Bordeauxs and backpacks mix well on these Arizona wine country hikes.
Wine character and quality are intimately linked to the climate, slope and soil of its origins. Turns out, these same elements also make for some Grand Cru hiking trails. Arizona’s three major viticulture regions sit near trails that ascend mountains, meander along rivers and wetlands, and succumb to the gravity of gaping canyons. This fortuitous juxtaposition of the imbibable with the hikable begs to be exploited by teetotalers and tipplers alike. Let the post-winery wilding begin. Here’s how.
Scattered across a river-laced basin in north central Arizona in an arch that places them temptingly close to primo hiking trails, the wineries of the Verde Valley (page 96) – including Caduceus Cellars in Jerome and Freitas Vineyard in Cottonwood – lap up against the upper and lower mouths of Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. Trails within and between the canyon’s varied terrain range from arduous, remote treks to close-to-town strolls with swimming holes and wildlife viewing opportunities. Here’s a sampling of trails at both ends with a sweet traipse in the middle.
DOGIE TRAIL (North)
Big enough to awe but small enough to conquer, Arizona’s second largest canyon is no simpering runner-up. Whereas our No. 1 gorge, the Grand Canyon, is sculpted into more than a million acres of melted knots and soft bends by Colorado River water, its little sibling looks like a 55,937-acre, rough-hacked slice of geological layer cake. One of dozens of routes leading into the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, the Dogie Trail #116 accesses the canyon’s midsection in the heart of the Verde Valley and is a convenient port for backpackers setting out on the Taylor Cabin Loop circuit. For a location sandwiched less than 10 miles between Cottonwood and Sedona, the Dogie Trail exudes a primitive “out-there” kind of feel, and in that primitive spirit, there are no facilities. The pinion pines, scrub oaks and junipers bursting from the trail’s ancient rock pediment offer little shade, which is why the best window of opportunity to enjoy a nice cool outing here is from September through March.
LENGTH: 5.4 miles one way
ELEVATION: 4,850’ – 4,450’
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, travel north on I-17 to the McGuireville exit 293. Go left onto Cornville Road and continue 13 miles to AZ89A. Turn right and go 7 miles on 89A to FR 525 just past milepost 364 on the left. Turn left and go 2.8 miles on 525 to a fork in the road with a sign for “Palatki,” turn left here to get on FR 525C (not signed). Continue 8 miles on FR 525C; there are many side roads but 525C is well-signed and dead ends at the trailhead.
ROAD CONDITIONS: The access roads are good dirt with just a few moderately rough spots and a short section of mountain grades. Although high-clearance is preferable, carefully driven passenger cars can get through just fine. Call ahead, though – the forest service sometimes closes the access roads due to weather.
INFO: Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-203-7500, 928-203-2900
SEDONA WETLANDS PRESERVE (center)
Dedicated on September 27, 2013, this 27-acre effluent management area with shaded picnic tables and restrooms is a prime spot for wildlife-viewing day hikes out of Cottonwood. Six ponds filled with cleaned and disinfected wastewater are landscaped with native plants to attract waterfowl, songbirds and thirsty critters. A mile-long trail circles the property, which features several viewing beaches and cattail-choked coves. The Northern Arizona Audubon Society conducts frequent bird watching field trips to this site, but if you’re visiting solo, you’ll see the most species if you visit early or late in the day, move slowly and look for movement at the water’s edge.
LENGTH: 1.1-mile perimeter trail
ELEVATION: 3,373’ – 3,978’
HOURS: dawn-dusk daily
DOGS: allowed, but must be on leash and kept out of the water
GETTING THERE: Take I-17 N to AZ-179N to the SR179/89A roundabout. From the SR179/89A roundabout in Sedona, go 8 miles west (left, toward Cottonwood) on 89A to the Wastewater Treatment Plant near milepost 366. Turn right, then make an immediate left and continue 0.3 mile to the trailhead.
INFO: City of Sedona, Dept. of Parks & Recreation, sedonaaz.gov/sedonacms/index.aspx?page=1014
Northern Arizona Audubon Society, northernarizonaaudubon.org
PARSONS TRAIL (south)
The cool spring water that gurgles to the surface year-round in the lower portion of Sycamore Canyon attracts myriad outdoor enthusiasts. Popular with the locals and out-of-towners alike, Parsons trail is populated by hikers, backpackers, birdwatchers, rambunctious kids, ecstatic Labrador retriever dogs and the occasional group of skinny-dippers. Most of the commotion ends after the first mile, where the going gets a bit too rough for the casual visitor. The trail starts with a steep 300-foot descent into the canyon (remember this for the way back) and is marked by a series of sometimes hard-to-find cairns made of river rocks wired into 50-gallon drum-size cylinders. Rains and floods change the terrain frequently, so pay attention along the way. Most of the path parallels the streambed and winds beneath a canopy of sycamore, walnut and cottonwood trees. Dense riparian vegetation, including wild grapes, holly, squash, reeds and cattails flourishes in the moist, sandy soil around the seep areas and springs. There are several clear pools along the way that are suitable for swimming. One rests in a beautiful, shaded cove with handy limestone ledges above the water that provide comfortable seating for a lunch break.
