TRAIL BLAZING

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

"So," said the Swiss tourist after a pause to take in the view. "We have come at the right time."

So we had. We stood at Massai Point, atop a 6,870-foot peak in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The wind whistled, a great beige expanse of the Sulphur Springs Valley sprawled in the hazy distance, and the viewpoint's marquee attraction lay dead ahead, embedded in the facing mountain slopes, dramatically lighted by the late afternoon sun. You know the carved rock faces at Easter Island? Shadow them with green lichen, stack them atop one another and multiply by a thousand or two, and you have these volcanic rock formations, their features carved not by man but water, ice and wind.

In southeastern Arizona, beyond the vistas of the Grand Canyon and the golf courses and spas of greater Phoenix, lie half a dozen mountain ranges. These mountains--the Santa Catalinas just northeast of Tucson, the Huachucas to the south, and the Chiricahuas (commonly pronounced Cheer-a-kawas) and Dragoons farther east--not only separate the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, they sustain such separate plant and animal populations from the dry plains below that scientists call them "sky islands."

The saguaro and the yucca yield to oak, ponderosa pine, juniper, manzanita. There are deer, four kinds of skunk and the coati-mundi, a foraging raccoon-like creature. The rocks--stacked, shattered, scaled and shaped with infinite variation--rise to 8,000 feet above sea level and beyond, remnants of volcanic bursts 27 million years ago. The skies are shared by all manner of birds: Hepatic tanagers, Mexican chickadees, red-faced warblers, peregrine falcons and stout scrub jays that strafe picnic tables. For an audience with an elegant trogon (a bird with a bright red breast and dark green back separated by a band of white), try Cave Creek Canyon in May. To consult with a few thousand sandhill cranes, their great squawks echoing across the desert floor, try Sulphur Springs Valley near the dry lake bed of Willcox Playa in February or early March. All in all, spring is prime time in the islands of Arizona.

Which is why, early this month, with the creeks running fast with fresh snowmelt, I flew to Tucson, rented a sport-utility vehicle, loaded it with tent, sleeping bag, cooler and propane stove, and set out on a five-day loop of islands in the sky. I was looking for places off the beaten path, so I bypassed Mt. Lemmon and Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalinas, which are favorite day-trip and weekend retreats of Tucson residents. I came away with two new targets for future outdoor trips and a humiliating tale about a bump in the night and a defiant, beady-eyed beast.

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Along with great hiking, a springtime stranger to the sky islands finds a handful of well-sited basic campgrounds and a few lodgings, and more migrant species than just birds. The busier highways and most of the campgrounds I saw were filled with "snowbird" RVers, many of them getting a last bit of touring in before towing their cars back north. It was a bit dismaying, I must say, to wake in a tent, unzip, step out, and see giant homes on wheels in several directions. But since the temperatures were in the 30s and 40s on those mornings, I also understood the attraction of traveling that way. Someday it may be me in one of those aluminum wombs.

Before you reach the high country of Southeastern Arizona, you head past the ghost towns and not-quite ghost towns. Take Interstate 10 west of Tucson, then head south at Benson on Arizona Highway 80, and after miles of desert scrub you first get the staged gunfights of tarted-up Tombstone (tourism capital of the area), then the idle mines and artsy revived storefronts and bohemian coffee shops of Bisbee.

If your kitsch bone needs tickling, or your children demand gunplay, you may be excused for stopping in Tombstone. Thousands do--enough to sustain three different O.K. Corral gunfight reenactment companies. Every afternoon on the boardwalks of the main drag, in fact, the combatants work the tourists in period attire, handing out fliers and gently bad-mouthing the competition. All this commerce, sprung from three squalid deaths a century ago.

Bisbee may owe much of its life to tourists, too, but I liked the canyon setting and period architecture. The whole atmosphere seemed easier to take. The choice of restaurants and lodgings is broader too: I took my burrito dinner at the Quarter Moon Coffee House to the mesmerizing sounds of a itinerant bass-percussion-didgeridoo combo from Idaho.

But the mountains were the point. The Chiricahuas and Dragoons, my main targets, are full of water sources and hiding places that made them not only wildlife-rich, but crucial battlegrounds in the last days of Apaches fighting U.S. troops. Geronimo and Cochise, the two most celebrated warriors of the Chiricahua Apache, both fought their last near here, and the reminders turn up left and right.

