Long Distance Trails

From Desert to Peaks: The Diverse Landscapes of the Arizona Trail

POSTED ON December 28, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Nestled amidst the breathtaking landscapes of the American Southwest, the Arizona Trail stands as a testament to nature’s raw beauty and the human spirit of exploration.

Stretching over 800 miles (1,287 km), this trail offers an unparalleled journey through the diverse terrains of Arizona, from the sizzling deserts to the towering mountains.

In this blog post, we invite you to join us on a virtual expedition along the Arizona Trail, where we’ll uncover the trail’s hidden treasures and provide you with all the information you need to plan your adventure on this iconic route.

As we embark on this exploration, you’ll learn how the Arizona Trail winds its way through lush forests, crosses bubbling streams, and traverses vast deserts, showcasing the remarkable diversity of Arizona’s ecosystems.

So, whether you’re a seasoned hiker planning your next epic trek or simply a nature lover seeking inspiration, join us as we embark on a virtual odyssey along the Arizona Trail.

History

From ancient Native American trade routes to modern-day long-distance trails, the Arizona Trail has a storied past that spans millennia.

Long before the concept of modern trails, the Arizona Trail’s route was used by indigenous peoples for trade, communication, and transportation. These ancient pathways served as vital links between various tribes and allowed for the exchange of goods, culture, and knowledge.

Two of the most renowned Native American groups associated with the trail are the Hopi Tribe and the Havasupai tribe. Their ancestral lands in northeastern Arizona intersect with the Arizona Trail’s route, and the trail has come to symbolize the enduring connection between the Hopi people and their ancestral homeland.

With the arrival of European settlers and American pioneers in the 19th century, the Arizona Trail’s significance evolved. Portions of the trail were incorporated into stagecoach routes and trade paths, facilitating westward expansion and trade in the Arizona Territory. The trail became a lifeline, connecting remote settlements and mining communities to larger cities and supply routes.

The concept of a continuous long-distance trail through Arizona began to take shape in the late 20th century. In the 1980s and 1990s, the dream of a single, unbroken trail was championed by passionate individuals and organizations. The non-profit Arizona Trail Association (ATA) played a pivotal role in the development and maintenance of the trail.

In 2009, after years of dedicated efforts, the Arizona Trail was officially designated as a National Scenic Trail by an act of Congress. This prestigious recognition marked the trail’s importance in preserving the natural and cultural heritage of Arizona while providing outdoor enthusiasts with a unique opportunity to experience the state’s diverse landscapes.

Today, the Arizona National Scenic Trail stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of Native American heritage, the pioneering spirit of early settlers, and the dedication of modern-day trail advocates.

Valley in Arizona

Key Facts About The Arizona Trail

Location: Southwestern United States, Arizona.

Total Length: Approximately 800 miles (1,300 km).

Difficulty Level: Easy to challenging, especially in the mountainous areas of northern Arizona.

Established: Officially designated as a National Scenic Trail by Congress in 2009.

Trailheads: Some popular starting points include the northern terminus at the Utah border near the Arizona-Utah border and the southern terminus at the Mexican border.

Total Elevation Gain: About 110,000 Feet (33,500 meters)

Time to Hike: Around 4 to 8 weeks for thru-hikers, backpackers, and mountain bikers, although the exact time varies on the individual’s pace and chosen segments.

Best Time/Season to Hike: Spring (March to May) and Fall (September to November).

Lowest Point: Gila River at 1,700 ft (520 m) above sea level.

Highest Point: Kaibab Plateau, at approximately 9,600 ft (2,900 m) above sea level, making it the highest point in Arizona.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

North Rim

The Arizona National Scenic Trail, often referred to as the “AZT,” is a hiking trail that meanders through the heart of the Grand Canyon State, showcasing the diverse landscapes and natural wonders of Arizona. Spanning an impressive 800 miles (1,300 km), this trail is a treasure trove of breathtaking views, challenging terrain, and a profound connection to the rugged beauty of the American Southwest.