LENGTH: 7.4 miles round-trip
RATING: Easy (with some tricky creek crossings)
ELEVATION GAIN: 3,700’ – 3,200’
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, travel north on I-17 for 90 miles to exit 287 (AZ260). Go west on AZ260 for about 14 miles to the town of Cottonwood. Once in Cottonwood, go straight through town on Main Street and Broadway (AZ89A), following the signs to Tuzigoot National Monument toward the town of Clarkdale. Turn right onto the signed road to Tuzigoot and continue for less than a half-mile. Cross the Verde River Bridge and take the first left onto Sycamore Canyon Road (CR 139). The road will turn into maintained dirt and then merges into FR 131. Continue for 10.5 miles, following the FR 131 and Sycamore Canyon road signs to the trailhead, where there is an interpretive sign but no facilities.
Seasoned hikers are well aware that Chirichaua National Monument holds the title of “best hiking spot” in the wilderness of rocks that embrace the Willcox wine region (page 116). Although this destination is worthy of the honor, its next-door neighbor is poised to pin that claim to the mat. Cochise Stronghold offers similar gawk-worthy geology with a side of Old West history to boot – without having to wrestle the crowds.
Coronado National Forest
Only one white man knows where the remains of Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise were interred in 1874 among the clefts and canyons that bear his name – and he ain’t talking. As he promised, Thomas J. Jeffords took the secret to his own grave, amplifying the intrigue of his blood brother’s legacy. Exploring the hauntingly beautiful expanse of weathered granite and high desert ecosystem of the Dragoon Mountains is as much a trip through American history as it is an outdoor adventure. Sights along the trail make it easy to imagine how the jumbled ocher ramparts that had once served as fortifications continue to shield the chief in a stony embrace. This is a moderate, non-technical hike with spectacular views, located about 20 miles southwest of Willcox.
LENGTH: 6 miles round-trip
ELEVATION: 5,000’ – 6,050’
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, drive south on I-10 to just past the town of Benson and then take exit 318 (Dragoon Road). Continue on Dragoon Road to AZ191. Go south on AZ191 to the town of Sunsites and then turn left onto Ironwood Road. Continue on Ironwood Road, which turns into a good dirt byway (FR 84) and follow the signs to the campground. There is a $5 daily fee per vehicle. Bring the exact amount; no change is available at the pay station. The hike begins at the bridge near the restrooms and follows the Nature Trail briefly before connecting to the main route. The turnaround point for this hike is at the signed “east-west divide” junction.
INFO: Coronado National Forest, cochisestronghold.com
Hiking in the Sonoita-Elgin wine region (page 106) of southeastern Arizona is simple. You only need to hop on the Arizona National Scenic Trail. More than 75 miles of the 817-mile, state-spanning route passes near vineyards in the foothills of the Santa Rita, Empire and Rincon Mountains. Roughly paralleling State Highway 82, Arizona Trail Passages 4 through 8 run from Patagonia to Vail with plenty of access points throughout. One of the most popular portals is the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead.
ARIZONA TRAIL RINCON VALLEY PASSAGE 8
Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead to Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Also known as the “three bridges” section, Passage 8 of state-traversing Arizona Trail winds through a swath of desert south of Tucson. Although it’s one of the shortest and easiest of the 43 passages that comprise the 817-mile trail, this 14.8-mile trek is special because it’s home to the first stands of saguaro cacti encountered when hiking the trail from south-to-north. The hike begins at the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead with a contemplative stroll around memorials to the victims of the January 2011 Tucson shooting that killed Zimmerman and wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. From here, the route descends into Davidson Canyon and the fringes of Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, where perennial waters and shady cottonwoods make for a popular camping and water stocking spot. (Note: If you want to leave the trail and explore around the creek, permits are required. See link below.) Beyond the creek, the trail roams under and around three railroad trestle bridges, then heads north into Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The privately operated park offers camping, water and tours of limestone caverns. The passage continues on to Hope Camp at the border of Saguaro National Park.
LENGTH: 4.7 miles to Colossal Cave
ELEVATION: 3,098’ – 3,650’
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, go south on I-10, take exit 281 in Tucson, go 3 miles southeast, then north on the frontage road (Marsh Station Road) to the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead on the right.
INFO & MAPS: Arizona Trail Association, aztrail.org; Colossal Cave Mountain Park, 520-647-7275, colossalcave.com; Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, 520-877-6158