By Dave Stamboulis
Arizona gets most of its media attention for a couple of things. For one, a big giant hole up at its northern end, better known as the Grand Canyon, and also for being a sunny winter escape for snowbirds.
However, to truly understand the extremes of terrain, weather and geology, nothing beats a walk along Arizona’s longest hiking route, the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
My wife and I set out last spring to tackle the AZT, which runs from the Mexican border to the Utah state line, taking in several national parks, the Sonoran Desert, the high elevation Mogollon Rim, and an epic crossing of the Grand Canyon along the way. From Day 1, we quickly learned to put any preconceived notions of Arizona aside, as the state, when experienced boots on the ground, doesn’t stick to them at all.
The Arizona Trail begins near the Coronado Monument, down at the Mexican border, in inhospitable scrub desert. To get here, we’d flown into Tucson, further north, where a trail angel (more to come on these) had agreed to give us a ride the two hours further south to the starting point. I’d told my wife that we were probably starting a bit late at the end of March, expecting to get roasted by the desert heat, but after a night flight into Tucson, we awoke to a scene far more resembling the Swiss Alps, with the Santa Catalina mountains looming over the city covered in snow.
Timing a walk on the Arizona Trail is tricky. You want to avoid the extreme heat of the desert, which rules out mid-summer, but at the other extreme, Northern Arizona has full winter conditions, with the road into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon being closed until mid-May. Yet wait any longer and you’ll have to descend down to the Colorado River in a furnace, as temperatures can reach 100 degrees by early May. Add to this Southern Arizona’s unique landscape, where desert meets a series of “sky islands,” mountain ranges with elevations of 8,000 feet that can stay snowbound into April. Crampons might come in handy here more than even a water bladder.
Ideally, March-May and then September-November are the most practical times to trek the AZT, with spring attempts going from south to north, and then fall sojourns walking from the higher elevations up north to the southern deserts hoping to beat early winter storms.
About a week into our journey we reached Saguaro National Park, whose Rincon Mountain section is one of the least visited national parks in the country, as foot access is the only way in. The park is home to some 1.8 million giant saguaros, a symbol of the Southwest desert landscape. Hiking here at sunrise and sunset is magical, surrounded by these giant cacti that grow to up to 60 feet tall. Additionally, one passes through a living botanic garden made up of 25 other species of cacti, including the fear-inducing cholla, often called the jumping cactus, due to its barbed spines easily detaching onto those who’ve come a bit too close.
While more popular long-distance hiking routes like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail see thousands of hikers each year, the AZT presently only has about 400 hikers per year finish a full walk, and while you invariably camp in spots next to other trekkers, most of the time you are surrounded far more by rattlesnakes and elk than humans.
Large parts of the Arizona Trail have been the ancestral lands of Native Americans for thousands of years, but the modern trail, which features 43 passages (usually 1-2 day sections that run between vehicle-accessible trailheads, allowing non-thru hikers to do the trail in stages over time or just access the best parts for a weekend or even day hike) was the vision of a Flagstaff schoolteacher. Dale Showalter, an avid Arizona hiker, first came up with the idea in the 1970s, and then spent the next twenty years trying to connect established trails and get new ones built across the state. Eventually, a large trail community of governmental agencies and trail users was formed, and in the 1990s the Arizona Trail Association (aztrail.org) became the official voice of the route, and their website offers hikers an abundance of information, from vital water reports, links to trail communities and other important travel tips.
Trekking along the Gila River, the lowest point of the trail at 1,700 feet, we ran into some scorching temperatures, but were helped out by the appropriately named “trail angels” that live along the route, folks in the small town communities that are along (or just off of) the trail – places with evocative names like Patagonia, Superior and Jacob Lake. Trail angels offer hikers assistance in the form of water caches, rides to and from towns and in some cases even home stays.
In sleepy Superior, just prior to tackling the Superstition Mountains, we stayed at the home of a woman who goes by the name of Purple Angel (all hikers and even trail angels get “trail names”) who has been hosting hikers in her home for over a decade. She picks folks up at the trailhead, has a kitchen stocked with food that she requests you eat, does runs to the Phoenix REI for those who need gear updates or repairs, and even has sets of loaner clothes for you to wear while you wash out your filthy hiking duds. She asks for a $20 donation, but like most trail angels, this isn’t about making money, and it seems like many of the angels love giving merely in exchange for living vicariously through the tales of the trail they hear from every hiker that comes through.
The weather had been holding for us most of our hike, with few extremes. But then we climbed up on to the Mogollon Rim, the large high elevation plateau that separates Northern Arizona and leads to the Grand Canyon. We awoke there to heavy snow for a day, trodding along in our lightweight down jackets, following footprints and then watching the relief from the storm turn into a muddy quagmire as temperatures warmed back to a seasonal normal.
A week later we reached the Grand Canyon, which produces mixed feelings for many a hiker. After walking for close to two months, many walkers are pretty tired, close to finishing and probably are looking ahead to life off the trail – going back to jobs, families and commitments. Yet for others, especially those who’ve never been, the Grand Canyon is the highlight of this long epic walk, perhaps the reason for doing the trail itself.
My wife comes from the Philippines, and growing up she saw photos of the Grand Canyon and always dreamed of coming here as a tourist, never imagining, as she proudly told other tourists we met along the rim at Hopi Point that, “I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, I just never knew I’d have to walk 800 miles to get here!”
We savored three days off here, catching up on good food, an internet connection and a chance to recharge for the final week. Crossing the entire Grand Canyon on foot is one of the premier hikes one can do in the U.S., taking in some 2 billion years of different rock layers and geological history.
From pine forest to limestone down to sandstone and shale along the Colorado River, and then all the way back up to the cool pines on the 8,000-foot North Rim, which we reached on May 14, a day before the road in officially opened. Here, we were the only guests at the massive North Rim Campground and were able to set up our tent on the edge of the canyon, looking out at possibly the best view of the Grand Canyon without a single other person around.
Four days later we descended toward the fiery landscape of Southern Utah, red rock canyons and high desert plateau, feeling both elated and proud to be finished, and knowing that we’d gotten to know Arizona and all her mountain, canyon and desert magic incredibly well.