The Arizona Trail
I had planned to hike this trail last year after finishing the Florida Trail for the second time. In many ways I still feel like I’m catching up with what was lost in 2020. So here I am! AZT2021, one of 11 National Scenic Trails, roughly 800 miles long, spanning from the Mexico border, all the way across the state of Arizona, to Utah. A rugged trail through the desert southwest.
I started this hike April 4th at 2:30pm, which is later than most begin as I think it’s much more typical to start mid to late March. I also started from an alternate southern terminus since the official one was closed, which added on an extra 4 miles to my trip. I finished May 3rd at 8pm for a 29 day, 5 hour, and 30 minute walk across Arizona. I took 3 zero days, all at once in Flagstaff where I’m living. I averaged 27.5 miles per day including zeros, and 30.7 miles per day if you only count days where I actually was hiking. I like to keep track of things as I go so here are my daily miles for the entire trip!
- 13.5 start 2:30pm
- 31.1 descending miller
- 26.1 patagonia resupply
- 29.3 stung by scorpion
- 28 colossal cave
- 27.4 mt mica / saguaro NP
- 25 mt lemmon
- 20 high jinks ranch resupply (don’t recommend)
- 30.4 shoes/socks deteriorate
- 25.6 limping
- 24.2 new shoes, kearny
- 34.4 gila past picket post/superior
- 28.4 superstitions to roosevelt
- 20.8 roosevelt lake resupply
- 34.2 four peaks into mazatzals
- 33 mazatzals / halfway
- 33.6 to pine by 4pm
- 14.4 resupply / nero out of pine, mogollon/highline
- 28 colorado plateau! Pines!
- 33.6 mormon lake
- 34.7 to flagstaff
- zero in flagstaff
- zero new shoes
- zero snow storm
- 37 San Fran peaks
- 31 blister, bikepackers
- 31 Tusayan, NP boundary
- 28 resupply, rim to rim grand canyon
- 34.6 achilles pain kaibab plateau
- 42.1 done 8pm
In the beginning I started out slower, and aside from those zeros towards the end I really tried to ramp it up a little. All made easier as by the end of the hike I essentially had an extra hour of daylight every day. Night hiking is fun, but gets boring quick, and I’ve never been much of a morning person either. Most days I would start hiking by 6am, and would stop hiking around 8pm. Though it varied that was certainly the average.
I was happy with all of my gear and I really wouldn’t change much. My camera battery charger was pretty trashy, my socks didn’t hold up to the brutal terrain, and neither did my shoes. Everything else was great. Some standout items I loved were my flashlight, my mini camera tripod, my camera, my food bag, and my new pair of socks that held up like champs. I was also very happy with my warm jacket, the Torrid Pullover from Enlightened Equipment that I wore every single day. At first I felt like it was too much, too warm, but by the end there were some days I never even took it off. Everything else was great and again, I really wouldn’t change much. Gaiters for my shoes would have been helpful, and that’s pretty much everything. I was happy with my total water capacity, I was happy with my warmth, I was happy with my sun protection even if I should have used it more, I was happy with my tarp since it’s so light and a tent would have been overkill. Just swap the socks, and add some gaiters and I would be golden. Though this is a trail you could go lighter on with some smart timing and planning I feel like my 7lb kit was good, especially considering 2 pounds of that is camera gear.
For those interested in my gear from the Arizona Trail check out this video! or my gear list can be seen here https://lighterpack.com/r/wfwdjs
Overall my start date of April 4th worked out extremely well with my aggressive pace. For those planning on taking a little more time I would certainly want to start earlier, and avoid the heat. For a sub 30 day hike which was my goal, I chose a little bit hotter temps in the south as a trade for not having to hike in snow up north, and generally with more mild temperatures throughout I felt I could go with a lighter pack more safely. If I started earlier I certainly would have been camping in snow, hiking in snow, and would have had to carry more warmth.
The heat itself wasn’t that bad and frankly I never checked the weather so I don’t know what the highs were. A couple days of the hike were extremely exposed and I definitely got toasted. One day I remember feeling like I was on fire. But again that was just one day, one very exposed day, hiking 30ish miles with minimal breaks. For those more into taking mid day siestas in the shade it wouldn’t have been that bad. And overall it wasn’t that bad. Especially early on I was often hiking into the night, and getting 6 or so miles before the sun was really even on me. Allowing me to still get as far as I wanted, but also enjoy it. My sun hat was essential in the beginning but I eventually swapped that out for a baseball cap as I got more north and out of the exposed desert valleys, and into the high elevations with more ponderosa pine cover. I probably should have just kept the sun hat even then, but hey, science or something. I would slather myself in sunscreen and still get burnt, but I guess that’s life walking through a desert. Reapply more often than you think you should.
The night time temps hovered in the 30s, sometimes dipping below freezing, and often the wind was howling and ever present. I had prepared for this so I stayed warm. I cowboy camped every night except two. The first time I setup my tarp was 500 miles in, it wasn’t planned. Earlier in the evening while still hiking I was watching the sun set, this giant cloud formation was on the horizon, and I noted how beautiful it looked. After having been asleep for an hour I woke up at 9pm to the familiar feeling of water pelting my face, and making that sound only rain can produce when it’s beginning to soak your sleeping bag. I should have heeded the cloudy warning and known. I scrambled to setup my shelter with half closed eyes, and slept through the storm without much more of a thought. The next day I took 20 minutes to dry my things in the sun and wind, and as always kept moving before too long.
