10 Highs and 5 Lows from My 2018 Arizona Trail Thru-Hike
It’s July 2020 and COVID is still upon us. Summer has arrived, the weather is warm, and some folks have even resumed thru-hikes. The Arizona Trail (AZT) beckons. But the official word on the Arizona Trail website is as follows: “The CDC currently recommends all Americans avoid discretionary travel. If access to the Arizona Trail is available in your community or within close proximity, it continues to be a great place to get outside, enjoy your public lands, and find mental and physical relief from the conditions created by the pandemic. However, if travel is required to reach the AZT, we recommend instead that you explore your local trails and open spaces to reduce risk of spreading the disease.”
If the AZT is not in your backyard and you’re still interested in exploring its ruddy canyons, high plateaus, and sunwashed deserts, consider reading about my 2018 experiences as a paltry substitute until you can safely embark on your own adventure.
I hiked the AZT in the fall of 2018. Solo and SOBO, I started at the Utah border and walked south to Mexico. It was unseasonably wet and rainy, and rivers flowed where only washes had existed previously. Initially I was nervous about water sources, but my worries quickly faded. I had endless positive and negative experiences, thankfully mostly positive, and met many amazing folks along the way. Here I share a handful of memorable moments —the ten highest of the highs and the five lowest of the lows. While some of these experiences are inherent to the essence that is the AZT, other encounters are specific to my individual trail experience.
Starting with a few positives.
Highlight #1. The Grand Canyon
The Grand frickin’ Canyon. Iconic, immense, cavernous, picturesque layers of colorful rock representing over two billion years of geologic time. Most definitely a highlight of the AZT for all. When I reached the canyon a storm was approaching, actually a rare hurricane—and so I hustled through. I was delighted to run into section hikers with whom I’d been leapfrogging since the start of the trail, Marie and George, at the permit office, which meant we could share a stock campsite. The North Rim was spectacular and my favorite of the two rims. At night the stars and Milky Way were amazing. I started my hike in the dark hours of the early morning and watched the canyon walls, creek, and cacti emerge in the rising light. Phantom Ranch made for a charming tourist visit. The climb up, up, up through the stratified sedimentary rock layers of the South Rim, while a challenging, was colorful and spectacular.
Highlight # 2. Dropping off the Mogollon Rim
The transition from northern Arizona to southern Arizona is defined by the topographic and geologic feature that is the Mogollon Rim. It defines the southern extent of the Colorado Plateau. Hiking SOBO, it was exciting to make the transition from northern to southern Arizona, from relatively flat walking in the north (with the exception of the Grand Canyon) to the more varied and often colorful landscape in the south, typified by sky islands. Dropping off the rim means changes in vegetation from pinyon and juniper to manzanilla, cacti, and agave. It also means lower elevation, therefore better weather and for my hike, thankfully, no more snow. And for me dropping off the rim also entailed meeting new and exciting hiker friends, an increased hiking pace, and THAT Brewery in Pine. Passing through this red rock gateway to southern Arizona is also one reason I would recommend a southbound over a northbound thru-hike.
Highlight #3. Ease of Navigation
Knowing where you are going on the AZT is the easy part. Thanks to the Arizona Trail Association (AZTA) and Guthook—now in partnership with Atlas Guides navigating the trail is a breeze with the app. Guthook is the navigation method of choice on many long-distance trails and using it on the AZT is no exception. The trail is very well signed and maintained by the AZTA and local trail groups. The AZTA also makes preparing for your thru-hike a breeze with detailed accounts of each passage on their website (link). Information for trail angels and gateway communities can also be found on the website, which makes navigating your town days a cinch too.
Highlight #4. AZT-In-A Day + Trail Community
AZT In A Day happened for the first time in early October 2018, when hikers, bikers, and equestrians collaboratively section hiked the trail to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Scenic Trails System. I had never heard of the event when I ran into a mountain biker from Sedona named Paul north of the San Francisco Peaks, who was biking his section. Feeling lonely, tired, and in need of human interaction, I was overjoyed to have the company as Paul kept pace with me. The trail camaraderie was great but Paul eventually took his leave. I then ran into the familiar faces of section hikers I had met several times earlier on trail. A happy coincidence. And shortly after that, when I encountered an ultra-marathoner, one of the last few participants. Michelle and I hiked and chatted for several miles. After having seen no other hikers for days then suddenly meeting a handful of others in the span of a few hours was a huge morale booster. It enabled me to push through that afternoon of rain, night of lightning, and morning of snow. A true trail provides moment.
