Total Miles: 22.6
Since I’d first heard of it in 2016, the Arizona Trail has captured my imagination. Completed only five years earlier in 2011, it stretches nearly 800 miles north-to-south down the length of the state, from Utah all the way to Mexico. Along the way, the vast and often unsung diversity of Arizona is on display, as the trail stretches from high plateaus in the north to a desert floor punctuated by “sky islands”—peaks that soar abruptly skyward from the flat, expansive inferno that surrounds them. A ponderosa pine forest larger than any other in the world hides the wonder that is Grand Canyon National Park and, further south, Saguaro National Park awaits with its iconic, stately cacti.
But I’m getting ahead of myself with all of the coming attractions. First, we had to actually get to the trail, and along that journey came exactly two surprises: one good and one bad.
Only a month ago when we had traversed Glacier National Park to finish the CDT, I proclaimed that the best way to celebrate was with—what else?—more hiking. Off to California’s High Sierra to hike the John Muir Trail was next up, right up until it wasn’t. Despite escaping wildfire in a state that had seemingly been entirely consumed by it this summer, the Inyo National Forest through which the trail passes finally went under a closure order not 24 hours after we’d stepped out of Glacier National Park. The plan we’d looked forward to as a celebration hike was officially tossed in the waste bin.
Following the JMT, it had always been our plan to hike the Arizona Trail (AZT) come fall, only now we had some unexpected time to kill. Into the car and down the road we went, visiting places like Jackson, WY and Park City, UT before hitting the highlights at Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks:
Finally having the chance to explore some of Utah’s natural wonders was as spectacular as we’d imagined, and as far as last minute plans go, it’d be pretty hard to top. But all of it was merely a prelude to arriving in Flagstaff to flesh out our plans for a thru-hike of the Arizona Trail, which leads me back to that second surprise. The good one.
As luck would have it, our good friend Steel (Jason), who works as a guide in Utah would be passing through Flagstaff with some time off from work. Rather than a ride up to the Utah border with a trail angel, we’d be road-tripping with our friend who even went out of his way to cook one of our favorite dinners when we arrived at the campground that abuts the northern terminus of the AZT yesterday evening. To say that it was the best kickoff to any trail I’ve hiked would be a vast understatement.
The sun finally rose into an unadulterated sky, and with a final luxurious sip of coffee, we shouldered our packs and shuffled over to the monument that marks the start of the trail. There, we said our goodbyes to our dear friend who’d gone many extra miles—both literal and figurative ones—to see us off in style.
Behind us, the words of Dale Shewalter, the Flagstaff schoolteacher who had envisioned the very trail on which we were about to embark, seemed to presage what lies in store:
In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico.
It's the Arizona Trail
A path through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test.
Some will push and pedal
And some will hike or run
Others will ride their horse or mule
What else could be more fun?
Oh, sure, you'll sweat and blister
You'll feel the miles each day
You'll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay.
But you'll see moonlight on the borderlands
You'll see stars on the Mogollon
You'll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone.
The aches and pains will fade away
You'll feel renewed and whole
You'll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul.
Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you'll know
Through deserts, canyons and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico.
Here we go...