Difficulty Levels and Popular Sections

One of the remarkable aspects of this Trail is its varying difficulty levels along different segments. While some sections are relatively beginner-friendly, others pose challenges akin to the Appalachian Trail [Official link] or Pacific Crest Trail [link].

Here’s a closer look at some of the popular sections.

  • Utah Border to the Grand Canyon: Starting at the northern terminus near the Utah border, this section takes you through the stunning Utah-Arizona borderlands. Backpackers will marvel at the high desolate landscapes, canyons, and mesas.
  • Grand Canyon National Park: For those seeking an epic trek through one of America’s most iconic national parks, the AZT passes through the Grand Canyon where you can traverse the North and South Rim.
  • Superstition Mountains to Roosevelt Lake: This section winds through the Sonoran Desert and provides a glimpse of the stunning Superstition Mountains. You can find shade and rest along the Gila River or take in the rugged beauty of the Tonto National Forest.
  • Flagstaff to the Utah Border: Trekking through northern Arizona, this section takes you to the highest elevations, including the Kaibab Plateau. The Coconino National Forest offers lush forests and cooler temperatures.
  • Mexican Border to the Huachuca Mountains: Starting from the southern terminus at the Mexico border, hikers journey through the arid beauty of the Sonoran Desert, passing through gateway communities and the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest [link].

Route Options

The Arizona National Scenic Trail offers a variety of route options, depending on your preferences and itinerary. Hikers may choose to tackle the entire trail, while others may opt for shorter sections or day hikes.

However, many hikers take advantage of the trail’s accessibility to nearby communities, allowing for resupply and lodging.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike The Arizona Trail

Wilderness in Arizona

The Arizona National Scenic Trail, managed by the Arizona Trail Association, offers diverse ecosystems and landscapes, making each season unique. As you prepare to embark on your visit, understanding the ever-changing climate and weather conditions is paramount.

Here’s a look at what to expect during each season along the trail.

Spring (March to May)

Spring is an inviting time for thru-hikers and mountain bikers to begin their journey along the Arizona Trail. Daytime temperatures range from 18-29°C (65-85°F), making it comfortable for outdoor activities.

Hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is ideal during this season, with cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. Streams and water sources are typically more abundant, reducing the need for extensive water caches.

Spring also brings vibrant wildflower blooms to the Coconino National Forest, Santa Catalina Mountains, and more. Plan to stop in towns like Flagstaff (location), Tucson (location), and Phoenix (location) to rest, resupply, and recharge.

Summer (June to August)

The Arizona Trail’s summer season can be challenging due to the sweltering heat, especially in the desert sections. Daytime temperatures, particularly near the Arizona-Mexico border, soar to 32-41°C (90-105°F) in the lower elevations.

Crossing the Colorado River can be scorching; so, plan to do so in the early morning or late afternoon. Reliable water sources also become scarce, so hikers must carry extra supplies. Camp at higher elevations if possible, and be vigilant about heat-related illnesses.

Fall (September to November)

Fall is an excellent time for those beginning their thru-hike or looking to enjoy the milder temperatures of the Arizona Trail. Expect daytime temperatures ranging from 24-34°C (75-94°F) in the lower elevations.

Grand Canyon’s Northern Rim offers stunning autumn foliage, attracting visitors from all over. Water spots may still be needed in some sections, so plan accordingly.

Cooler weather makes for more comfortable hiking and biking conditions. But keep an eye out for wildlife in the Mogollon Rim area, where the forest comes alive with autumn colors.

Winter (December to February)

Winter brings cooler temperatures and the possibility of snow in higher elevations. Daytime temperatures range from 7-15°C (45-60°F) in lower elevations and can drop below freezing in higher areas.

This season also brings opportunities for snow sports on Mount Lemmon (location), just outside Tucson. Snow may also dust the Rincon Mountains (link), providing a unique desert winter experience. So, be prepared for colder nights.

