By Bonnie & Bill Neely
Whenever we drive West, we try to go through the small town of Willcox, Arizona, where for years we found the best coffee and cinnamon rolls anywhere. The little sweet shop was right on the main street through town. Now, although that shop has closed, the very best coffee and hot cinnamon rolls, hamburgers, and other good food all day is at the KOA Roadrunner Kafe on Virginia Street at Willcox/Cochise KOA Campground. We enjoyed our stay at this KOA, and in summer there are hardly any tourists because of the heat. Wilcox is very popular in winter for snowbird RV-ers who come from the North, and some spend all winter in Arizona.
Willcox is known as once a home of the famous western singer/songwriter Rex Allen. He was the voice of the West and starred in many western cowboy movies. He earned a big star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Rex Allen Museum in Willcox features Allen’s collection of memorabilia and is a fun place to visit.
But the main reason to make Willcox your destination is Chiricahua National Monument, a most unusual natural wonder. There are thousands of spires and columns, Nature’s sculptures made of Rhyolite. These are weirdly beautiful towering formations were made by ash from the Turkey Creek Volcano which erupted 27 million years ago. As the layers of ash cooled, they melded together leaving stacks of rocks stuck together in intriguing formations, which appear impossibly balanced. Our brains tell us they will topple at any minute, but they are solidly stuck together. Wind and weather through the eons have re-sculpted these formations, and that continues today.
We drove the eight miles through the preserved National Monument, which protects 12,025 acres, on a good roadway built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 during the Great Depression. The CCC was part of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide good jobs to 3.4 million starving, out of work young men. The CCC taught these adults many skills, including, surveying, carpentry, plumbing, even engineering fetes, and their determination and hard work created many of the lasting improvements in our National Parks and Monuments. In some of the National Park Lodges built then we saw lovely indoor appointments and decor created by men and women also through arts and crafts and sewing skills they were taught in CCC training. Anywhere we see sturdy stone walls, buildings, tunnels, bridges in these places, we feel sure the CCC built these lasting and beautiful edifices for us to enjoy nearly a century later. Although the pay was only $30 a month, the CCC workers were supplied with food and shelter and necessities, so they sent $25 home to support their families. We could not imagine living on that salary today, but in those days, it saved millions of families in the USA. Bonita Canyon Drive, which was first surveyed, cut and built by these sturdy workers, climbs from the flat grasslands up the mountain that is like a sky island of forests. The varieties of evergreens changed as we ascended to a featured summit at Massai Point, 6,870 feet. This road provides a very easy way to see these wonders of giant rock sentinels looking over the forests. The mountains are up to 9,763 feet in height.
There are seventeen miles of fascinating hikes through and around the magnificent, unbelievable rock columns and spires. The Visitor Center at the entrance 35 miles southeast of Willcox has books and maps and friendly rangers to advise about how to plan and enjoy your time in the park. There is a lovely, wooded campground open year-round for tents, trailers, and RV’s up to 29 feet. Good restrooms are available in a couple of places.
At Massai Point we found an easy and short walkway, accessible for wheelchairs, which leads to an area overlooking thousands of these rock columns. At one place it leads to a display of exhibits telling history and interesting facts about the surrounding area. The topmost place at Massai Point looks out to another mountain where Apache Chief Cochise is supposedly buried, and many people “see” his head profile in a massive rock natural formation across from Massai Point. Since the 1400’s four main bands of the Apaches lived in this area and named it “Standing Rocks.” When Spaniards tried to move in and take away the Natives’ hunting ground and nomadic homelands, they fought fiercely. Cochise, along with Geronimo, led many forays against pioneer settlers who invaded their lands. Fort Bowie was built to protect the settlers. In 1886 Cochise surrendered and the Apaches were relocated eventually to reservations in Oklahoma and New Mexico.
In 1888 Emma and Neil Erickson, immigrants from Sweden, settled here. Their daughter Lillian and her husband Ed Riggs in 1917 decided to turn the family homestead into a guest ranch. From then until 1973 visitors came to stay awhile here since tourism to the West was becoming very fashionable. The owners built trails and led guests on horseback through the magnificent sights of the Chiricahuas. Bird watching in the area became quite popular, and still is today. Women alone managed the guest ranch during many of these years, showing how strong and brave women can be. The original homestead is preserved by the National Park Service as Faraway Ranch at Bonita Canyon and is open for touring.
These amazing formations at Chiricahua have beckoned us repeatedly through the years. It is worth the trip to discover this wonder of nature so well preserved by our National Park Service.
IF YOU GO: