Arizona Trail – Push to the Finish

Day 36 – 13.3 miles

My nero in Tucson was less than restful. Even in the comfy hotel bed my knee interfered with sleep. Worse, I woke to debilitating pain – I could barely walk on my right knee. I slowly walked to a nearby Walgreens to buy a stronger knee brace. Gradually, my knee loosened to a tolerable level. “Suck it up, buttercup,” I told myself. Magic Mike dropped me off at the trailhead; I hiked away slowly wondering if I would be calling him in two hours for a pickup. The trail which traversed the foothills between the Catalina and Rincon mountains was in good condition and I was able to get into a steady hiking groove. Dozens of cow paths crossed the main trail and I found myself wandering off the trail more than once. In late afternoon I caught a good view of Mt Mica which I would climb the following day. I hiked past sunset and found a camp site right before the trail became overgrown and rocky again. I was pleased with my progress and feeling hopeful that I would be able to finish the trail.

Day 37 – 25.9 miles

I set off early the next day. The climb to Mt Mica was seven miles but as climbs go, it wasn’t terrible. I crossed into Saguaro National Park and a few steep sections followed but mostly the trail was regular uphill. The trail was rocky as it climbed through desert and eventually emerged into high alpine with lovely pine-needle cover. I took a break at Manning Camp for lunch and began the 13 mile descent.

I passed two section hikers going north – the climb was beating them up and I was glad to be a SOBO hiker on this mountain. The trail was nicely graded and less rocky and my knee was holding up nicely. When the saguaros came in sight I caught my breath in wonder. Saguaro National Park contains more than two million saguaros and I was only seeing a small portion. They were majestic and some had grown odd twists and turns making them look like striated Gumby’s.

I passed the park border in late afternoon and resolved to push on another 4.5 miles. Trail angels, Jim and Deb, set up a Magic Camp annually for two weeks outside of the park. They provide dinner, breakfast and other amenities to hikers and mountain bikers. I would be too late for dinner but a hot breakfast sounded fantastic. I hiked for another three hours into the dark until I saw the light from the Magic Camp campfire. Eureka – I made it! Two other hikers – Watermelon and One Mile – were there. I spent the next hour enjoying the fire and snacks and conversation with other humans. I set up camp near Jim’s trailer and collapsed into my sleeping bag, comfortably exhausted.

Day 38 – 19.2 miles

I slept in the next morning and woke with the sun streaming into my tent. Jim called us to breakfast and we were treated to blueberry pancakes, sausage, bacon and coffee. Fresh, hot food on trail knows no equal. I loaded up with snacks from Jim and set off hiking. Mid-morning I arrived at a trailhead with pit toilets and shaded picnic tables where I rested my knee. The terrain was rolling and became more exposed the further south I hiked. But, the trail was mostly clear of rocks and easy to walk on. I took another break in the shade under a railroad trestle. Over my head was a metal grate to catch rocks knocked off the train tracks. The trail descended into a small gully where a creek flowed under the watch of tall trees. At the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead trail angels had left cookies and water in the resupply box; I filled up my water bottles grateful not to filter.


A few miles later I passed under the I-10; a snake had been painted on the tunnel entrance. I had seen this iconic site in many pictures of the Arizona Trail and I was thrilled to finally see it in person. A group of section hikers asked me to take their picture near the snake and they returned the favor. In the late afternoon I filled up with water again from the Sahuarita Road trail head resupply box. At sunset I pitched my tent on a small ridge with 360 views. I lay in my tent looking at the stars and thought about the little bits of magic I had encountered through the day.

Day 39 – 24.3 miles

I saw two shooting stars the night before and both my wishes were for a safe ending to the hike. When I woke my knee did not hurt at all and I wondered if more magic had happened. The trail took me through the foothills of the Santa Rita mountains; it was a lot of ups and downs with little shade. The saguaros had given way to small brushes and cactuses. I went through 11 gates of various types and openers. A group of cows was chilling out by one gate and they eyed me suspiciously as I went through. I was amused – nothing like feeling judged by cows. On the whole this day felt like the second movie or book in a trilogy. Not always as good as the first or third but you have to go through it to get to the end. I hiked past sunset to a campsite off a dirt road. An ATV barreled by lights blazing and then it was quiet again.

Day 40 – 31.0 miles

I hiked out in the predawn hours and made it to Kentucky Camp before sunrise. Kentucky Camp is a historic mining and ranching site maintained by the forest service. Noone was awake as I quietly filled my water bottles from a spigot. I made it to the Apache Springs trail head two hours later where Magic Mike was waiting to resupply me. I gobbled down two turkey and cheese wraps while I rearranged my pack. I added back in my rain flap and cold weather gear and three days of food. In the very top of my ruck I carefully packed my treat for dinner – a footlong Subway sandwich. I hiked out waving cheerfully to Mike – the next time I saw him would be at the end of my hike.

The trail followed contours of foothills and spurs and went down into washes and up onto ridges. I felt strong and reached a steady hiking rhythm. I passed a crew of volunteers doing trail maintenance and thanked them heartily for the clear trail. Later in the afternoon I descended through a series of tight switchbacks; in the FarOut app the trail here resembled a ramen noodle and I chuckled at the hiker comments. Before I knew it I had hiked my longest day on the trail. I set up camp overlooking a cow pond and hoped cows wouldn’t run over my tent in the night. I dug into my now-soggy Subway sandwich – so delicious.

