The largest of the “sky island” mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest, the Chiricahuas are home to animals and plants found nowhere else in the U.S. The town of Portal is the gateway to world-famous Cave Creek Canyon. Traveling on Hwy 80 toward Portal from Douglas you will pass through rolling grasslands punctuated by the cones of extinct volcanoes; watch for Burrowing Owls and Pronghorns along the highway. As you cruise up Portal Road west from Hwy 80, grasses give way first to thorn scrub then to a variety of evergreen oaks. Some residents in the Portal area welcome visitors to their backyard feeding stations; for information on current opportunities, inquire at the Portal Store in town or the ranger station up the road. Beyond Portal the road passes the U.S. Forest Service ranger station and winds along Cave Creek; watch for Elegant Trogons all along this stretch, particularly where Arizona Sycamores grow close to the road.
The road to the famous South Fork Zoological and Botanical Area takes off to the left near the Sunny Flat Campground. This day-use-only area is closed to collecting year round and to use of recording equipment or playback of taped calls during nesting season to protect trogons, owls, and other birds. The 1.3-mile entrance road offers excellent birding which is all too often missed by those hurrying on to the trailhead. The road can be hard on vehicles, particularly in the rainy season; ordinary passenger cars may not be able to safely navigate the stream crossing following heavy rains or snowmelt. The loop at the end of the road is narrow and often crowded with cars; large RVs or vehicles with trailers may not be able to negotiate it. A new and mandatory $3.00 fee per vehicle funds maintenance of campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails; the pay station is self-serve, so be sure to have small bills. About 2 miles past the turn-off to South Fork is the Southwestern Research Station, a research facility of the American Museum of Natural History. Visitors are welcome to observe the station’s hummingbird feeders, which attract a good number and diversity of birds in season, but please remember that this is a scientific facility with research in progress. A small selection of books and gifts is on display in the main office near the visitor parking area. The station is open spring through early fall, and lodging with meals is offered to non-scientists as available; call (520) 558-2396 or vist the SWRS Web site.
The pavement ends a short distance beyond the research station and the road begins to climb toward the high, cool conifer forests atop the mountains. The route over the top of the Chiricahuas is a wonderful (if sometimes nerve-wracking) drive from April through November, but heavy snows force closure of this road in winter. At Onion Saddle, one fork leads to the campground at Rustler Park, a good stop to look for high-elevation species such as Mexican Chickadee, Red-faced Warbler, Olive Warbler and Red Crossbill. The mandatory day-use fee of $3.00 per vehicle funds maintenance of campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails; the pay station is self-serve, so be sure to have small bills. Nearby Barfoot Park is an alternative for some quiet birding if Rustler Park is crowded (as it often is on summer weekends). A reintroduced flock of Thick-billed Parrots made their home in this area in the late 1980s; this reintroduction effort, involving both wild birds confiscated from smugglers and captive-bred individuals, ended in disappointment, but there are still hopes of returning this magnificent bird to the sky islands. Warning: Large RVs and vehicles pulling trailers may not be able to negotiate the tight curves on this narrow mountain road!
On the west side of the range lies Chiricahua National Monument, also known as “The Wonderland of Rocks.” Eerie spires of rhyolite are the park’s biggest attraction, but wildlife is also abundant. Watch for the occasional Zone-tailed Hawk or Golden Eagle soaring high above the formations and Hepatic Tanager, Juniper and Bridled titmice, Grace’s Warbler and Strickland’s Woodpecker in the lush forests of the canyon bottoms. The second Berylline Hummingbird nest ever discovered in the U.S. was found here. The park is accessible from the Sulphur Springs Valley via Hwy 181 from Sunizona or Hwy 186 from Willcox, or you can stop in on your way down from Onion Saddle.
For more information on camping, trails, road conditions etc., contact:
Douglas Ranger District
RR 1, Box 228-R
Douglas, AZ 85607
Chiricahua National Monument
Dos Cabezas Route
Willcox, AZ 85643