About a year ago I moved to Las Cruces, NM from Dayton, OH, and boy was I happy to be back out West. With the move came a new job, and some 3-4 day blocks of time off that would be perfect for climbing some mountains. One of the trips I have been planning since arriving in Las Cruces was a trip to the Chiricahua Mountains of the southeast corner of Arizona. There was a county highpoint there (Chiricahua Peak) that has inexplicably been on my to-do list for a few years. I’ve never lived in Arizona, but I’ve always been drawn to the “sky island” type mountains and Chiricahua is that type of peak.
So after putting my 18 mos old son to bed on Tuesday, March 6th I left Las Cruces and headed west towards Arizona. I was planning a couple of good hikes involving well established trails and warm sunshine (Chiricahua and Wrightson were my two main objectives). An uneventful drive along I-10 eventually led me towards Rustler Park campground and at an elevation of 7000 feet I started to notice some small patches in some secluded areas. As the road continued upwards I encountered increasing snow patches that now covered parts of the road. As I neared Rustler Park campground in my Camry it took my three tries to make it through a particularly large snow drift/patch and up the final hill.
Hmmm…. Maybe the hike wouldn’t be quite as warm and sunny as I had hoped. After parking my car and setting up my tent, I immediately fell asleep. The next morning a bright shiny sun crested the surrounding trees and shined into my tent. I packed up my tent and sleeping items and readied myself for the hike. Luckily, just as I walked out of my Las Cruces home the night before, I decided that I might as well take my leather hiking boots “just in case” there was a little bit of snow.
The rough road to Long Park was blocked off and I made pretty good time walking through the 3-6 inch deep snow. I was still optimistic that the trail would clear, and even if the conditions remained constant the hike would be easily doable. So far the road had been well shaded and on the north slope, therefore I expected conditions to improve when I reached the crest trail. From Long Park I followed a ¾ mile connector trail that led me to the Crest Trail. This trail had a little more snow (still north slope, still deep in the trees), and a couple times I post-holed up to the middle of my shin.
The snow is beginning to get deeper as the connector trail hooks up with the crest trail
Unfortunately when I reached the crest trail the snow became a little deeper and every step seemed to sink a little further. Finally after a half mile of post-holing to about knee depth, I turned the corner and was on a south facing slope. The trail was clear of snow and the swear words running through my mind instantly changed to thoughts of sunshine and butterflies. I quickly covered the snow free section, and then encountered another snow covered section. This trend continued in approximately half mile increments (dry-snow-dry-snow-etc.) as the crest trail wound around bumps on its way to Chiricahua Peak. As I gained elevation though, the snow continued to get deeper and when I reached Cima Park it was not uncommon for me to be sinking to mid-thigh.
The obvious difference between north and south slopes is shown here
Remember how I had fortuitously remembered my leather boots? Well, without gaiters they were not doing quite as much good as I had hoped. On occasion water would squish out the top of my boots as I strided along, and my feet had been soaking wet for hours. The final north facing slope that led to Chiricahua’s summit was by far the worst section. By the time I reached the summit I was flat out beat! The snow was 2-3 feet deep on the summit and I half-heartedly tried to find the moveable benchmark.
There is a lot of snow between the summit and me!
The trip up had taken me about 5 hours. Trips of similar distances and elevation gains normally take me less than 2 hours.
The summit celebration quickly ended, and I headed back down hoping that I could make my car before darkness fell. With footprints to follow, the way down went smoothly and quickly (relatively) until I reached Fly Peak. Here I decided to bag another summit “since I was already here”. Oh how quickly I had forgotten the pain of my trek up the mountain! The way up Fly Peak was virtually snow free (south-facing slope) and it looked like a quick little jaunt. I hurried the ~1/2 mile to the top, signed the register, and decided to take the snow covered north face back to the trail in order to “save time”. One hour later I had covered a half mile of thigh deep snow, incessant deadfall, and I was back on the trail.
At this point my boots were still soaked (go figure?!), and my nylon pants were wet up to the knees. This is what southern Arizona hiking is all about! The rest of the hike down the trail and road went about as expected. A little over 8 hrs after leaving my car I arrived back at Rustler Park as happy as I had ever been to see the burgundy Camry waiting for me.
The hike/slog had been a lot more than I had bargained for! The temperature had been in the high sixties, the wind had been non-existent, and it had been a bluebird day from start to finish. Nearly a perfect day to be in the mountains :)!
After Chiricahua I skipped out on Wrightson and instead hiked some lower elevation peaks before heading home to Las Cruces. One word of advice for the Arizona department of tourism: From now on, you’d better make sure your southern mountains are free of snow in March if you want to maintain the image of a “hot and dry place for hiking”!
Here is what the Chiricahua Range looked like the next day from nearby Silver Peak
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