Blasting north along Highway 80 near the New Mexico border, I pulled over at a lonely stone tower, neighbored by two shaded picnic tables. In every direction lay flat, hot desert for miles. Near this spot, in Skeleton Canyon, the plaque said, Geronimo and his followers surrendered in September 1886, which "forever ended Indian warfare in the United States." To which someone with a black marker had replied, "SAY WHAT?"

Another night, I pitched my tent in the campground at Cochise Stronghold, a Dragoon mountain wilderness area about 80 miles east of Tucson. The campground and the adjacent three-mile Cochise Trail were striking in part for the jumbled, roseate granite boulders all around. (Rockfellow Dome, which draws many young climbers, is closed from Feb. 15 to June 30 to give fauna a mating-season respite from human traffic.) But the site struck me more for its role in the Indian wars.

Beginning in the early 1860s, Cochise and a band of Chiricahua Apache followers made a headquarters in this mountain pass, occasionally descending to raid parties of settlers on the valley floor. For a decade the warrior and his followers held out before the federal soldiers promised to give his people land and Cochise gave up his stronghold.

A few years later, the U.S. government changed its mind and grabbed back the land. By the turn of the century, it had packed Cochise's people off to Florida; Alabama; and Fort Sill, Okla., as prisoners of war.

Before that enforced exodus, historians say, the body of Cochise, who died in the mid-1870s, may have been secretly buried somewhere in these rocky slopes. (Some say his horse was buried with him.) This adds another dimension to a hike here: As you scramble around a corner or peek beneath a boulder jumble, you can't help but wonder what bleached bones might lie just out of view. (A sign notes that in 1989, the Fort Sill Chiricahua-Warm Springs Apache tribe received title to four acres in the stronghold area; maps give no clue to the site's location).

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The first of my prime finds was the Cave Creek Canyon area of Coronado National Forest, about 10 miles west of the Arizona-New Mexico border. From Highway 80, Portal Road leads to the hamlet of Portal, home of the 16-room Portal Peak Lodge. From there, the road leads into a green canyon flanked by jagged mountains--the east side of the Chiricahuas, their great orange stone bluffs dusted by lichen at lower altitudes and snow higher up. Between the steep canyon walls runs Cave Creek, and alongside the creek, amid meadows and groves of oak and pine, stands a series of rustic campsites (outhouses and picnic tables only), virtually empty.

I took a spot in the Stewart campground between a 30-foot boulder and a creek, heated a dinner of canned corn chowder, and watched the shadows climb and finally conquer 1,000-foot-high Cathedral Rock. During my stay, I saw fewer than half a dozen other people. The only other campers were a birding couple and, farther up the creek, a lone hiker who had come from Washington state.

My morning walk took me up the south fork of Cave Creek, where the strong spring runoff made for multiple dramatic rock-hopping creek-crossings. The farther I scrambled up the creek, the more this offshoot canyon narrowed, and the more frequently I found myself scrambling on and off stones of orange, red, green, brown, black and pink.

There's another key asset to be sniffed out in Cave Creek Canyon for those not quite ready to camp and cook: Follow the main road past most of the campgrounds and look for the sign that says Southwestern Research Station. The research station, owned and operated by the New York-based American Museum of Natural History, is a low-key complex of buildings mostly occupied in summer by scientists. But in late March, April, May, September and October, this facility is open to any unlettered citizen "naturalist" interested in the scenic location, spring-heated outdoor pool, cafeteria and rates of less than $65 per person per night, all meals included. Rooms, often occupied dorm-style, have four or five single beds each and one bathroom (no phones or TVs).

There are two ways to drive out of Cave Creek Canyon. But for the coldest part of the year, snows and mud close down the 25-mile unpaved mountain passage, Pinery Canyon Road, that connects the canyon to the more popular Chiricahua National Monument on the mountain range's northwest side. As a result, driving from Cave Creek Canyon to the national monument visitor center--which many travelers will want to do--is a roundabout exercise that takes you through about 100 miles of largely empty desert to Arizona Highway 181.

With stops to nose around the town of Rodeo, N.M., then to eat lunch and nose around in Willcox, Ariz., the trip took me about four hours. But in late spring, the snows at 8,000 feet are usually cleared if not melted and the road opens. (Pinery Canyon Road is no picnic, mind you. Even for seasoned locals it takes 90 minutes to safely cover 25 miles; a vehicle with high clearance is highly recommended.)

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Chiricahua National Monument was the second happy find of my itinerary. Grand Canyon National Park pulled 4.8 million visitors last year, while relatively tiny Chiricahua National Monument, 120 miles southeast of Tucson, pulled just 80,710. To some degree, this is understandable. Aside from its low profile, the monument's area is only 12,000 acres, with just 25 campsites and about 20 miles of maintained trails. Its main road is just eight miles long.