Highlight #5. Trail Angels
Thanks to the extensive trail angel network posted on the AZT website—in addition to random acts of kindness provided by strangers—the trail angel community in Arizona is alive and well. Through the website I connected with Marie, who cached water for me, she then became a hiking companion, and later shuttled me and a group of hikers to the trail in Tucson. Hiking down from Humphreys in the snow, I ran into Neil and runners from the Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association (NATRA), who shared with me hot coffee, egg casserole, bacon, joy, and camaraderie. Through the website I also connected with Melody and Tim Varner, two truly generous souls, who aided me through a bout of vertigo, fed me until I could eat no more, and gave me company and advice while I awaited other hikers, and have since for me become van angels, pandemic angels, and true friends. Brian Blue, another website angel, gave me a ride from Flagstaff to Mormon Lake. North of Oracle, infamous trail angel Sequoia shared grilled cheese sandwiches, sodas, and tales of FKT record holders. The generosity and kindness from these Arizona trail angels is unmatched.
And now to bring you down.
Lowlight #1. Creepy Hitch
Being too cheap to pay for a shuttle to the trailhead, I opted to hitch my way from St. George, Utah, to Kanab Arizona. Bad idea. My first ride was fine. My second ride was super sketchy. A slightly-odd-seeming, later revealing himself to be incredibly creepy, dude picked me up and proceeded to give me a terror-inducing and sexual-comment-filled ride to Zion. There were real moments when I thought I might possibly disappear into the woods and never return. Thankfully I had texted a picture of this guy’s license plate to my husband, I was packing Mace, and my GPS was tracking my location every ten minutes. In the end, I was physically fine and unscathed. Now, whenever I hitch, I really tune into my gut instinct and leave any weird situation immediately. This experience set a fear-filled tone for my AZT thru-hike.
Lowlight #2. Flat Walking Through Cow Pastures
The northernmost section of the AZT can be described as flat, boring, and cow-filled. Sorry Arizona. There are wonderful moments through the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, and Jacobs Lake—lovely aspen, pretty hills, and some sweet volcanic features. But there are also lots of flat dirt roads with little topography change. And fields of cows. My first cow encounter was scary-turned-amusing as these giant mammals surrounded me on all sides, then suddenly ran and ran and ran as I slowly plodded through their turf. Sometimes the cow mamas wouldn’t move, which was nerve-racking. I sang to myself a lot through these flat, cow-filled expanses. I was definitely ready to drop off the Mogollon Rim when the time came.
Lowlight #3. Loneliness
There were about six or seven days between the Grand Canyon and Mormon Lake that I was pretty much on my own. I did not like it. I hadn’t done much truly solo backpacking in the past and I was not looking forward to the solitude. When solo in the backcountry it’s easy to turn a rustle in the leaves into a bear, the wind into a maniac with a gun, a bird chirp a into an insane machine gun-toting murder bear. Add to that the creepy hitchhike setting in which I started my hike, and I was at my fear edge. I was alone, I was scared, I was lonely. My hike sucked. For a few days. Then I met hiking companions Mary and Dan in Mormon Lake and things turned around.
Lowlight #4. Vertigo
And then I got vertigo. Whilst hiking through one of many flat cow pastures in northern Arizona, I started feeling really dizzy. What was going on? Why did I feel so weird? Had I eaten something strange or improperly filtered some cow-pond water? Was it weird wow-woo energy from the nearby power lines? I rested and the feeling passed. Then it came on again. More intense this time. It was in and out until I reached Flagstaff, when it became full-fledged vertigo. The room spun. I couldn’t sleep or keep food down. My savior trail angel Melody brought me to an urgent-care where I was prescribed anti-nausea and anti-motion sickness meds. Which helped. I could hike. I took a few days off. Then I met up with other hikers. My vertigo, along with my loneliness and trail-anxiety, subsided. Whew.
