The Arizona Trail is an 800mi (1300km) continuous footpath down the length of the US state of Arizona. It can be thruhiked. I thruhiked it. It was wonderful.
This here is my quick guide to the AZT. It’s designed to be detailed enough for your to form a general plan, but simple enough that you won’t get lost in the saguaro.
This is based on my sobo in the late fall of 2019, and informed my by also having thruhiked the AT, PCT, and Te Araroa.
I hope it helps. Kia kaha, hikertrash.
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1 – Brief Overview
2 – Length
3 – Timing
4 – Culture
5 – Gear
6 – A Step By Step Overview Of The Trail
7 – Alternatives
1 – Brief Overview
The Arizona Trail is an 800-mile (1,300km) continuous footpath through the US state of Arizona.
The trail has been around since the mid 1980s, and was given official status as a National Scenic Trail in the late oughts.
It can be walked, biked, or ridden on horseback. Unlike (say) Te Araroa, it does not really incorporate non-hiking sections. There are no technical ascents or traverses. There is none of the CDT’s choose-your-own-adventure. There is not a single #scaryriver.
The trail can be hiked at any time, but is generally done in spring or fall – when weather is calmer, and water somewhat more abundant.
The trail will put you over 3000m, and below 600m, and everywhere in between. It will put you in forest, desert, rocky ridge, and a certain canyon up Kaibab way. You might get rain, and wind, and snow, and blistering desert sun. You might get none of these things. C’est la thru.
The trail is overseen Arizona Trail Association. They do an excellent job. The trail is well marked, routed, and very well maintained. The official guidebook is outstandingly thorough.
The AZT has Guthooks. ^.^
Resupply is pretty straightforward. There are a number of trail towns all along the route. Food carries are generally around 60-80 miles. Water carries are more complicated – Guthooks is super recommended – but I only had one that was really long. Water caches are common during the season.
There are outfitters in many of the trail towns. Stove fuel is available pretty much everywhere.
Post offices are frequent. Amazon Prime abounds.
The trail is always within coverage of emergency rescue teams. The trail is rarely if ever more than ten linear miles from a road. Bailout options abound.
As with many thruhikes, the endpoints are determined by political as opposed to geographic boundaries. In this it’s like the PCT (Mexico to Canada) rather than the AT (mountain in the middle of Georgia to mountain in the middle of Maine). However, no borders are crossed; passports are not necessary.
The trail is growing more popular, but it is not within an order of magnitude of one of the Crowns. I saw about twenty people on trail during my thruhike. Half of these were dayhikers. Half of the remainder were thru-biking. The five thruhikers I met were all going the opposite direction. Twenty people in two months and I got to hike with none of them. Bring podcasts. (…bring podcasts.)
In a nutshell: if this ain’t your first thru, you’ll crush it. Buy some food, pick a direction, and start choochin’.
2 – Length
The AZT is 1300km (800mi) long. Hike every inch, and you’re a thruhiker.
The AZT is an odd size for a long trail – shorter than the crowns (the AT, PCT, CDT, Te Araroa) but longer than the tiaras (the Colorado Trail, Long Trail, John Muir). It is long enough, varied enough, and difficult enough – physically and logistically – that I have no trouble calling it a thruhike.
It takes most seasoned thruhikers 30-40 days from tip to tail. It took me 40 days of hiking, so averaging 20 miles per day. (We ah, won’t talk about how many zeroes I took.)
3 – Timing
As with most thruhikes, the AZT *can* be hiked at any time of year.
However, parts of the AZT experience pretty heavy winters, and parts experience extreme desert summers. I wouldn’t want to hike in either. Most people hike during the shoulder seasons – either spring (February to May, usually nobo) or fall (September to November, usually sobo).
I hiked from mid-October to mid-December sobo. I got worse weather in October in the north than I did in December in the south. But I saw temps (Farenheit) below zero and above eighty, wind gusting sixty miles an hour, inches of snow, inches of rain, flash flood, severe drought, and endless wastes of sun. But on the other hand, I averaged 30s at night and 60s by day, and from Payson south all the water sources were flowing sweet and clear. Not a bad tradeoff. This hiker can’t complain.
