history in the "sky islands"

March 22, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

CHIRICAHUA NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. — "So," said the Swiss tourist after a pause to take in the view. "We have come at the right time."

So we had. We stood at Massai Point, atop a 6,870-foot peak in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The wind whistled, a great beige expanse of the Sulphur Springs Valley sprawled in the hazy distance, and the viewpoint's marquee attraction lay dead ahead, embedded in the facing mountain slopes, dramatically lighted by the late afternoon sun. You know the carved rock faces at Easter Island? Shadow them with green lichen, stack them atop one another and multiply by a thousand or two, and you have these volcanic rock formations, their features carved not by man but water, ice and wind.

In southeastern Arizona, beyond the vistas of the Grand Canyon and the golf courses and spas of greater Phoenix, lie half a dozen mountain ranges. These mountains--the Santa Catalinas just northeast of Tucson, the Huachucas to the south, and the Chiricahuas (commonly pronounced Cheer-a-kawas) and Dragoons farther east--not only separate the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, they sustain such separate plant and animal populations from the dry plains below that scientists call them "sky islands."

The saguaro and the yucca yield to oak, ponderosa pine, juniper, manzanita. There are deer, four kinds of skunk and the coati-mundi, a foraging raccoon-like creature. The rocks--stacked, shattered, scaled and shaped with infinite variation--rise to 8,000 feet above sea level and beyond, remnants of volcanic bursts 27 million years ago. The skies are shared by all manner of birds: Hepatic tanagers, Mexican chickadees, red-faced warblers, peregrine falcons and stout scrub jays that strafe picnic tables. For an audience with an elegant trogon (a bird with a bright red breast and dark green back separated by a band of white), try Cave Creek Canyon in May. To consult with a few thousand sandhill cranes, their great squawks echoing across the desert floor, try Sulphur Springs Valley near the dry lake bed of Willcox Playa in February or early March. All in all, spring is prime time in the islands of Arizona.

Which is why, early this month, with the creeks running fast with fresh snowmelt, I flew to Tucson, rented a sport-utility vehicle, loaded it with tent, sleeping bag, cooler and propane stove, and set out on a five-day loop of islands in the sky. I was looking for places off the beaten path, so I bypassed Mt. Lemmon and Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalinas, which are favorite day-trip and weekend retreats of Tucson residents. I came away with two new targets for future outdoor trips and a humiliating tale about a bump in the night and a defiant, beady-eyed beast.

*

Along with great hiking, a springtime stranger to the sky islands finds a handful of well-sited basic campgrounds and a few lodgings, and more migrant species than just birds. The busier highways and most of the campgrounds I saw were filled with "snowbird" RVers, many of them getting a last bit of touring in before towing their cars back north. It was a bit dismaying, I must say, to wake in a tent, unzip, step out, and see giant homes on wheels in several directions. But since the temperatures were in the 30s and 40s on those mornings, I also understood the attraction of traveling that way. Someday it may be me in one of those aluminum wombs.

Before you reach the high country of Southeastern Arizona, you head past the ghost towns and not-quite ghost towns. Take Interstate 10 west of Tucson, then head south at Benson on Arizona Highway 80, and after miles of desert scrub you first get the staged gunfights of tarted-up Tombstone (tourism capital of the area), then the idle mines and artsy revived storefronts and bohemian coffee shops of Bisbee.

If your kitsch bone needs tickling, or your children demand gunplay, you may be excused for stopping in Tombstone. Thousands do--enough to sustain three different O.K. Corral gunfight reenactment companies. Every afternoon on the boardwalks of the main drag, in fact, the combatants work the tourists in period attire, handing out fliers and gently bad-mouthing the competition. All this commerce, sprung from three squalid deaths a century ago.

Bisbee may owe much of its life to tourists, too, but I liked the canyon setting and period architecture. The whole atmosphere seemed easier to take. The choice of restaurants and lodgings is broader too: I took my burrito dinner at the Quarter Moon Coffee House to the mesmerizing sounds of a itinerant bass-percussion-didgeridoo combo from Idaho.

But the mountains were the point. The Chiricahuas and Dragoons, my main targets, are full of water sources and hiding places that made them not only wildlife-rich, but crucial battlegrounds in the last days of Apaches fighting U.S. troops. Geronimo and Cochise, the two most celebrated warriors of the Chiricahua Apache, both fought their last near here, and the reminders turn up left and right.

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