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Suzanne Moody and her 23 year love affair with Chiricahua National Monument

 

Suzanne Moody and her dog Mara in front of her 1930’s home in Chiricahua Park. (Photo by Janie Todorovich)

 

Park Ranger Suzanne Moody has lived at Chiricahua National Monument for 23 years, and she finds something new in the park to fall in love with each day.

“You would think after working here all these years I would have more than enough photos, but there’s always something slightly different,” Moody said in between snapping pictures, “This is a view I could never get tired of looking at.”

Chiricahua National Monument in Wilcox, Ariz., was established by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 for its unique rock formations and the wide variety of plant and animal species. Per its website, Chiricahua is just under 12,000 acres, and the national monument attracts around 55,000 to 60,000 thousand people each year.

The summer after Moody finished her degree in social work, she found an ad in Backpacker magazine for the Student Conservation Association. The SCA handles internships for the Federal Land Management Agency, and with the National Parks Service being part of that agency, Moody got her foot in the door with the NPS.

“I thought that sounded like fun, so I applied and got picked up at Natural Bridges National Monument in Southeast Utah, where I staffed the visitor center. From there I went to work for Petrified Forest in Arizona, and then I moved back and forth between parks every six months for three years. I spent my winters in Death Valley, and my summers at Crater Lake or the Grand Canyon,” Moody said.

Now, Moody has been living at Chiricahua for 23 years as a park ranger-interpretation.

She works from 8:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and her days off are Wednesdays and Thursdays, the slowest days of the week for the park. Her day at work entails giving tours to the visitors, and educating them on the unique plant and animal species, such as the Chiricahua fox squirrel, which can only be found at this park. When those duties are over, she is greeting people with a smiling face in the visitor center.

“Not only do we have a lot of species from Mexico because we’re so close to the border, but we also have plants and animals from the Rocky Mountains in the North, and species from both the Sonoran and Chihuahua desserts. So, we have very a high degree of diversity in plants and animals here,” said Moody.

Many park visitors keep returning.

Eveline Eaton stays at the Chiricahua campground every weekend for two months, during the peak summer camping season.

“The park is beautiful. I went on a long hike this morning, 7.3 miles up to the heart of Rocks Loop. It was absolutely spectacular, with all the rhyolite formations and high elevation. I got up to over 6,800 feet,” Eaton continued, “I like this park because it’s out of the way, not as easy and quick to get to from the bigger cities, and it’s very peaceful. You’re surrounded by beautiful scenery.”

Chiricahua’s campground has 25 spaces with an online reservation system. The campground also has a small amphitheater where the park rangers will occasionally put on evening programs or rotating exhibits.

The exhibit at Chiricahua for the month of September is the Buffalo Soldier exhibit, which looks at some of the unique stories from soldiers who patrolled Bonita Canyon, an area that is now part of Chiricahua’s 12,000 acres.

Allen Etheridge is the superintendent of the Southeast Arizona Group, including Chiricahua National Monument, Coronado National Memorial, and Fort Bowie National Historic Site.

“We’ve gotten better at telling some of the bad sides of American history. There were some horrific events that we inflicted on the Native Americans, and the story of the Park Service is starting to change, I think, for the better,” said Etheridge.

The Organ Pipe Formation located inside Chiricahua National Monument. (Photo by Janie Todorovich)

If you plan to visit Chiricahua National Monument, Moody has some advice for each season of the year.

“If you want to avoid the crowds, come in the fall. If you don’t mind the crowds then come in the spring, and if you want a totally unique experience, come in the winter after it snows,” said Moody.

Chiricahua averages around 12 inches of snow each winter, and the trees drop their leaves in the spring instead of the fall, one of their adaptations to this environment.

“As far as seasons go, I like autumn the best. It’s still green from the summer rains, but you don’t have the threat of the flash flooding and lightning storms, and the temperatures are down in the 70’s. Usually by January the park is covered in snow, and then spring is when the dessert blooms,” Moody continues, “There’s something to be said about summer as well, to hear the thunder bouncing and echoing off the canyons, the creeks flowing, and sometimes waterfalls will form down the rocks after the rains.”

The park is open to the public seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and checkout time for overnight campers is 11 a.m.

Janie Todorovich is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at jetodo@email.arizona.edu

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.