4 – Culture
The AZT goes through a fair cross-section of Middle America. You will be in big towns; tiny towns; and even a few cities. I don’t think many Americans will encounter anything outside of their experience. If you’re from outside of the States you’ll get used to it all quick – once you get over the occasional prevalence of cowboy hats.
The trail does go near – but not through – several Indian nations; it touches Mexico; it’s not all that far from enclaves of fundamentalist Mormons; it goes near some ecotourist meccas and centers of hippie pilgrimage. But you’ll probably have to work to interact with any of this. The people you meet – the hitches you get – will be regulars, ranchers, and retirees.
5 – Gear
By and large you don’t need any special equipment. Whatever you’d bring on a thruhike of any American long trail is all you need on the AZT.
Food safety: I practiced zero food safety at any point along the AZT. No bear can. No food hangs. I didn’t even sleep with my food in my tent… because I cowboyed all but two nights of the hike ^.^
Water carry: Be able to carry 6L. I once had a 60-mile water carry. Yeah.
You might consider just packing out a gallon jug (or two) and carrying them in your hands. Fortunately the areas where you are likely to have long water carries are also areas where you really don’t need your poles out.
Water filtration: You will probably encounter some really rough water sources on the AZT. This is especially true in the late spring and early-mid fall. Bring a water filter that you can backflush, like a Sawyer Squeeze. If you pack a BeFree you need to prefilter the water, or it will clog like a Welsh dancing team.
Warmth of gear: it depends on the time of year when you’ll be hiking – which calculus includes your direction of travel, speed, and how weird the weather happens to be.
If you’re doing a fast hike during the late spring or early fall, you might be able to get away with an ultralight setup. But you’ll still need a bit of luck not to hit bad weather, including pretty significant cold, wind, and precipitation of every kind.
I saw torrential rain; accumulating snow; sleet; ice; strong winds; and a whole lot of cold cold nights. If I’d gone ultralight, I would have been a cold and unhappy Silver.
Sleeping system: I used my “light winter” rig – 0F quilt and NeoAir XLite; expedition-weight wool base layer, wool sweater, wool socks, wool gloves, wool beanie. It did me well, even on some very cold (below 0F) nights. I did not suffer from the lacking of my “heavy winter” gear (0F and 30F quilts together; NeoAir XTherm; full expedition-weight layer over full midweight layer; wool balaclava, glove liners, socks; puffy jacket, booties, gloves, and Darth Vader helmet; tent that actually provides some dead air) – but my “summer” rig (30F quilt and light midlayer) would have been insufficient.
Clothing: I hiked the section north of Oracle in nothing but shorts and a smile – whereas I hiked the section north of the Grand Canyon wearing everything but a Taunton. I kept all my heavy gear, and was glad I did, because I wore it again on each and every one of the Sky Islands down south. I also used my rain gear a few times, and a few more to block the strong winds of winter in Arizona.
Sun: Arizona has *lots of it*. If – unlike me – you are capable of burning, I recommend a wide-brimmed or legionnaire’s hat; long sleeves and pants; or a very significant budget for sunscreen.
I carried my Gossgear sun umbrella. As on the PCT, I never used it for sun, but several times used it for rain or sleet.
…one might note that hiking in Arizona is one of the few times and places where one can justify wearing a cowboy hat. Arizona Hatters in Tucson will hook you up.
6 – Step By Step
I’m going to follow my perspective as a filthy sobo. Filthy nobos can invert at their leisure.
A. The Approach
Getting to the northern terminus is pretty shitty.
- DIRECT ROUTE: There is a shuttle service that costs about $350 per person. This leaves from Flagstaff, AZ or St. George, Utah, and is easy as.
St. George is accessible by shuttle from Vegas; Flag is on a bus route from Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson. Both cities have medium-sized airports, too.