But the campground is snug in a canyon with big, pretty views and babbling brooks. And the trails are spectacular, with names such as Echo Canyon, Rhyolite Canyon and Heart of Rocks. Each begins within a few steps of the monument's only paved road, Bonita Canyon Drive. By one author's estimate, more than 160 different species of birds have been sighted within monument boundaries.

On the afternoon I arrived--after quickly grabbing a spot in the busy campground--I meandered around Massai Point and covered about half of the mile-long Sugarloaf Mountain Trail. The next morning, I circled the three-mile loop of the otherworldly Echo Canyon Trail, and tramped around Faraway Ranch, a homesteader's effort that evolved into a guest ranch for decades before the ranch landed in Park Service hands in the '70s.

I ran out of time and didn't get to hike the Heart of Rocks Trail, which is many peoples' favorite. At its most famous viewpoint, Cochise Head, hikers look out at strange vertical volcanic formations in the foreground, with the horizon behind swollen with the mountain-ridge said to resemble the inclined profile of the area's most famous Apache warrior.

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It was in Chiricahua National Monument campground that I ran into the bump in the night and the thieving beast. Like a good camper, I locked all my food away in my vehicle so as not to attract black bears or other foragers. Unlike a good camper, I assumed that the beer in my Styrofoam cooler wouldn't be a target, and I just plain forgot about the milk. After two servings of freeze-dried spaghetti marinara, I drifted off to sleep about 9:30.

Around midnight, the noises began: Snuffling, scratching, pounding. Items being flung. Blinking rapidly, I extracted myself from my sleeping bag, switched on my flashlight and laid plans. If it's a bear, retreat; a coati-mundi, attack, sort of.

I reached for the tent zipper, and poked out my head. The beast was raccoon-size, and pawing at the Coors. Its eyes twinkled in the flashlight beam. As I approached, I realized this was a black animal with stripes down its back. When I made a shoo noise and stamped my feet, the bushy tail rose in threat. I stopped stamping, and we stood there awhile, with me praying that no park ranger or fellow camper would stumble on this miserable scene.

Finally the beast got bored and wandered away, and I crawled back into my bag. In the morning I found a gnawed carton from my cooler. He got my milk. And I feel sure that on this mountain in southern Arizona a few hours later, that fearless beast greeted the dawn with two white stripes down his back and another one across his upper lip.

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GUIDEBOOK

Arizona Idyllic

Getting there: Southwest and United Airlines fly nonstop daily between LAX and Tucson. Restricted, advance purchase round-trip fares begin at $100.

Where to stay: In Bisbee, the Shady Dell RV Park and Campground (1 Douglas Road; telephone [520] 432-3567) offers lodgings in seven vintage trailers for $25-$55 nightly. (Tent sites or RV hook-ups $10-$15 nightly.)

In Cave Creek Canyon, the Southwestern Research Station (P.O. Box 16553, Portal, AZ 85632; tel./fax [520] 558-2396) is a find. Owned and run by the American Museum of Natural History, it charges $52-$63 per night, all meals included. (No credit cards.)

At the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon, Portal Peak Lodge (P.O. Box 364, Portal, AZ 85632; tel. [520] 558-2223, fax [520] 558-2473) offers 16 basic rooms at $55-$65. Busiest in April and May.

Where to camp: In Coronado National Forest's Cave Creek Canyon area (tel. [520] 364-3468), three campgrounds (Idyllwild, Stewart and Sunny Flat) with 54 spaces accommodate RVs and tents. Fees: $6 per vehicle per night; free in the winter, early spring, late fall, when water is not available. Two other campgrounds farther up the canyon, John Hands and Herb Martyr, are open to tent campers only; free.

At Chiricahua National Monument (tel. [520] 824-3560), Bonita Campground has 25 campsites with flush bathrooms and water (but no showers), and one group site. In March and April, the campground is often full. When Pinery Canyon Road is open, overflow RVers and campers are redirected to U.S. Forest Service campgrounds (more rustic, but free) southeast of the park in Pinery Canyon. Fees: $6 to enter monument, $8 per night to camp.

In Cochise Stronghold (tel. [520] 364-3468), a well-kept 18-site campground includes flush bathrooms, water and RV hookups. Fees: $6 per vehicle per day.

For more information: Arizona Office of Tourism, 2702 N. 3rd St., Suite 4015, Phoenix, AZ 85004; tel. (602) 230-7733.

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