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Arizona Trail Overview
Length: ~800 miles. 6 to 8 weeks to thru-hike.
Start and End Point: Southern terminus is at border monument 102 in Coronado National Memorial near the US–Mexico border. The northern terminus is near the Arizona-Utah border in the Kaibab Plateau region. Shuttle service is recommended as both locations are relatively remote.
Highest Elevation: Kaibab Plateau, 9,148 feet. The San Francisco Peaks is slightly higher at 9,600 ft (2,900 m), but it is on a proposed section of the trail.
Lowest Elevation: Gila River, 1,700 feet.
Overview and Why it's Awesome: The Arizona Trail (AZT) is a border to border trail from Mexico to Utah that allows hikers, bikers and horseback riders to experience the wildest part of the state. It travels through a diversity of habitats including the desert, grasslands, pine forests and alpine tundra. It crosses the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world and traverses the Grand Canyon.
The trail was first proposed by Flagstaff school teacher Dale Shewalter who wanted to hike the AT but couldn't get time off from work. When looking at maps of Arizona, Shewalter discovered he could plot a course across the public lands within the state. The Arizona trail became a National Scenic Trail in 2009 and was fully completed in 2011.
Planning a Thru-Hike
WHEN TO GO: Timing and Seasons
Only about 100 people thru-hike the Arizona Trail each year with about half going northbound and the other half going southbound. Due to the extreme desert heat, hikers begin at different times of the year. Be sure to factor in your physical condition for estimaed duration. ie - will you be hiking 15 miles a day (53 days) or 20 miles a day (40 days)?
- Northbounders (Mexico to Utah): Start late February to March
- Southbounders (Utah to Mexico): Start in October
The AZT is well marked, but it is not heavily traveled like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail itself can be challenging to follow at times so you should bring a guidebook or an AZT app on your mobile phone.
Guidebook: The Arizona Trail Association publishes a comprehensive trail guidebook that contains everything you need to know about the trail.
TRANSPORTATION: Getting to the Trailhead
Traveling to and from the trailheads requires some planning and money as shuttles are the best way to get there. Be prepared to spend some time alone when you are hiking the AZT. You do pass through some crowded areas, like the Grand Canyon, but most of the trail is not heavily traveled. On the AZT, hitchhiking is rare and hitchhikers are not as readily accepted.
Southern Terminus: You cannot drive and have to hike to the Southern terminus. Most shuttles bring you to the Visitors Center in Coronado National Memorial, some may bring you further in to Montezuma Pass, the closest practical entrance to the trail. Regardless of where you are dropped off, you have to walk from the parking area to the border where the trail begins.
Northern Terminus: The northern terminus is not as difficult to access, and it does have some amenities such as a parking area, restrooms and campsites. To get there, though, you have to drive more than 10 miles down several dirt roads.
HOW TO RESUPPLY: Food, Water, Lodging
Food and Supplies: For food, lodging and gear resupply. The Arizona Trail Association keeps an updated list of the trail towns and the amenities they offer. The towns are usually close to the trail or have shuttle/trail angel service, so you don't have to hitchhike very often. Because there are so many trail towns, you rarely have to go more than seven days between resupply. Most, but not all, towns have shops for resupply and post offices if you are sending along packages with gear and food.
Water: The biggest resupply issue is water, especially in the desert where natural water sources are scarce. Similar to the CDT, water sources are often cow ponds or dirt tanks and MUST be filtered. Fortunately, the Arizona Trail Association keeps track of water sources - both their reliability and seasonality - and makes this information available to the public on their website. Water information also is available from user updates in the Guthook app.
More: The AZT also has its share of trail angels, or volunteers who help with the lodging, shuttles, etc., whom you may contact should you need any of their services. The Arizona Trail Association maintains a list of active trail angels for convenience.
SLEEPING: Camping and Permits
Most of the trail winds through national forests and private land where camping is free. You can pick a spot and camp where you please as long as you observe leave no trace principles.