- HITCHING: You can try to hitch to the northern terminus. It’s gonna be tough.
First of all, hitchhiking is illegal in Arizona. Now it does not seem to be enforced north of Tucson (source: got passed by a lot of cops when I had my thumb out!). But it’s definitely something to be aware of.
Second, most people in Arizona are not really aware of the AZT, or maybe even of thruhiking as a thing. Carrying a backpack will be some help, but a sign – “HIKER TO [DESTINATION]” – is super, SUPER recommended.
Third, it’s a long long way. From St. George to Jacob’s Lake is over 100 miles; from Flag to Page to Jacob’s is close to 200. And then you still have to get to the trailhead!
Fourth, the roads are pretty bad for hitching: they’re big ugly highways as they’re leaving town, but they’re super rural and not much traveled as they get nearer to the trailhead. So it’s physically hard to get a ride in the right direction; super unlikely that ride is going the whole way; and the nearer you get, the less likely a passing car will be. Nonideal.
- YOYOING: is something you might consider.
From Flagstaff you can take a pretty cheap bus (or train or plane) to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Then it’s only about 120 miles to the Northern Terminus. You could get there, tag the border, then turn around and start a sobo. Or, you could just rehike the 25 miles back to Jacob’s Lake, and then hitch to the South Rim. Either way you get to rehike the Grand Canyon, which is actually the best part of this plan, because, Grand Canyon. You also can do a completely different trail to get back up to the South Rim, which, variety.jpg.
- BUCKSKIN GULCH
The northern terminus is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. But from here you can hike an additional 20 miles north to a (relatively) major road. This hike is apparently phenomenal – a real Utah slot canyon – and I for one am REAL MAD I didn’t know about it!
An ideal way to do this might be to start at Route 89 in Utah and go south about 15 miles through Buckskin Gulch to the northern terminus. This way you can A) start on a more major road – much better if you’re hitching! – and B) get in a baller approach trail, too.
- OR, SKIP IT
The section north of the Canyon is so fucking boring that I honestly wouldn’t blink at someone who told me they skipped it. If you get to the South Rim and yoyo the Canyon, you’re missing about 40 miles of trail… but you’re doing about 6,000 feet more elevation, and you’re actually seeing anything at all, let alone some of the most spectacular scenery on this here planet of ours. If this were an AT-style trail with geographic demarcations, rather than a PCT-style trail with political ones, the trail would ONE HUNDRED PERCENT end at the North Rim. I’m just sayin’.
B. Le Plateau
From the northern terminus to the North Rim is pretty straightforward. It’s pretty easy. Okay, it’s super fucking boring – scrubby pine forest, blocking all views, and as flat as 90 Mile Beach.
For nobos, or sobos who are starting with trail legs (the AZT is a great dessert hike off the PCT, CDT, or Hayduke), this section can be annihilated. You will do Big Miles whether you want to or not.
As with pretty much all of the AZT, there are camp spots everywhere.
The only point of interest is Jacob’s Lake, a hunting lodge just off Mile 25. It has a restaurant, a full bar, and a killer bakery. Buy a cup of coffee and you can sit in an overstuffed chair and use their wifi until the cows come home. In the fall they serve hunter’s breakfast starting very early in the morning. A double bed in a private cabin is about a hundred bucks a night, and is preposterously cozy and warm; otherwise there are great stealth spots just across the street. It has a small resupply, but enough to get you to the South Rim.
In the fall, water in this area can be a real bother. There are several stock tanks, wildlife tanks, and caches; none of them had a drop when I went through. I had to carry water from Jacob’s Lake to the South Rim, a distance of about 60 miles. I also had to carry water from Jacob’s Lake to the terminus; if you’re planning on yoyoing that stretch, you’re talking another 50-mile carry.
This area can also get very, very bad weather. There’s no elevation change but you’re consistently at about 9,000 feet. In mid October I saw nighttime temperatures below zero, along with strong winds and fair snow accumulation. Dress appropriately.
