There is a lot to be thankful for on the Arizona Trail.
I start my two-month hike in late March and am grateful for the kindness of trail angel John, who collects me from my motel and drives me to Coronado National Memorial.
And beyond the border monument that marks the trail’s Southern Terminus, Mexico’s San Rafael Valley gives me a glimpse into the solitude and jaw-dropping beauty I will be grateful for along the way.
But within a day or two the thing I am most grateful for is the sturdy Lowa Renegades I am wearing. Because if Pennsylvania is where boots go to die, the Arizona Trail is surely where they rot in hell.
The rocks are relentless, and less than 30 miles in I am walking like I need hip replacements and complaining to my diary about the precarious trail surface.
From the Mexican border, the trail heads north for 800 miles to the Utah border. And by mile 340, just out of Roosevelt Lake, I am at my wits end and swearing at the jagged jumble of red rocks that make me fall and send me skating downhill while I stab at the ground with my hiking poles like an ejit.
Beyond the Rocks
But thankfully the Arizona Trail is more than rocks.
It is cows. Brown ones, black ones, cows with horns, and cows with calves. There are cows that stare and cows with tinkling bells I hear from my camp on the dusty Gila River bank.
If cows aren’t the official state animal of Arizona they should be.
And there are gates. Stick and wire contraptions and hefty metal ones that leave a rust stain on my hand. I open and close, climb over or slide under gates many times a day.
Big skies, coyotes partying at night, and little lizards that dart across the trail. There is the daily water chase in this arid landscape that means filtering murk from cow fouled tanks and a five-liter carry.
And there is Mike. We start the same day and although we don’t hike together, we leapfrog up the trail and compare highs and lows over pizza in towns. It is to him I send this message when the hellish White Rock Mesa messes with my head: “I hate this f**king section!”
Every Negative Has a Positive
Despite my bitching, I never have a bad day.
I have bad minutes and hours, punctuated by beauty: a mountainside of sprawling armed saguaro, a ribbon of green along a dry wash, or an act of kindness that reminds me that this is worth shredding my feet for.
On the cratered forest road out of Pigeon Springs I spend a fun half hour with a bunch of tall guys who are taking a break from their recreational vehicles. They give me beer and insist I take chocolate and more water. For me, these random meetings are what thru-hiking is all about.
For every expletive-inducing rock field there is a corresponding positive.
The long road walk out of Patagonia and exposed rutted climb to Walker Basin trailhead are forgotten in the shaded silence of Casa Blanca Canyon.
The wind that tries flinging me off Oracle Ridge, gone! in the red desert decent to Hi Jinx Ranch, where there are quirky sculptures, water from a tap, and conversation with Arizona Trail legend Sirena Dufault.
And the godawful rocks of Reavis Canyon are rewarded with a walk across the heavens on the forest road above.
Saguaro permits are just a phone call and credit card away. Grand Canyon permits take time and may require multiple visits to the backcountry office. National parks rangers do an excellent job squeezing Arizona Trail hikers through, so be patient, be nice, and be prepared to wait a day or two.
And About that Canyon
The Grand Canyon is a highlight, but after 700 or so miles of peaceful trail the Disneyland-like crowds are a shock. I camp at the South Rim’s hiker and biker site and after two days I score a bunk at Phantom Ranch and a place to pitch my tent at the Cottonwood stock site.
The hike down South Kaibab Trail has my calf muscles screaming and, after weeks of hiking, the climb up North Kaibab is easier than I expected.
Until you are in the canyon, it is impossible to imagine the vastness and beauty of the Colorado River snaking green-blue through the red and brown and gray of the earth.
But this is a busy place, and by the time I am on the North Rim my face is sore from smiling at the passing parade of hikers and runners. Hello, how are you doing, hello, you’re almost there, great view ahead, not far to go, hi, nice work, hello.
Kearny touts itself as the friendliest town on the Arizona Trail and, after a lot of beer and too many Fireball shots with the locals, I can confirm this to be true. I had rolled up to Kearny hot and cranky but trail angel Carol arrived to instantly change my mood and give me a ride to town where everything a hiker could want is within a block or two.
If Kearny is the friendliest town on trail, the friendliest motel is surely the Oracle Village Motel. Host Marney’s hospitality, the clean, well-priced rooms, and the overflowing hiker boxes make this a great rest and recuperate stop.
Running out of water is probably the biggest danger. I almost postponed my hike because of water concerns but was happy I opted instead to embrace the suck of a heavy water-laden pack.
My happiest trail moment came after a hot day climbing through Alamo Canyon, for me the trail’s most beautiful stretch. It is also one of the driest stretches and after rationing my water all day I arrived thirsty at the Forest Road 4 resupply box to find it replenished.
Thank you trail angels, I love you.
Wildlife is another danger and leaving Tiger Mine Road Trailhead, heading north out of Oracle, a sign warned of rabies. A hiker ahead of me got scratched up by a bobcat and impressively continued his hike while receiving rabies shots along the way.
There are reportedly mountain lions on the Arizona Trail but I didn’t see one, and although I saw bear scat (perhaps not-so-coincidentally near Bear Spring, around mile 411) I didn’t see one of them either.
I saw plenty of snakes but only one rattler and I followed a Gila Monster down the trail one day. Masses of bees were present at many of the water sources but none of them hassled me.
While the fauna left me alone, the flora didn’t. A piece of cholla, otherwise known as jumping cactus, attached its sharp hook-like spikes to my calf muscle and then my hand when I tried to remove it. Ouch!
Why You Shouldn’t do this Trail
If you’re a hiker who thrives on busy and social trails, this may not be for you. I love solitude and got plenty of it on the Arizona Trail. Some days I didn’t see anyone and mostly I camped alone, the yips of coyotes all around.
If your preference is for moist, green woods, then this probably isn’t your trail either.
On a positive note, the terrain offers two extremes and unless you absolutely detest rocks there is probably something for you. The trail is mountainous down south, climbing over a series of sky islands that rise out of the Sonoran Desert. In the north the terrain is flatter and often pine forested.
For More Information
The Arizona Trail Association is the place to begin. And for more detailed descriptions and stunning photography, see the Arizona Trail section of The Hiking Story. Or for a taste of the beautiful desert landscape that will make you immediately want to throw your pack on your back, watch Ryan Kodak Brown’s great YouTube series documenting his bikepacking trip of the Arizona Trail.
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