The trail began as the dream-project of Flagstaff educator and avid outdoorsman Dale Shewalter, who hiked solo from Mexico to Utah in 1985, thus demonstrating the viability of such an ambitious endeavor. Construction on the trail began in July 1988 on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau near Jacob Lake, north of the Grand Canyon. Five governors, countless hours of labor, and 817 miles later, the Arizona Trail project culminated late last year in the remote White Canyon Wilderness north of the Gila River, where workers bridged the final gap in the trail, creating a footpath of epic proportions and profound beauty.
It’s one of just 11 American super trails to earn the distinguished congressional designation of “National Scenic Trail,” and one of only three to be fully completed.
Organized into 43 passages ranging from 8 to 36 miles, the AZT passes through or near two national parks (Saguaro and Grand Canyon) and numerous state parks. Also on the menu: sundry wilderness areas, national forests, national monuments (including Coronado and Vermilion Cliffs), deserts, savannah, historic mining camps, riparian corridors, river gorges, lakes, rugged mountain ranges, alpine meadows, coniferous forests, volcanic fields and expansive rangelands. The trail boasts an accumulated elevation gain of 101,800 feet – the equivalent of hiking from the base camp to the summit of Mount Everest eight times.
Funded by a combination of corporate and private donors, construction of the trail was accomplished by pick-and-shovel-wielding volunteers and paid members of groups like Youth Corps. Under the direction of AZT organizers, swarms of people regularly converged on work sites – often spending days in remote locations – to fashion the Arizona Trail out of old roads, existing trails and new construction. Hiking clubs, scout troops, forest service workers and outdoor enthusiasts relentlessly chipped away during “close the gap” events that tied the route together, mile-by-mile.
Although the AZT Association does not keep records, at least 20 to 25 people make the long hike from end-to-end (“thru-hiking”) each year – a number that figures to rise now that the trail itself is seamless. Most thru-hikers do not make a contiguous trek but tackle the route passage by passage in no particular order over weeks, months or years. Whether you choose to backpack, car shuttle, thru-hike or day-hike, the following popular passages are good places to get to know the trail.
SAN FRANCISCO PEAKS, PASSAGE 34
Arguably the most scenic stretch of the trail, this moderate, 36-mile passage appeals to day hikers, bikers, photographers and tourists alike. Alpine meadows, views of Flagstaff-area mountain peaks and dense aspen colonies that blaze gold in autumn make this one of the heaviest-traveled sections of the AZT.
SUGGESTED DAY HIKE: Aspen Corner to Bismarck Lake
Passing through breezy high-altitude meadows and rustling stands of Quaking Aspens, this easy, 8-mile roundtrip hike includes a visit to one of Flagstaff’s most beautiful, ephemeral lakes.
At the 2.5-mile point from Aspen Corner, the trail reaches the signed turnoff for Bismarck Lake – the residual bowl of an ancient volcanic crater in the watershed of Arizona’s highest peaks. The lake’s volume expands and contracts with nature’s whims, often shrinking to a wildflower-choked wetland by mid-summer.
LENGTH: 8 miles roundtrip
BEST SEASONS: April-November
GETTING THERE: From Flagstaff, go north on US 180 to milepost 223. Turn right onto Snowbowl Road (FR 516) and continue 5.3 miles to the “Aspen Corner” parking area – an unsigned, fenced pullout area on a curve in the road. To find the trail from here, begin on the west (left) side of the road and hike 0.2 mile into the woods along an old dirt road to the AZT intersection, located just before the road meanders into an open meadow. At the intersection, take a right (north) and follow the signs. Roads are paved.
BLUE RIDGE, PASSAGE 28
This popular AZT segment provides easy access, ample campgrounds and many prominent trailheads. Easily hiked in a day, or chopped into shorter excursions or car-shuttle treks, this 15.5-mile pine-shaded passage traverses the canyon-riddled Mogollon Rim. Blue Ridge Reservoir, East Clear Creek, historic monuments, narrow gorges and sunny meadows provide continual scenic variety, making this passage a good choice for weekend warriors and families with kids in tow.
