800 Miles of Beautiful Variety through Arizona!

Josh_Sheets
Josh_Sheets Member, Moderator Posts: 12
edited January 2 in ROUTES & TRAILS

The Arizona Trail. The “other” AT. The AZT. Whichever way you choose to refer to the Arizona Trail, you are beckoning to a National Scenic Trail that packs a lot of variety in its 800 miles. Spanning the entire length of the state, you will traverse two National Parks (Grand Canyon & Saguaro East), one National Memorial, and eight beautiful designated wilderness areas as you hike towards Mexico (or Utah). I did just that this Fall. Starting at the Stateline Campground on the UT|AZ border, I hiked SOBO to International Boundary Marker #102 on the US|Mexico border! Below is the trip summary for your reading and viewing pleasure! Hyperlite gear used on this trip was the Mid-1 Solo, Junction 55, Shoulder Pocket, and Vice Versa.

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I landed in Page, AZ and on the same day, was whisked away to the remote northern trailhead by an AZT trail angel. The beginning of the AZT is rather subdued. Once you climb the initial 1,000-foot climb out of the Stateline Campground, you are on the Kaibab Plateau. Over the next 77 miles, you will very, very gradually ascend to the highest elevation on the AZT. After crossing the boundary for Grand Canyon National Park, there will be a lookout tower (one of only two on the entire trail!) and it is around this point that you are at the highest point on the AZT: 9,148 feet. I highly suggest going SOBO in late September or early October because the weather was sublime and the aspens were a gorgeous golden yellow! Below is the Mid-1 Solo with the 55L Junction pack.

In just a few short miles, you will start the descent down into the Grand Canyon; be sure to secure your backcountry permits at the Ranger Station! I found the rangers to be very friendly and helpful. I recommend staying at least one night in the Canyon; two, if you can swing it! To do so requires a very slow pace. Yet, if you are like me and had never been to the Grand Canyon (let alone in the bottom!), you will thank yourself for allowing time to really enjoy it. I spent one night at Bright Angel and one night at Havasupai Garden. I also explored Ribbon Falls, enjoyed a breakfast at Phantom Ranch, and went out to Plateau Point at sunset. Those doing a Rim to Rim afforded themselves no such experiences.

Once out of the Grand Canyon, it’s a cruise to Flagstaff. The climb into the San Francisco Peaks isn’t bad and I took the Flagstaff Urban Route into town. Don’t be fooled by the name; that trail isn’t urban until the very end. Flagstaff is a great town to take some time off and celebrate being about a quarter of the way finished. If you need to tweak gear, eat, rest, etc., Flagstaff is a must stop.

After Flagstaff, the AZT is mellow through a lot of two-track, pine forests, meadows, and at times the trail follows old railroad beds around Happy Jack. The trail leads you towards the Mogollon Rim, which was breathtakingly beautiful to look out from. Once you drop off the rim, a whole different world awaits you! The Mogollon Rim is a major faunal and floristic boundary that is visually stunning as you hike through a ‘transitional zone’. Above the rim, extensive Ponderosa pine forests are the norm but as you descend to down to Pine, more desert cacti and chaparral make their first appearances. This was also the first time that I saw running water (creeks) on trail. It was a very glorious sight!

After Pine, you meander towards and down to the East Verde River. After the rock-hop across, the climb up into the Mazatzal Wilderness was absolutely brutal due to the heat, steep and rockiness, and lack of shade. This is also the start of A LOT of ups and downs; big and small. The Mazatzal Range was beautiful, rugged, remote, somewhat overgrown with vicious catclaw, and was markedly dry with water sources few and far between. Both the Mazatzal and Four Peaks Wilderness areas offered similar vibes. As you leave the Four Peaks, you can see the oasis of Roosevelt Lake. During the descent towards the Lake, Saguaros make their first appearance. I was told by a local (and verified with a Google search) that it takes between 50-75 years before saguaros sprout their first “arms”. Astounding! As you admire them, you approach the trailhead and road into Roosevelt Lake. You should at least stop for a drink, meal, or to retrieve your resupply box at the marina. I found nothing but good things during my pit stop at Roosevelt Lake!

Leaving the Lake, you climb into the Superstition Mountains. I just love that name! Say it with me. Superstition Mountains. . . ahhhh, magical and mystical.  Yes. Anyway. You gradually ascend through beautiful pinkish-red canyons and stream beds that make you feel like you are NOT in Arizona. And that is the absolute beauty of this trail! There were many times where I felt like I was in some different place. Arizona has tons of biodiversity and the AZT showcases it splendidly. It is just one reason, in my opinion, why this trail system has exploded in popularity. Please always tread lightly. 😉

Once you top out in the Superstitions, you descend to the Gila River, the AZT’s lowest point at 1,646 feet. It was here that I felt as if I was in a convection oven and desperately desired to ascend up, up and away! To revive my spirits, I popped into Kearny to enjoy some pizza and stay with some trail angels. I didn’t want to leave town because it was unseasonably hot but those miles just will not hike themselves! Truth be told, the section that laid ahead to Oracle was undeniably my least favorite. It was hot, no shade for miles, and just not that pretty. Not to complain because it all can’t be puppies and rainbows! Thus, I knew I had to endure and press on to the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona!

If you have never experienced a sky island, it feels just like the name. You are so high up (between 8,000 to 9,000+ feet at the summits). On the AZT, you are about 4,000 feet above the valley floor on the sky island summits of Mt. Lemmon (Summerhaven), Mica Mountain, and Miller Peak. It is quite the drastic elevation experience. In addition to the visual element, you often ascend and descend through many different ecological zones. At the bottom, is the lower Sonoran zone and all the way up to the Canadian zone (boreal forest). All three mountains were stunning in their own right but my favorite was Miller Peak, just before the finish at the border! It was incredibly awesome to sit atop Miller Peak and look out over Mexico to the South. I felt so accomplished and I could see the border from the summit. I remember thinking to myself “I am already there”. And then I hoisted on my pack on for the stroll down, down, down to the border-finish at Monument 102. Another trail in the books with my tried-and-true Hyperlite gear!

If your interest is piqued, check out the Arizona Trail Association. They are highly active and organized for all your AZT information needs!

Happy Trails!

 

Comments

  • Rolfdenver
    Rolfdenver Member Posts: 1

    Would love to hike this someday. My brother lives near the trail in Patagonia.


  • Max_Kiel_Trail
    Max_Kiel_Trail Member, Moderator Posts: 12

    Congrats on another thru, Josh! Awesome recap, and rad photos, too. Having only hiked on the East Coast and the Mountain West, desert hiking in the Southwest has always seemed so foreign and unique to me, and has always peaked my interest, so thanks for sharing this! Seems like such a captivating and diverse landscape, I may just have to go out there and see for myself sometime.

  • Josh_Sheets
    Josh_Sheets Member, Moderator Posts: 12

    Thanks, @Max_Kiel_Trail ! Make your way out to the Southwest when you're able! To further complicate matters, I found the desert of Arizona to be very different from the SoCal section of the PCT. Similarly, though, is the sun exposure and heat intensity. Other than that, I really like the desert because it is so unique; many different plants, animals, flowers, landscapes, etc. that we just don't have near us!

  • Beans
    Beans Member Posts: 1

    Great trip report! I’ve been through the Superstitions and have longed to go back, and tackling the whole AZT might just be the answer. I’m thinking it’s time to break out my trusty Southwest 2400 and start doing some conditioning hikes/trips. Thanks for the inspiration!