C. The Ditch
OMG IT’S SO GOOOOOOD.
The North Rim was closed when I arrived. The water was off, and no services were available.
There was water still available at a ranger’s station. To get there: right at the Rim, turn west and walk .5mi. There will be a sign for the ranger’s station; take a right and it’s less than .1 off the road. There is a waterfill station and some picnic tables that are sheltered from the rain. There is also a bathroom that is lighted, outleted, heated, and kept supplies with TP… and most of all, it is open 24 hours. Praise friggin’ be.
The North Rim begins a long descent. It is not steep. It is probably the best maintained trail in the world. It can be narrow, and very exposed – I wouldn’t do this hike in super strong wind or rain or snow.
If the season is right, there are watering spots every few miles from one rim to the other. Their water is potable. Otherwise you are only a few miles away from the beginning of Kaibab Creek, which the trail will follow all the way to the Colorado. Every watering spot also had a privvy, all of which had paper. Yay dayhikers. Freakin’ yay.
From rim to rim on the Grand Canyon is 22 miles. Going southbound it’s a total climb of 5000 feet. In short, it’s eminently doable in a single day.
There are a few campgrounds in the Canyon, including the famous Phantom Ranch at the very bottom. Permits can be acquired from ranger stations at either the North or South Rim. Say you’re a thruhiker and they will really do their best to hook you up. I didn’t get to the Rim until late afternoon and so I stayed at Phantom, and it was delightful. I didn’t get food or beer there, because it’s crazy expensive – the result of needing to mule in all the supplies!
I will not comment on the availability of stealth spots in the Canyon. I will say that you better not get caught, and so would need to leave the trail, which is generally hard to do. However, there was some acceptable cowboy potential at Ribbon Falls.
Let me also mention that Ribbon Falls is probably the best place I’ve been on any hike I’ve ever taken ever. It is about .2 off the trail. It’s a slow .2, with some scramble on an unmaintained trail. The little footbridge has collapsed, so you will have to ford the river to get to it. When I went through the river was about six inches deep. And even if it were six fathoms deep – Ribbon Falls is worth it. Absolutely, astoundingly worth it.
There are two ways to get up to the South Rim. Bright Angel is the most common route, as it deposits you right in GC Village. Kaibab is less traveled and also a bit less infinitely switchbacked. This is one of the rare times in thruhiking where I will invoke Porque No Los Dos – drop your stuff at the Rim and take a ‘zero’ going right back down again. Yes, Virginia, it really is that good.
The South Rim is a bustling tourist city. There is a full grocery store with large and reasonable resupply, several restaurants, a bajillion bathrooms, and super expensive hotels. About six miles south is Tusayan, where there are much cheaper hotels, much cheaper restaurants, and, for some reason, much more expensive groceries. Tusayan has a cheap campground, although the woods just behind it are eminently stealthable.
D. Kabiab 2: Still Flat Boogaloo
Is also flat. Super. Duper. Flat
Most of this section follows dirt roads. You can crush miles. Absolutely smash ’em.
When I went through, water was pretty easy due to the prevalence of cattle troughs and stock tanks. I was told that in early November several of these were dry, resulting in preposterously long water carries. Again, Guthooks. The answer is unequivocally Guthooks.
If you’re hiking in hunting season, this area is just absolutely full of hunters. Wear blaze. For srs.
In the middle, this section is a bit rocky. It’s not a navigational challenge but it will be a little hard on your feet. Near Flagstaff the trail becomes nice and soft and absolutely lovely. I went through when the leaves were turning and it looked like god damn Naboo.
Is a lovely little city. Really just wonderful.
There are several very reasonable motels. The food scene is lovely. The bar scene is outstanding. There are three outfitters, of which Peace Surplus (right downtown) is the best. The owner is married to the owner of the local REI, which I don’t know what you do with that information but I sure do want to share it! They also offer a discount to thruhikers, which, may you live to be a thousand years old.