To camp in the Colossal Cave mountain park (Passage 8), the Saguaro National Park (Passage 9) and the Grand Canyon National Park (Passage 38), you must have a permit and are required to stay in the designated campgrounds. You also must stay at the designated campsite in these areas. If you plan to overnight in one of these parks, you should reserve your permit one to two weeks in advance. Permits are easy to obtain from the Colossal Cave mountain park and Saguaro National Park websites.
Don’t risk camping without a permit as rangers commonly patrol this part of the trail. To avoid permits, another option is a single day rim-to-rim hike of the canyon. Many hikers will camp right before the boundary of the national park, spend one night camping in the park and then hike out the following day. It makes for a long day of hiking, but avoids any issues with camping.
WILDLIFE: Animal Sightings on the Trail
Wildlife is abundant on the Arizona Trail. The most common animals on the trail are cows that graze in the grasslands and range areas. You will see rattlesnakes and Gila monsters both of which can be aggressive and poisonous so keep a safe distance. Also unique to the arid areas are desert tortoise, javelinas and desert birds such as the gila woodpecker, cactus wren and gilded flicker.
Outside of the desert, there are elk, mountain lion, and black bear. Bears are not a problem on the trail, so most people don't bear bag and instead keep their food in their tent. If you don't want to bear bag, you can use scent-proof bags or strong bear-proof bags to store your food safely away from the wildlife.
The Arizona Trail is broken down into 43 passages or segments, each with its own unique characteristics. On a broad scale, these passages can be grouped into southern, central and northern sections of the trail.
SOUTHERN SECTION (Passages 1-13)
The Southern part of the trail begins at the Mexican border travels through the rolling grasslands and small canyons in the southern Arizona landscape. The habitat in this region is diverse and alternates among dense stands of saguaro cacti, grasslands, tall pines, and oak-juniper forests.
After approximately 50 miles, the trail reaches the community gateway of Patagonia, one of the first major stops on the AZT. The trail then climbs into the Santa Rita mountains on the south side of Tucson. This mountainous section around Tucson is known for its “sky islands” which are prominent, isolated mountains that drop into radically different valleys. The trail then drops into Rincon Valley where it then enters the Rincon Mountains and Saguaro National Park.
The Rincon Mountains are followed by the Santa Catalina mountains which lie northeast to the city of Tucson. The Santa Catalina mountains will take you through the rugged and wild Pusch Ridge Wilderness. An alternate bypass is recommended for equestrians and hikers who want to avoid the difficult terrain of the northern Santa Catalina mountains.
CENTRAL SECTION (Passages 14-26)
The central section brings hikers back into the desert and enters one of the more remote parts of the trail - the Sonoran desert. The Sonoran desert is one of the hottest deserts in the world as well as one of the most beautiful. You’ll encounter different types of cactus and desert wildlife, such as javelinas, desert tortoise and cactus wren, not seen on other long-distance trails. This section crosses the Gila River, the lowest point on the AZT.
After leaving the desert, hikers will cross several wilderness areas and climb some of the rugged and wild mountain ranges that lie east of Phoenix, including the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains. This section ends at the Mogollon Rim, a 1,000-foot cliff that runs for 200 miles across central Arizona and ends near the border with New Mexico.
NORTHERN SECTION (Passages 27-43)
After leaving the Mogollon Rim, the Arizona Trail enters the San Francisco plateau region region as it approaches the city Flagstaff, Arizona. As you approach Flagstaff, the AZT splits with passage 32 traverses the rolling hills around Flagstaff and the bypass passage 33 heads into town where there is ample shopping and lodging for hiker. The next milestone is the San Francisco peaks which are the eroded remains of one of Arizona's most active volcanoes. The AZT skirts the highest peaks in this section, passing instead on the western flank as it heads towards the Coconino plateau and the Grand Canyon.
The northern part of the Arizona Trail is dominated by the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. You will climb the canyon reaching up to 7,400 feet. Traffic is heavy in this area as the AZT crosses the canyon on trails used by visitors to the national park. As the Arizona Trail approaches Utah, hikers are challenged by the high elevation as they reach the Kaibab Plateau, the highest point on the AZT.
Credit: National Park Service