After a few days in a house with a broken AC, I had to get into the cool country. I decided to head to the Chiricahuas. The trip turned out to be one of the best hikes I've done, ever. This is an excellent hike, one that everyone should do at least once. The Chiricahua Crest Trail is your ticket to the backcountry. Linking the meadows and high peaks of the Chiricahuas, it stays at a fairly level elevation, making for easy hiking. It is not a linear trail, but rather a collection of trails, spurs and loops laid out along the crest of the range. The trail starts from Rustler Park.
From the trailhead, the Crest Trail ascends gently through a fir and pine forest, climbing above the campground. It levels out and traverses just below the edge of a ridge, passing some small granite cliffs and ledges that offer views of Buena Vista Peak. It swings around a small peak, staying level, and eventually runs into a closed dirt road that runs along the edge of a meadow. There are some small rock outcrops here that offer great views to the west. The trail merges with the dirt road, ascends moderately through an old-growth forest. It levels off and swings around the mountain, entering into a burned area. This burn was caused by the Rattlesnake fire of 1994, and we will be seeing its aftermath all through the hike. There is lots of small undergrowth taking over where the fire burnt, and tons and tons of wildflowers. The trail descends to a small saddle, where it enters the Chiricahua Wilderness.
Shortly beyond the Wilderness sign, you will find a three-way junction. The leftmost branch will take you to Centella Point, while the middle allows peakbaggers to summit Fly's Peak. The rightmost branch, which I took, traverses around the side of Fly's Peak to Round Park, where the three trails rejoin. A "park," in these mountains, is the name for a meadow, and I highly recommend that you take a break in this one. Both times that I have stayed at Round Park for more than a few minutes, I have had close encounters with wildlife. In this case, I saw a mule deer, so I snuck closer an inch at a time, only to be surprised when the deer started coming closer to me. She was apparently unafraid of humans, as she stood less than ten feet from me and didn't spook at my flash. There is a spur trail leading to Booger Spring from this meadow.
From Round Park, the Crest Trail climbs gently over a ridge and descends to Cima Park, which is no more than a grassy clearing in the trees. The trail then traverses through a burnt area, which is made more friendly by the presence of raspberry bushes at trailside. Eventually you will reach the trail sign for the spur trail to Anita Park. This small meadow ringed by aspen trees is probably the best campsite on the Crest Trail. A trail sign will direct you downhill to good water at Anita Spring, and a small unmarked trail on the southeast edge of the meadow will lead you to the top of a small bald hill. This hill is a good spot to watch the sun rise.
From the Anita Spring junction, it is less than a quarter-mile to Junction Saddle, where the Chiricahua Crest Trail splits again. The rightmost fork will lead you on a long traverse around the west side of Chiricahua Peak. The middle fork takes you .2 miles to the summit of Chiricahua Peak. This is the tallest peak in the Chiricahuas, and is viewless and forested over. The leftmost fork, which I took this time, leads you through a gorgeous old-growth spruce, fir and aspen forest. You will pass a junction with a spur trail to Oso Agua Fria Spring, and shortly after that a junction with a trail to Chiricahua Saddle. The trail beyond this point cuts through a section of old burn. The views in this section are fantastic. You'll be able to see Paint Rock and Monte Vista Peak, the area around Chiricahua Saddle, and south into Mexico.
The trail eventually reaches Juniper Spring and a junction with a spur trail to Snowshed Peak. Juniper Spring had brown, foamy, generally unappetizing water, so I would suggest cameling up at Anita or Oso Agua Fria Spring. While I was resting here I had the privilege of seeing a peregrine falcon gliding on currents of air above me. The map (Rainbow Expeditions-Chir. Trail and Recreation) shows the trail dropping straight into the pass from Juniper Spring, but in reality it switchbacks just above Juniper Spring and enters at a lower level. The switchback is a bit obscure, so you'll have to search for it.
From the pass below Snowshed Peak, you have 4 more unnamed peaks to get around before reaching Sentinel Peak. The first two of these are fairly straightforward. The trail traverses straight around, passing through a saddle between the two. On the way back from Sentinel Peak, I was hiking along the first of these peaks when two odd-looking, pear shaped birds exploded from the brush and threw themselves on the trail in front of me, chirping loudly and flopping around like their wings were broken. Once I recovered from my surprise, I looked to where they had been and found the explanation for their odd behavior. A half dozen tiny chicks were hightailing away from me as fast as they could.
The third unnamed peak is where things get tricky. This section of trail apparently gets little maintenance, as there are many fallen trees and brush covering the trail. When, not if, you lose the trail, look for waterbars or other erosion prevention devices, or look for the "line" of the trail. Remember that it stays pretty level. Once you are around the third peak, you will drop into a saddle and find a trail sign. This is the end of the Crest Trail. The trail sign indicates that there is a trail leading to Sentinel Peak, but I found no sign of it on the ground. You basically freestyle your way around the final unnamed peak to a saddle underneath Sentinel Peak. This saddle is very scenic, and makes a nice rest spot. The final push to the summit of Sentinel Peak is straightforward, and the views from the top are well worth it. Of particular interest are the cliffs and pinnacles of Cave Creek Canyon.
To get back to your car, just head back the way you came. A look at the map will show you some of the alternative routes to the Crest Trail, so if you want you can see some different terrain on the way out. Another possibility, which is what I did, is setting up a base camp at Anita or Round Park and dayhiking to Sentinel Peak, Snowshed Peak, or Monte Vista Peak. There are enough options here to keep you occupied for quite some time.
On my trip, I set up a basecamp at Anita Park and dayhiked out to Sentinel Peak the next day. I was back at Anita by 2:30, so I decided to move my camp to Round Park and explore the Fly's Peak area. As I was hiking to Round Park, the clouds rolled in and fog filled the forest. This was actually quite cool, as it made for a spooky-looking forest. However, it soon began to drizzle, then rain. By the time I reached Round Park, it was flat-out pouring. I decided to cut the trip short and a few hours later reached my truck, cold, sopping wet, and tired. Despite all this, I still think the Chiricahua Crest is one of the best hikes I've done. In fact, the rain just added the right touch of adventure to the outing. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this hike to others - just make sure you check the weather forecast.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.