There is no water on the blue blaze north of the city. It is, however, very likely to be cached.
F. The Rim
From Flag south continues to be super flat and super easy. There are lots of water tanks and even natural ponds. It ain’t clean water, but it’s water. Chug up.
About 50mi south of Flag is Mormon Lake, pretty close to the trail. It has bathrooms, showers, a pretty good resupply, and a restaurant and bar. It also has fresh water, which was what really drew me to it.
This is where you start getting into Cactus Country. You’ll stay here the remainder of the hike. Wear thick socks. Consider thicker shoes. Watch your step. Watch where you sit. Watch where you cowboy(!!!)(exclamation points!). You might even consider switching to a non-inflatable sleeping pad. My clothing picked up so many cactus quills that I turned my XLite into emmenthaler. I think I patched 25 holes in 500 miles. If you stick with an inflatable pad, bring a tube of seam sealant. In fact, bring two.
Eventually you get to the Mogollon Rim. I get the impression that this stretch is often a heat death nightmare, comparable to the Hat Creek Rim on the PCT. When I hiked it, it was in the low 60s with a light breeze. Flat. Cruisy. Just a little stretch of pleasant hiking.
The rim ends near a ranger’s station, which has privvies, a pump for potable water, and during the day I’m told is a very pleasant place to go in and say Hi! At night the building’s vestibule is left unlocked, and somewhat heated, and it contains a pair of power outlets. Magnifique. You can camp in the clearing just across the street – at least, I did.
You will reach the Gila River for your first meeting. Fresh, flowing water – not bad, AZ, not bad! It’s then a cruisy river run to Pine/Payson – the former is very small but has a killer brewery; the latter is larger but very spread out and almost profoundly lacking in character.
G. The Mazeltovs
Just south of Pine you enter the Mazatzal Wilderness. Locals are wont to call these the Mazeltovs, which, as a forestjew, tickles me to no end.
This is the first time since the Ditch where you will be doing any climbing at all. Even if you started this trail with trail legs, you probably don’t have them anymore. Don’t be surprised if it kicks your ass a little.
There is a section of about five miles which is nothing but jagged volcanic rocks. Hope you brought your hikin’ feet. There is a descent that looks like it was once a dirt road but is now cosplaying as the streets of Pompeii. It’s maybe two tenths of a mile but it is the hardest part of this entire trail, bar none. I am told that the AZT will be rerouted around all of this starting in 2020. I kinda hope that’s true.
You climb down to your second encounter with the Gila. Guthooks notes that there is a bunkhouse here, with reasonable prices and package acceptance. I cowboyed by the banks of the river and woke up covered in fallen leaves. One of the prettiest spots in all my travels. Just lovely.
The climb out is hot and long. Bring water. (…bring vaseline.)
Once you get up to ridge the Mazatzals are marvelous. Just a good old fashioned ridge run. Reminds one of the Bigelows or San Jacinto. Beautiful views. Phenomenal ridge and little canyon. Real honest hiking. Delightful.
H. Roosevelt Lake
You get spit out onto a highway and follow it for a mile or two. You will see your first saguaro cactus. I also saw my first roadrunner, and a coyote, and, um, yep.
You can walk the road an additional half mile to the Roosevelt Lake marina. There is a decent little resupply, lovely bathrooms, and a brewpub with an outstanding view of the lake. Just across the street is a connector trail going up into the Superstitions.
You can spend the day swimming. I wish I’d done that :-)
I. The Supes
Another mountain range like the Mazatzals. These have more elevation change but you’ll be better prepared for it. Their biggest feature was the fact that they had recently burned down, and, when I went through, had just seen a three-day monsoon. This left them what thruhikers refer to as fucked up.
There is a note in Guthooks telling you not to hike in the Supes in bad weather. I spent three days in a Payson motel on account of this. Err on the side of caution and all that. I’m glad I did. They would have been a death-trap.
