Nestled in the far southeast corner of Arizona, at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains and the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, sits Portal, an unincorporated community of biologists and naturalists. With a close-knit population of about 70 individuals living alongside seasonal visitors from around the world, Portal makes for a diverse community despite its small size.
“We’re all united by this intense curiosity for the world,” says Peg Abbott, owner of the tour company Naturalist Journeys.
Abbott knows the geological story of the looming red cliffs that can be seen as you drive into the canyon. They are volcanic, formed by the eruption of a caldera 27 million years ago. Today, these rhyolite and granite cliffs are covered in lime green lichen, making for a breathtaking juxtaposition of color. It’s because of these towering rock formations that the earliest visitors of the canyon dubbed it “little Yosemite.”
To view these cliffs, take Exit 382 (sign for Portal) from I-10 in San Simon. Follow Foothills Road for about 26 miles and turn right on Portal Road. Your first stop will be the Portal Peak Lodge, Store & Café (2358 S. Rock House Road). Here, intriguing conversations unfold as birders, artists, hunters, hikers, photographers, and campers share this one-and-only eatery in the Portal area.
Built first as a convenience store in the 1920s and ‘30s, much of the clientele came from the Civilian Conservation Corps and visitors exploring Arizona via the Southern Pacific Railroad. Today, you’ll find a simple store up front, a cozy café in the back, a stage for musical guests outside, and rooms for lodging in a separate building behind the café. Each room comes with a hummingbird feeder hanging just outside the door.
Visit the café in summer and enjoy a meal outside while watching a concert of local musicians. Owner Mitch Webster recommends the green chile cheeseburger, a popular customer order. In the winter, order a hot chocolate piled high with whipped cream and talk to locals ready to share their story of how they fell in love with Portal and came to live here. You’ll hear about rare birds otherwise found only in Mexico and sightings like jaguarundi and mountain lion. Says Webster, it’s here in Portal that one can have “an incredible experience in the middle of nowhere.”
From the Portal Café, travel 0.3 miles west on Portal Road until you see a house on the left. Pull into the driveway to visit Dave Jasper’s bird feeders, a hotspot among birders. Jasper, a guide for Naturalist Journeys and expert birder, lives here and has recorded 166 species in his yard. “I’m not a privacy nut and have always shared my properties with whoever,” Jasper says. Visit in summer to see vivid orange Hooded Orioles and the two largest hummingbirds in North America, the blue-throated and magnificent hummingbirds. Be sure to sign the guest page and view the finds of others.
Travel into the Coronado National Forest on 42 Forest Road, which branches from Portal Road shortly after the Jasper feeders. After three miles, turn left at the sign for South Fork. Follow the dirt road until you reach a berm. The South Fork Trail begins on the other side of the berm and winds along the creek, providing excellent views of the cave-pocked cliffs. Enjoy the yellow, mauve, red, and green-gray creek stones, white sycamores, and tall pines as you hike this easy path. For a more difficult hike, follow the trail eight miles to Sentinel Peak. Summer visitors should keep their eyes and ears open for the spectacular red and green elegant trogon, a rare tropical species for which this canyon is famous.
Follow 42 Forest Road further to visit the Southwestern Research Station, a home base for biologists working in the canyon. A nature shop opens March through October for those in search of a wildlife-related souvenir.
The road forks at the station. Take the right fork to visit Rustler Park and view the upper life zones of the Chiricahua Mountains. Although recent fires of unusual proportion have devastated some of the local ecology of the region, visitors can still find tall pines, aspens, and wildflowers. Bring a jacket for this experience at 8,500 feet elevation.
A visit to Portal, however, isn’t all about the canyon. The Chiricahua Desert Museum (NM80 and Portal Road) sits at the easternmost end of Portal Road in the nearby ranching town of Rodeo. Publisher and reptile enthusiast Bob Ashley founded the museum in 2009 as a live exhibit of local reptiles.
Zoologist Rachel Beasley occasionally offers behind the scenes tours. She knows the personalities of every species of reptile in the museum, and knows which of the rattlesnakes in their collection have the most “sass.” Among them are intricately patterned Mojave and western diamondback rattlesnakes.
The museum also holds an extensive nature shop, a botanical garden with endangered Bolson tortoises, and reptile-inspired art. Many of the paintings on the museum walls are by wildlife artist Tell Hicks, who spends hours observing in the field in order to paint reptiles in high detail.
An adjacent building, the Geronimo Event Center, displays artifacts and photography of the Chiricahua Apache. These tell the story of a people who fought tirelessly against the United States Army in order to continue living in their ancestral homelands. They were eventually relocated to reservations in Oklahoma and New Mexico, where their descendants still reside. The museum seeks to honor the Apache people who called this place their sacred home.
Portal and the surrounding area offer an education in ecology, history, culture, and community. In the words of Abbott, “Here, you’re away from everything. You only have the sound of nature.” ✜
Saraiya Kanning is a freelance writer, silk painter, and birder living in Tucson.