Nearby towns like Tucson and Phoenix offer lodging and resupply options for winter hikers.

Essential Gear and Equipment

Cliff in Arizona

Visiting the Arizona Trail is an exhilarating and challenging experience, and having the right gear can make all the difference. Here’s a breakdown of the recommended gear to ensure you’re well-prepared for your journey along the trail:

  • Backpack: Choose a comfortable and durable backpack with ample space to carry your gear and supplies. Consider one with multiple compartments for better organization.
  • Footwear: Choose high-quality hiking boots or trail shoes designed for various terrains. Ensure they provide adequate support and comfort for long days on the trail.
  • Clothing: Dress in layers to accommodate changing temperatures along the trail. Recommended clothing items include moisture-wicking base layers, lightweight and breathable shirts and pants, a sun hat, a warm hat and gloves for colder sections, and a waterproof jacket.
  • Sleeping Gear: Invest in a lightweight and compact sleeping bag suitable for the expected temperature range. A lightweight and comfortable sleeping pad will provide insulation and cushioning for restful nights.
  • Shelter: Consider a lightweight and reliable tent or tarp for shelter. Ensure it is easy to set up and offers protection from the elements.
  • Navigation Tools: Carry maps, a GPS device or app, and a compass. Familiarize yourself with trail markers, as some sections may be less well-marked than others.
  • Water Filtration: Given the variability of water sources, a reliable water filtration system is crucial. Options include water filters, purifiers, or chemical treatments. Carry extra water bottles or a hydration reservoir.
  • Food and Cooking Equipment: Pack lightweight, high-energy foods that are easy to prepare. A compact and efficient stove, cookware, and utensils are essential for meal preparation.
  • First Aid Kit: Assemble a comprehensive first aid kit, including essential items such as bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, blister treatment, and any personal medications.
  • Backpacking Gear: Bring essential backpacking gear, such as a multi-tool, headlamp with extra batteries, night fire-starting equipment, and lightweight trekking poles for added stability on steep terrain.
  • Clothing Accessories: Don’t forget accessories like sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellent to protect yourself from the sun and bugs at night.
  • Hygiene and Toiletries: Carry a small hygiene kit with biodegradable soap, a trowel for digging cat holes, and a waste disposal system in compliance with Leave No Trace principles.
  • Communication: While the Arizona Trail offers solitude, always maintain a means of communication, but be aware that coverage may be limited in remote areas. A satellite communication device can provide a more reliable means of communication.
  • Permits and Documentation: Keep your permits, identification, and trail documentation in a waterproof bag for safekeeping.

Permits and Regulations

Before you start planning on your Arizona Trail adventure, it’s crucial to be well-informed about permits, maps, and regulations to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here’s what you need to know:

Permits

  1. Arizona National Scenic Trail Permit: While there is no specific permit required to hike or bike the entire Arizona Trail, certain sections pass through federal and state lands that may have their regulations and fees. Check with relevant land management agencies for any specific permits or fees for the sections you plan to visit.
  2. Backcountry Permits: Some areas require permits to camp along the trail. Fortunately, the National Park Service manages permits for the Grand Canyon, and you can find information and apply for permits on the National Park Service website.

Maps

  1. Arizona Trail Association Maps: The Arizona Trail Association provides detailed maps for the entire Arizona Trail, including topographical maps, trailhead information, and key points of interest. These maps are available on the Arizona Trail Association’s website.
  2. USGS Topographic Maps: You can also use USGS topographic maps for navigation. These maps cover the entire trail and can be obtained from various sources, including outdoor retailers, map stores, and online map providers at approximately $15.

Note: Different sections of the trail may fall under the jurisdiction of various land management agencies, including national parks, national forests, and state or local authorities. Research and understand the specific regulations for each section you’ll be hiking.

Accommodation, Camping, and Overnight Stays near Arizona Trail

Whether you prefer established campgrounds or backcountry sites, there are numerous options available.