One large section was black ash like Mordor Beach. The trees were dead and burned; I would not camp here, I would not hike here in any sort of wind or rain. There was no trail, nor even footprints. I had to use a compass to orient myself. In a few areas you went down a little ravine to cross a creek; the littoral flora were devastated by flooding and moving around was difficult. If I’d been there during the flooding, I assume my body would have been found a good distance away! There were several washouts, which required slow and careful treading. A few were on the side of a steep mountain, and required hand-over-hand scramble – and more than a little leaping, I must confess.
At the end of the range is a two mile trail that follows a river. The recent flooding had smashed this whole area pretty well. When the trail dipped down to water level it was muddy, sandy, and boulder-hoppy madness. Strong memories of the Richmonds. In short: I fucking loved the Superstitions.
Leaving the Supes is about twenty miles of gentle downhill and desert-running. The trail crosses a highway, where it’s a very easy hitch into Superior. This is probably the sketchiest town I’ve ever hiked through – counting Duncannon, counting Pearisburg, counting Northland and Southland, counting all the mighty methmotels of the PCT. It looks like it was built by cowboys and then burned down by different cowboys. The gas stations at the edge of town are clean and safe, and that’s where the one motel is. There’s a grocery store in town but the gas stations have better resupply o.O
J. The Pass
Just south of Superior is one of my favorite sections of the AZT. It’s a gentle climb up and along a canyon wall to a high pass of red rock and green cactus. It feels as epic as a pass in the Sierras. I was shocked when I saw it only took you to 1000m in elevation.
On the far side of the pass is a long winding path downwards. There are no camp spots for about five miles, which is a rarity on the AZT. I hiked this section by the light of the full moon and yo it did not suck. You then get down to an escarpment following a railroad to the edge of Kearny, AZ, where I waited out a second torrential monsoon. There’s a great supermarket, a pizza place, a bar, and the hotel contains a second bar. I was there while the mine was on strike and man can those miners drink!
K. Out West
From Kearny to Oracle is a long low desert. Even in early December this stretch was hot and dry. Fortunately the wonderful proprietor of the Chalet Village Motel in Oracle cached water every ten miles for the entire stretch. Otherwise it would have been a brief trip into Hell’s demo. As it was, I had a lovely stroll!
Oracle contains a Dollar General just across the street from the best antojitos joint I’ve ever encountered. The breakfast burritos are $6 ($7 with avo) and are the size of a decently-proportioned Playboy Playmate. I packed out two and it is probably the best decision I’ve ever made. Definitely better than law school. Clearing low bars!
The motel is run by an absolute trail angel. Even if the motel is closed, text her (number is Guthooks or posted on the office door) and she will hook you up. Rooms are big, cozy, and above all cheap. She also has a laundry shed, loaner bikes, and several hiker boxes. This is the only place on the AZT that speaks of Long Trail Culture. It was marvelous.
L. Mt. Lemmon
Just north of Oracle you begin your ascent to your first Sky Island. Hope you brought spare calves, because, Jesus Christ.
The ascent is, if memory serves, 2000m in 8km. The trail is also not much graded and often very rocky. It’s a bitch! A towering one! The views are marvelous to either side.
You’ve spent a few days in the low hot desert. You will top of here at about 9,000′. You’re in a pine forest. There’s flowing water and a light breeze. In my case there was also six inches of snow on the ground. A few hundred feet higher and I’d have been at the top of a ski lift.
The town is called Summerhaven. It only has 30 year-round residents. There are a few cute little shops and restaurants, but the bar closes early and the bakery opens very late. I’m told there is resupply but the hours were even more limited. Alas.
But there are two wonders here in town. The first is a 24-hour public bathroom. It has a large vestibule with outlets. It isn’t heated but it stays pretty warm from the bathrooms, which are very heated and omg. People report in Guthooks that you *can* sleep in this vestibule, but your odds of being woken up in the middle of the night are not small – or kicked out very early in the morning.
