#72 - "The Chiris" - Portal, Arizona

The Trans-Mountain Road is rugged and narrow. With four-wheel drive engaged, my truck left a cloud of dust as it followed the serpentine path climbing toward Barfoot and Rustler Park. I had driven this rocky dirt road all the way up to an elevation of 9000’ and these montane camps a few weeks ago, and documented my white-knuckle drive in an earlier blog entry. In many places the edge of the narrow road falls into steep canyons and no guardrails or even a rocky shoulder exist to assuage the fears of this height-phobic driver. But today I wouldn’t be traveling that far beyond the turn off for the Southwestern Research Station and Herb Martyr Road. I had been hiking segments of the Basin Trail and the connecting trails that wind around Herb Martyr campground. The trails here can be very difficult to follow and signage is minimal. Flash floods rearrange the terrain and forest fires alter the landscape. Years after a fire the torched trees continue to fall and block the paths. The best map is disappointing, but I consult it and the several GPS apps on my iPhone often, as well as an app called AllTrails that allows you to download some maps to your phone for offline use. Trailblazers sometimes create new side trails that confuse me, especially when the path becomes obscured at stream crossings. Many of these crossings are dry creek beds and it can take some trial and error to finally find your path. I don’t mind stopping to rehydrate and double-check my direction. My hiking style is very much “stop and smell the roses”. I am looking for creatures that can be overlooked by the driven hikers who are after a workout or an endurance test. My pace is deliberate with many long pauses to absorb the breathtaking scenery.

Yesterday I had decided to follow the Trans-Mountain road to the northern terminus of the Basin Trail and hike south toward Welch Seep. The drive from Rusty’s RV Ranch to Portal, Arizona takes maybe 30 minutes, mostly because my driving style matches my hiking. In the early morning the road in is alive. Mule Deer forage at the roadside as do the ubiquitous Black-tailed Jackrabbits and cottontails. A couple mornings ago I came across a gorgeous pale Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. Horned Lizards come out of their roadside burrows to catch some morning rays. Vultures are everywhere, feasting on the carcasses of vehicle-trampled jackrabbits and rabbits from the night before. Occasionally I have glimpsed Javelina, although they seem much more secretive here than they had been in Texas. The occasional Greater Roadrunner darts across the pavement. I drive slow taking it all in.

Early morning Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake on the Portal Road

Early morning Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake on the Portal Road

Past Portal the Portal Road continues into the Chiricahua Mountains and Cave Creek Canyon. The paved road continues past Cave Creek Ranch and Birder’s B&B and the visitor center. Farther on are little side roads that lead to primitive campgrounds and eventually the road takes a hard right turn with an the unpaved South Fork road heading to birder’s paradise. This road and the rocky stream bed trail that is found at its terminus are the birding hotspot of the Chiris. As you continue deeper into the northeastern Chiricahuas the pavement finally ends and you re-enter private land. The Chiricahuas are part of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, but there is much private property and scattered residences. The unpaved road continues to the turn-off for American Museum of National History’s Southwestern Research Station, which lies at the junction with Herb Martyr Road. I have visited the Research Station and its Chiricahua Nature Shop several times, but usually pass it as I climb two miles on the increasingly rocky road to the Herb Martyr Campground and the trailheads of Snowshed Basin Trail, Ash Spring Trail, Greenhouse Trail and the aforementioned connections with the Basin Trail.

I found the trailhead by using the GPS coordinates I had found online and found a little side road that led to a dispersed camping site where I could park off the main road and in some shade. The trail began as a two-track and after a short distance narrowed and descended to the north fork of Cave Creek. A faint path tricked me into first following the edge of the creek, but then I recalled reading that trailblazers would follow this for an especially rugged two miles to reach North Fork Falls, where during spring snowmelt a fifty or sixty foot waterfall can be viewed. I had taken screenshots of the website chiricahuatrails.com so I would have access to trail notes without cell signal or wifi. I reviewed these images and walked back to cross Cave Creek and find where the trail continued sharply to the left and ascended. For another mile or so the Basin Trail climbed via switchbacks that led to a spectacular view of Silver Peak, the Cave Creek Basin and the red cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon and Reed Mountain behind. Silver Peak seemed so far in the distance and so high, but I had climbed that trail earlier in my stay from its trailhead back near the visitor center.

The Chiricahua Mountains have a base elevation of about 3500’ above sea level and climb to the 9,759’ (2,975 m) Chiricahua Peak. The grasslands and deserts in the lowlands give way to Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir forests at high elevation and five of the nine life zones are found in the Chiris (Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, Transition, Canadian, and Hudsonian). Cave Creek Canyon is perhaps the jewel of the entire mountain range and having it twenty minutes from camp is part of the reason for my extended stay here in Rodeo, New Mexico. 

From the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon website:

Wrapped around the always-flowing Cave Creek, Cave Creek Canyon is considered by many to be the crown jewel of this magnificent mountain range. It is the largest and most biologically diverse canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. It is a favorite haunt of bird watchers and nature lovers, and is the home of the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station and the small communities of Portal and Paradise.

Cave Creek Canyon is one of Conservation International’s 34 Global Biodiversity Hotspots. It provides habitat for approximately 370 species of birds, 170 species of butterflies, hundreds of plant species and over 70 species of mammals including ocelots, collared peccaries, mountain lions, coatis, black bears, ringtails, and white-tailed deer.

The animal’s mentioned above are what my old friend Dr. Fred Sherberger would refer to as “charismatic megafauna”. These are the sexy beasts that your average nature lover cares about. But for those of us in pursuit of “creepy crawlies”, the Southwestern Research Station lists include 32 species of snake including seven rattlesnakes and the Arizona Coral Snake and 26 species of lizard including the Gila Monster. The invertebrate fauna is incredibly rich and diverse. I have seen amazing butterflies and dragonflies. Arachnids are abundant but secretive. You won’t see big orbweaver webs in the blazing sun. Come monsoon season other secretive creatures like spadefoot toads will emerge from their aestivation.

From the American Museum of Natural History website:

Bio-geographically, the Chiricahua Mountains are located at a crossroads between distinct desert and mountain biotas. At lower elevations, species are influenced by both the Sonoran Desert to the west and the Chihuahuan Desert to the south and east. At higher elevations, there is a mixing of plants and animals from the Rocky Mountains, to the north and the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Mexico. The uniqueness and diversity of the biota is well recognized by ornithologists, herpetologists, and entomologists. Cave Creek Canyon is also recognized as one of the top birding localities in the United States.

I am looking forward to my return in mid-July and stay through August. The Southwest Monsoon rains fall from July through August into early September. The landscape will be transformed and wildlife activity will increase. I now will be attending both the 40th International Herpetological Symposium (July 19-22) and the 1st Biology of Snakes Conference (July 27-29), both of which will be held at the Chiricahua Desert Museum's Geronimo Event Center. Herpers from all over will take advantage of the monsoon season's affect on reptile and amphibian behavior. I can't wait.

I stopped by to see Bob Ashley at the Chiricahua Desert Museum after my morning hike yesterday. He graciously gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of his off exhibit reptile collection. He has at least three snake rooms dedicated to rattlesnakes, mountain kingsnakes and other species with an emphasis on desert herpetofauna. One air-conditioned room is for montane species. Another room houses primarily lizards, but contained some invertebrates, amphibians and turtles. Bob promised that we would all have a more thorough tour of his collection during the symposium, but I appreciated the quick personal tour especially the opportunity to see just about every species, subspecies and locality of rattlesnake imaginable.

All the best, MJ