Here is a list of campgrounds and permit information:

  • Arizona Trail Thru-Hiker Overnight Permit: The Arizona Trail Association offers a special Thru-Hiker Overnight Permit for visitors, allowing them to camp at certain locations along the trail. However, this permit is only available during peak thru-hiking seasons (January 15 – April 30 and Sept 15 – Nov 30).
  • Flagstaff KOA (Approximately 10 miles/16 km from the Arizona Trail). Reservation Information: Flagstaff KOA
  • Mather Campground, Desert View Campground, and North Rim Campground (All located within Grand Canyon National Park). Reservation Information: link 1, Link 2, and Link 3
  • Superstition Mountains Area: First Water Trailhead (Provides access to Superstition Wilderness). Obtain permits for camping in Superstition Wilderness from the Tonto National Forest.
  • Saguaro National Park Area: Manning Campsite (Located along the Arizona Trail within Saguaro National Park). Reservations for backcountry camping are required, and permits are available on Recreation.gov
  • Primitive camping is available along the Gila River but check with local land management agencies for any permits or regulations.
  • Several campgrounds are located along the Catalina Highway (location) near the town of Summerhaven (location). These campgrounds offer access to the high country of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Gateway Communities

Gateway communities along the Arizona Trail offer a variety of accommodations, including hotels, resorts, cabins, and bed & breakfasts. These communities are great places to resupply and relax during your thru-hike or bike trip.

  • Kindly check out more information about these communities Here
  • Get Gateway Community Map Here

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Planning your trip to the Arizona Trail involves careful consideration of transportation options and logistics.

Here’s how to get there and navigate your way around:

Nearest Airports

  • Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG): This airport is a convenient option for accessing the northern sections of the Trail.
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX): As one of the busiest airports in the region, this airport is a major gateway to the Trail. It’s well-connected with domestic and international flights, making it a great choice for those exploring the central and southern sections of the trail.
  • Tucson International Airport (TUS): This airport is your closest option if you’re planning to start your adventure in the southern portions of the state.

Getting from the Airports to the Arizona Trail:

Once you’ve arrived at one of these airports, you’ll need to make your way to the specific trailhead or access point where you plan to start your journey. Here’s how to do it:

From Pulliam Airport:

  • Renting a car is a convenient option, especially if you plan to access the northern sections of the trail. From the airport, you can easily drive to the trailheads in the area or the Grand Canyon.

From Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport:

  • Phoenix is approximately 147 miles (246 km), and a 2-hour drive from Flagstaff. It is also a central hub for exploring the southern portions of the Trail. Renting a car is a popular choice for flexibility.
  • Several shuttle services operate between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Some may even offer transportation to specific trailheads.

From Tucson International Airport (TUS):

  • Tucson is closer to the southern sections of the trail. Therefore, renting a car is recommended for easy access to trailheads in the area.
  • Depending on your specific trailhead, you may find shuttle services that can take you from the airport to your starting point.

Getting Around While on the Trail

Once you’ve reached your chosen starting point on the Trail, you’ll need transportation to get back to your vehicle or return to the airport at the end of your journey. Here are some options:

  • Shuttle Services: Consider arranging shuttle services or transportation in advance to move between trailheads or access points. The Arizona Trail Association may have recommendations for shuttle services in different regions.
  • Public Transportation: Public transportation may be available in some areas to help you return to your starting point or connect with nearby towns.
  • Rental Cars: Renting a car for the duration of your hike is an option if you prefer more independence and flexibility.
  • Trail Angels and Fellow Hikers: Thru-hikers and trail angels often help each other with transportation, so be open to making connections along the trail.

Conclusion

Exploring the Arizona National Scenic Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with nature while pushing your limits physically and mentally. The trail offers an insight into the natural beauty and diversity of the region, leaving you with unforgettable memories.

We hope that this guide has left you inspired to embark on this magnificent journey.

Check out other exciting destinations on our Hikes & Trails page.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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