But just across the street – aha! – is the post office. It is also heated. It is also open 24 hours. And as one might expect, this sleepy little mountain town doesn’t generally check its mailboxes at midnight. So as far as sleeping options go… well… have fun, hikertrash. Hikertrash for life.
Alternatively it’s six-tenths of roadwalking to a trailhead with campspots, flowing water, and privvies. But. Like. Post office! Hikertrash! COME ON!
From Summerhaven you bop up about five hundred feet to ridge. You’re in a stretch called the Wilderness of Rocks and if you don’t take a picture of that sign, you are just not having enough fun in showbusiness. It looks like the southern Sierras to an almost comical degree. There’s water everywhere. I need to come back here.
You plateau on the edge of a cliff. You have a 180-degree view of the valley below, about 175 degrees of which are occupied by sprawling Tucson. Then it’s a long and rather steep descent to river level, where there is excellent camping every which way. Then it’s just a few miles’ jog to a park and campground which used to be a Japanese intermnent camp! America!
This is probably the best place to hitch into Tucson. The next spot is Redington Road which is dirt and not much traveled. The next spot is Vail which is a highway and cops will fine you for hitching. Whereas here you’re gonna see an endless parade of dirtbags and vanlifers. Stick out a thumb, whydoncha.
M. Mica and Saguaro
From Gordon Hirabayashi it’s a very pleasant jaunt through ranchland. Until you come to the foot of Mica Mountain, and then go straight up it. I had to ford three unmarked rivers here, because flash flooding. I then got soaked by a sudden driving rainstorm. The temperature then dropped below freezing and ha HA was that not my favorite day ever. Then we got six inches of snow in two hours. You know, southern Arizona!
There is a campground on the south side of the mountain. It has a privy that is open to the public. A great place to change out of wet, frozen clothing. There is a ranger station here, that was locked. There are multiple campsites which require advanced reservation and payment. Nobody was there in the middle of all this Hoth-ass nonsense. I pitched in a campspot and had a lovely night’s sleep. In the morning I found several candy bars left behind in the various bearboxes.
You then lose altitude pretty quickly. In a few hours you’re in Saguaro National Park and it really does look like the God of Succulents just discovered the clone brush in Photoshop. The trail becomes stupendously flat and stays that way pretty much until Patagonia. There’s water everywhere, too. Enjoy.
N. The Santa Ritas
They’re very easy. There’s lots of water. They’re jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Have a blast.
The descent into Patagonia is just miles and miles of long golden grassses waving in the breeze. Savor it.
Patagonia is a small town with a big heart and a big slice of the Tucson weekend crowd. There’s a bougie pizza place, a gas station with a big resupply, a natural food store with a great selection, a cheap bar with acceptable Tex-Mex, and an absolutely delightful bakery and cafe. The hotel is historic and really pretty; I splurged and stayed here, to rest up for the Final Boss. The gas station starts serving coffee at 430AM. The bakery will slice your bread… if you mention you’re a thruhiker, and are only carrying a 1cm knife because you’re an ultralighter piece of shit.
O. Miller Peak
You leave Patagonia with a six-mile roadwalk. You then have a pretty cruisy desert stroll. Lots of views. Lots of water. It’s a good trail.
Just south of Parker Lake is a few miles of lovely forest-walking. There are a few campsites just before you start the last climb of the hike. It’s a well-maintained and switchbacked climb, but it’s a lot of ellie. More than that, the temperature differential between the base and the ridgeline can be stupendous; I saved 20F by camping at the base.
The whole ridgeline of this range is only 20 miles. Bop up, run some ridge, enjoy some lovely views in every direction. I recommend the .2 side trail to bag the peak, because the 360 views are gobsmacking. You see that pretty place to the south. That’s Mexico. Yeah.
There is a water source called Bathtub Spring. It is, ah, aptly named. Just FYI this is the last water source to the border. Camel Up accordingly.