SUGGESTED DAY HIKE: General Springs Cabin to Fred Haught Cabin
A perfect example of how existing trails were incorporated into AZT, this easy-to-moderate segment shares tread with Fred Haught Trail No. 141, which is part of the “cabin loop” trail system on the Mogollon Rim. General Springs and Fred Haught, two historic forest service log cabins, are the keynote features.
The route traces a beautiful green canyon to the 3-mile point where AZT branches off to the northwest. From the junction, go forward on No. 141 roughly 0.3 mile to a wooden sign marking the turnoff for Fred Haught Cabin. To get to the cabin ruins, slide down the dirt bank into the meadow and hike 0.5 mile due east (stay to the right of the water and head up a low-slung embankment) and follow a faint trail marked by (really ancient) tree blazes until an old fieldstone fireplace comes into view off to the left. Return the way you came.
LENGTH: 7.6 miles roundtrip
RATING: Easy to moderate
BEST SEASONS: April-November
GETTING THERE: From the intersection of SR 87/260 in Payson, continue 28 miles north on SR 87 to FR 300 (Rim Road) near milepost 280. Turn right and go 12.2 miles to FR 705, where there’s a Battle of Big Wash Monument on the northeast side of the intersection. Go left (north) onto FR 705 and continue 0.5 mile to the General Springs/AZT trailhead. Roads are maintained dirt and are passable by sedan, although a high-clearance vehicle is a better idea.
INFO: aztrail.org/passages/pass_28.html; Mogollon Rim District, Coconino National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/recreation/mog_rim/fredhaught-tr.shtml
SADDLE MOUNTAIN, PASSAGE 22
For more of a difficult, “out there” kind of hike without too much danger, this passage serves as a 16-mile long gateway to the rugged and remote innards of the Mazatzal Wilderness.
Briefly following the riparian corridor of Sycamore Creek, the trails glides over gently rolling grasslands and foothills ending at the base of Mt. Peeley, where the going gets rough. Be warned: harsh conditions make the route difficult to find in places.
SUGGESTED DAY HIKE: Cross F Ranch to Bushnell Tanks
For those without backcountry experience, this quick out-and-back hike is a relatively risk-free way to get to know the Mazatzal Mountains. Winding 12 miles roundtrip (mostly through undulating yucca-and-juniper rangeland laced with trickling creeks), the trail is a terrific spot to see horses and cattle browsing near stock tanks. Where the trail meets SR 87, a tunnel under the highway deposits hikers near sycamore-ringed Bushnell Tanks, the turnaround point for this hike.
LENGTH: 12 miles roundtrip
BEST SEASONS: October-April
GETTING THERE: From Fountain Hills, go 36 miles north on SR 87 to Sycamore Creek Road (old Hwy 87) at milepost 222.5. Follow paved Sycamore Creek Road 3.4 miles to the large AZ Trail sign in a grove of sycamores on the left. The trail begins directly across the road, where only a decaying railroad tie marks the faint path heading uphill. Once you find the access point, look for AZT posts and cairns to stay on track.
Dave Hicks, former executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, and trail director Shawn Redfield – who have both hiked border-to-border – offer advice for would-be thru-hikers.
PLAN, PLAN, PLAN: Use a spreadsheet to gauge mileage and re-supply logistics.
NETWORK: Speak with someone who has done it.
STAY FOUND: Do your homework to understand the route. Get topographic maps and learn how to read them.
USE TECHNOLOGY: Obtain and learn how to use GPS.
STAY HYDRATED: Learn how much water to pack and where to find it along the route. Valuable water data sheets are available on the AZT website.
GEAR UP: Researching proper clothing, sun protection, footwear and survival gear can make the difference between a safe and enjoyable trek and a painful, potentially deadly outcome.
COMMUNICATE: Cell phone coverage along the trail is surprisingly good, but don’t rely solely on it. Communicate your plans with someone who will miss you if you fail to show up when expected. Also, consider getting a “spot device” satellite receiver locator.
LEARN: AZT thru-hiker seminars are offered at least annually at places like REI.
TRAIN: Get in shape by practicing on the trail. Gyms are good but don’t fully prepare you for the rugged tread.
JOIN: AZT Association members have access to valuable online goodies like detailed maps, GPS data, water data sheets and expanded networking opportunities with trail users.
Info: Arizona Trail Association 602-252-4794, aztrail.org