Day 41 – 21.8 miles

I heard coyotes howling and yipping in the night; it was nerve-wracking but I never saw them. I walked slowly at first to warm my joints. I felt sluggish which was understandable given the previous days’ hike. And I needed water. I hiked .3 miles off trail to the Casa Blanca Canyon trail head where thankfully trail angels had cached water. This trail head is where many hikers will get rides into Patagonia, the last trail town for SOBOs before the finish. I did not need food but I could have used a shower and laundry; I could wait two more days though. The trail took me through the rolling Canelo Hills.  For the first time I saw an ocotillo grove.  To the south I could see the Huachuca mountains. This close to the end of the hike I had trouble thinking about anything but finishing and I mostly kept my head down through the exposed terrain. In late afternoon I went through the Canelo Pass trail head and filled my bottles with water that Magic Mike had cached for me. As the trail continued more walnut and juniper trees appeared and I grew excited knowing this signaled the wilderness I would travel through the next day. I ended the day with a steep climb up to a ridge where I set up camp.


Day 42 – 21.2 miles

The wind blew hard during the night but I was tucked into trees and barely felt the breeze. Today would be my last full day on the trail and I was eager to start. The trail followed steep up and downs to the Parker Canyon trail head. Along the way I had a good view of Parker Canyon Lake; its deep blue water stood out sharply against the brown landscape. Parker Canyon marked the beginning of the ascent up the Huachuca mountains to the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. I crossed Parker Canyon Creek, flowing with clear water. I had seen so few creeks on this hike and I took a moment to appreciate the water’s flow over the rocks as I filtered water. The trail was rocky and I focused on not tripping.

I passed two flocks of wild turkeys. They were not scared of me; instead, they walked around preening as I expressed my admiration. The encounters made me smile even as I hiked the steep switchbacks up the trail. I was in forest now surrounded by ponderosa pine trees and Douglas firs. A strong breeze kept me comfortable in the heat of the day. Later afternoon I walked through Sunnyside Canyon and shortly after I was at the top of the ridge in an open area. The wind was gusting and I had begun to chill in the waning day. I set up camp in a small dip sheltered from the wind. This was my last night on the trail; I took a long, last look at the stars before I climbed into my tent. I put on all my clothes and tucked into my sleeping bag for the night.


Day 43 – 11.6 miles

The wind blew all night and the temperature dropped to 40 degrees. I had wanted to start hiking early but I lingered in my warm sleeping bag for a bit. I had my headlamp on and was moving by 5:30 am. The ridge narrowed for the next few miles and I had great views into Sierra Vista on the U.S. side and Sonora on the Mexican side. The wind blew around me and I hiked fast to stay warm. I passed a northbound hiker packing up camp in the early light. We nodded at each other but exchanged no words. I arrived at Bathtub Springs in early morning. Here the water flows into an old bathtub. This is another iconic Arizona Trail site that I was thrilled to see in person. I took a break and ate the last of my food.


Soon, I reached the trail highpoint at the turnoff to Miller Peak and took a moment to commemorate the climb. I stripped off all my cold gear and began walking again. From here to the border, I would mostly be hiking down. The trail continued to give me beautiful views to the south as I left the forest behind. Now manzanita trees and prickly plants lined the trail as I hiked down. Eventually I was able to see east into Mexico; the wall was a long, ugly gash on the countryside.

At last, I arrived at Montezuma Pass trail head. I ditched my trash and took a deep breath. I had only a mile and half to the finish. An older gentleman stopped me to ask if I was thru-hiking. He wistfully recounted how he had wanted to hike the Arizona Trail but his feet were messed up. I sympathized; my knee was throbbing. I’d find out the damage after this hike.

The trail sloped gently to the border and I made my way quickly down stopping a few times to take in the view. And then I rounded a corner and saw the silver obelisk next to the wall below. In a few bounds I was on the dirt road. I crawled through an opening in the concertina wire and touched the marker. A portion of wall stretched off to the west. I was alone at the finish so I marked the event with a few selfies. The sky was cloud free and blue like it had been most days on this trail. I was dirty, hungry, tired….and elated. A week ago, my finish seemed to be in doubt and now here I was. I grinned and started back up the trail to Montezuma Pass trail head where Magic Mike would be waiting to pick me up.


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Comments 8

  • Zazz : Nov 20th

    Congrats on the finish! Great writing, I enjoyed reading along with your journey.

    • Deb James : Nov 21st

      Thanks, Zazz! I enjoyed your posts about the Appalachian Trail – they were a great resource for my own AT hike.

  • Chris : Nov 21st

    Congratulations! I hope we’ll get a few after-hike posts to let us know how your knee is doing. Thanks for taking us along!

    • Deb James : Nov 21st

      Thanks, Chris! Appreciate the support.

  • Elizabeth Pageotte : Nov 21st

    Congrats on your trail finish. I hope your knee is better and thanks for taking us along for the “ride”.

    • Deb James : Nov 21st

      Thanks, Elizabeth!

  • David O. : Nov 21st

    Thanks so much, Deb. I loved sharing your experience and remembering the wonderful landscapes of southern Arizona. Great work and I hope your knee just becomes stronger!

    • Deb James : Nov 21st

      Appreciate the feedback, David. Thanks!


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