You run an escarpment trail down to Montezuma Pass, which is a paved road with a parking lot and privvies. From here it’s 2 miles to the border. During the last mile you lose 1300′ of ellie, FYI.
I hit the southern terminus with about six minutes of daylight left. Took a selfie or two, then pitched my tent. I shall not specify on which side of the border I camped. (Political boundaries are ever so unconcerned with the equitable distribution of flat spots.)
In the morning I went down the smooth little Joe’s Canyon Trail to the visitor’s center. It took moments.
The visitor’s center has lovely bathrooms, no wifi or cell service, and no food or drinks to speak of. But you can dress up like a conquistador and get a ranger to take your picture. Because that isn’t at all problematic. o.O
It’s then a six-mile easy road walk down to a major road. From there it’s an easy hitch into Sierra Vista, a terribly spread out but very serviceable town. My hitch was seven hundred years old and bought me breakfast at an IHOP. I like thruhiking. I’m gonna keep doing it.
Sierra Vista is on a bus route to Tucson, which is on a bus route to everywhere. You fucking thruhiker. Mazel tov. Well done.
7 – Alternatives
A thruhike is an exercise in missing things. Sometimes you miss hard stuff, sometimes you miss easy stuff. Sometimes you miss boring stuff. Sometimes you miss beautiful stuff. Sometimes you miss things that are well off the trail and would require long, hard hitches to see. Sometimes you miss things that are a tenth of a mile off the trail, and are spectacular.
I’m not an Arizona boy, and so I’m really not well positioned to talk about the best blue blazes. But here are some ideas.
- The northern terminus of the trail is the Utah border. Immediately north of the border is Wire Pass which leads to Buckskin Gulch. I am so mad I didn’t know about this beforehand; it’s supposed to be marvelous. And kind of a natural approach trail too!
- Standing at the Utah border, one feels as if one is just feet away from some really incredible hiking. Arguably the best hiking in the world. (>O.O)>GIVE HAYDUKE(>O.O)>
- The southern terminus is located just above Coronado National Monument. It’s worth hiking through – doubly so as it has a great little visitor’s center.
- Standing on the little peak above Montezuma Pass, one sees numerous beautiful sky islands that are just across the border in Mexico. Guess I’ll have to go there and hike those, too.
- Several high peaks are just off the AZT. These include Miller Peak near the southern terminus; the actual summits of Mica and Mt Lemmon; and Humphrey’s Peak near Flagstaff, which at 12,635 is the highest point in the state. All of these are highly recommended.
- The Mazatzals and Superstitions are both rather small, narrow ranges, but I’d love to explore them more.
- You don’t get into Sedona but I’m told it’s seriously worth a return trip.
- I don’t know if a hiker could spend a lifetime in the Grand Canyon, but I’d be interested in trying! A thuhiker might well consider doing some side hikes in the ditch, especially such super convenient blueblazes like Ribbon Falls.
- I would recommend that hikers consider yoyoing the Grand Canyon, so that they can hike both Bright Angel and Kaibab on the South Rim.
- Because the northern terminus is so hard to get to, it’s also worth considering a yoyo – hitch from Jacob’s Lake back to the Rim; re-hike the Canyon; mass transit out from the South Rim.
- I mentioned the burritos in Oracle, right?
It’s not easy. It probably can be cheap but it weren’t for me! It can be pretty dangerous. It is wonderful. It’s a great place to have a real old-fashioned Cheryl Strayed I’m-hiking-all-alone kind of experience – which is nothing to the camaraderie of the TA or AT or PCT, but… well… is a great time to get caught up on your podcasts.
Give it a try. As an introduction to thruhiking, as a dessert after a longer trail, or as a way to get the full experience of a thruhike in far less time – and that’s pretty high praise, I think. Kut ‘i a dadak ‘am o si has ‘i ‘el ‘am vui g do’ag. Good on ya, AZT.
Kia kaha, nizhónígo ch’aanidíínaał, and eat some prickly pears for me.
(David Axel Kurtz)
….dolla dolla billz yall