Lowlight #5. Snowpocalypse
Yes, this is Arizona. Northern Arizona. Shortly after passing through Mormon Lake and linking up with trail companions Mary, Dan, and David, the skies opened up and 4-5 inches of snow dumped on us overnight. I remember waking up to sagging tent walls and having to pack away my freezing tent poles with icicle hands. I donned all my layers. It was joyous for 30 minutes or an hour until the snow melted around our feet, our toes got soggy, and morale declined. The afternoon was punctuated by more snow, freezing cold, and a frigid water fill. The temps remained low and the snow persisted. Cold, wet feet was the worst part. We all set up our tents that night on snow and woke to our cold wet socks and shoes awaiting us.The following day we lost some elevation, the temps warmed, and we gradually left the snow behind us. Now we were really ready for the sun and warmth of southern Arizona.
To bring you back up and go out on a high note.
Highlight #6. Pickett Post and Desert Sunsets
My favorite scenery of the the AZT has to be just south of Pickett Post. The desert sunset there was epic. And the sunrise too. The craggy mountains, banded layers of rock, the pinks and purples, the oranges, cacti. So many cacti. Beautiful mountains, sweeping expanses, a beautiful new variety of cactus around every bend.
Highlight #7. All Those Sky Islands
The mountainscapes in southern Arizona are beautiful, varied, and ever changing. These vegetated high altitude islands in the sky are surrounded varied lowlands I often think of as oceans of sand and sediment. So many different mountain ranges. There are the Mazatzals and the Four Peaks Wilderness. The Rincons, the Santa Catalinas. The Huachucas. Beautiful volcanic rock, green grass, and freshwater springs. Views for miles. Beautiful sunsets, sandy washes high in the mountains, chirping crickets. Pretty mountains, granite boulders, flowing streams. Sunny savannas, rolling grasslands. Steep climbs, rugged terrain. Rolling hills, endless saguaros, sharp ridges. Every mountain range unique in its own way, its own rock type, its own views. Punctuated by descents into town, by people and cars and pizza.
Highlight #8. Trail Personalities
Along the AZT I met so many trail characters and loved my ever-changing trail family. Marie and George became my leapfrog hiking companions north of the Grand Canyon. I joined Mary and Dan from Mormon Lake to Pine. David, later Ice Man, from Mormon Lake to the Mexico border. Tarek and Andrea, or Mary Poppins and Fatty Snacks, from Pine to Oracle. Oklahoma from Oracle to Mexico. We shared many a beer, camp spot, and story. It never ceases to amaze me that, regardless of life or experiences, the bond between hikers is instant and total.
Highlight #9. The Spice That Is Hiker Hunger
Some of the food that I had was incredible! And some was pretty terrible but still tasted incredible. Thank you, hiker hunger! I hiked fast and pushed myself on the AZT harder than on previous hikes. Out of the gate I hit the ground running and clocked 30 miles on my first day on trail. I hiked at a good clip with few full zero days, less R&R, and at times I had a schedule to keep and hiking companions to keep pace with. With all the hard work came legit hunger. My trail food intake crept up from a lunch burrito, to a burrito + bars, to burrito + bars + lots of trail mix. My dinners were great—homemade bare burrito, Patagonia Provision meals, hot chocolate. The food off trail was delicious. Lots of beer in Flagstaff and Pine. Tasty burgers in Superior. So much Mexican food. Burritos, rice, beans, chile rellenos. Rice Krispy treats, microwavable mac and cheese, ice cream sandwiches. Gatorade, Takis, diner bacon and eggs. Homemade sausage white-bean and kale soup. No-bake cookies. Fancy dinner at Contigo Kitchen in Tucson. Real coffee, soda, and pizza at Colossal Cave. Home-cooked veggies, tortillas, and beans in Patagonia. Looking forward to my next hike and the food that will taste that much better.
Highlight #10. Variety
The AZT is characterized by variety—in landscapes, geology, climates, elevation, flora, and fauna. Dale Shewalter, the AZT creator, intentionally routed the path through the varied climes and landscapes that Arizona has to offer. I saw deer, elk, cows, javalina, desert tortoise, scorpions, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes. I experienced rain, snow, a hurricane, heat, and sun. I witnessed the Grand Canyon, sky islands, sedimentary rocks, metamorphic basement rock, granite boulders, extinct volcanoes, man-made reservoirs, creeks and streams, and the wide and murky Gila River. I admired pinyon, juniper, gambel oak, desert scrub, saguaros, agave, prickly pear, cats claw, manzanita, and grasses. This 800-mile long trail has so many different experiences to offer.
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