The second time I setup my tarp was after seeing those familiar clouds in the distance. Hiking into the night I was fighting though 30mph winds and mostly wanted a shield, but also knew chances of rain could be high. No cell service so just instinct I guess. The tarp shielded me from the wind, and it never did rain but I woke up to incredible amounts of frost on all my gear, my shoes frozen, and the ground crunchy. Later I caught up to some bike packers that had camped 15 miles ahead of me who said all evening while I was fighting the wind, they were riding through snow flurries. I had wanted to go further that night, but I guess in some ways it’s good I didn’t.
The trail was well marked by my standards and during a few days of 30+ miles I didn’t need my phone for navigation at all. In the end much of the trail you could likely do by following others footsteps. The GPS or navigational tools however were extremely handy when it came to water. The sources weren’t very far apart, maybe 8-12 miles on average between them, but you really could never know, and often times they were off trail out of sight. The furthest I had to go between sources I believe was 20 miles. Not too bad, and even those carries could have been made shorter if I were more willing to go further off trail to get water. I chose to just go further to the next one most of the time.
The carry out of Roosevelt Lake was one of those longer ones, and once you get north of Flagstaff there are a few more longer carries or dry stretches.
This year water caches were plentiful, but seldom were they necessary. Considering 90% of the time you’re drinking from cow water on this hike, complete with cow poop, fungus, silt, and all manner of other things… water caches were nice to see, it’s just that you could do without them if you wanted. Most of the time I would carry 2L which would get me 12-20 miles depending on the heat. Below is a photo of a “good” water source.
The terrain is where the difficulty of this hike really comes and bites you. Rocks, so many rocks. Constantly walking on rocks of all shapes and sizes. From small gravel with larger pieces strewn in, to walking on the scales of a dragon for an entire day. Walking on marbles is what I felt like I was doing, and my feet were taking a beating. I have never gone through shoes so fast until this trail. Within 250 miles my first pair were disintegrating, my second pair lasted a while but I still wound up replacing them around mile 600 just in case, and was very happy I did. It wasn’t just me either as I saw others having foot problems, shoe problems, and sock problems up and down the entire trail. Gaiters definitely would have helped, and if I were to do it again I would start with a pair. The first 500 miles going northbound are rough, and north of there as you crest the Colorado Plateau and the Kaibab Plateau the terrain gets way easier, and the miles get way easier. After that 480 mile mark or whatever it was I was cruising on some fine comfortable trail. Everything before then and I was getting wrecked.
Throughout the hike you are constantly changing elevation and I think that is what makes this trail so special. The ecosystems, plants, animals, and views were constantly changing fairly drastically as you rose or dropped a few thousand feet. One second you’re in the desert surrounded by cholla, saguaro, and prickly pear, and the next second it looks and feels like you’re in the high sierra. The weather as well will change drastically from incredible heat to incredible cold. From cactus to pines. From the desert valleys up into the sky islands. It was very special to be seeing so much change every day. Every 20 miles it was often like I was in a different world, on a different trail. Sometimes I was equating the views and rocks to the Pacific Northwest, sometimes the Pacific Crest, even sections that were very reminiscent of the Florida Trail.
On this trip I mostly saw deer, probably a few hundred, but I also saw wild horses, quite a few elk, bear droppings, interesting prehistoric lizards, and one night I was even stung by a scorpion! What joy that was. Still hiking a couple miles into the night I stopped to look at my map, set my hand down on a rock, and sudden pain was all I felt. The pain lingered as I hiked on and my finger lost feeling. After some hours the pain subsided but it took more than a week for my finger to regain feeling! I don’t say this as a bad thing but more as wow! What an experience that was to be trying to open my water bottle and without looking at it not knowing if I was successfully unscrewing it or not. Even so I never felt worried about where I was sleeping even though I was cowboy camping every night, and I never did see a single snake the entire trail.
Some nights I had spooky feelings, but it never seemed to amount to anything. I think it’s just at times hiking through the desert can be a spooky thing. One morning I did wake up to very angry deer noises, and when I picked my head up into the cold air to look around I saw what must have been 50 deer all standing 150ft from me, staring right at me, huffing and puffing. They eventually wandered off, I packed my things, and wandered off as well.
Throughout the trail you have many options for towns. Some you may need to hitch a ride to, some with very friendly angels who will give you one if you ask, and others that you basically walk right through. Towns never seemed very far away and I think if I wanted I could have gone into one every other day, if not more often in some sections. Sometimes you could go into the same town from many different sides or roads and ways if you wanted to do that too. I think the southern end of the trail had more, but there were certainly a lot of options up north too. This isn’t the Appalachian Trail, but you also will never have to carry 150 miles worth of food, unless you want to. I often would get my food at one town, and then skip the next one. I usually want to spend more time on trail, and with so many options it was nice to know they were there, but didn’t often need them. Except once when it came to my shoes where I made an unplanned town stop to get a new pair.
The town of Patagonia was very nice, and it would be good to hang out there. I enjoyed Pine, and Flagstaff of course is a must. Truly they were all great places. Some were a bit more hiker friendly than others but any of them I would have been happy to be in. Usually all the amenities were close by, and everything a hiker could want never seemed to be very far from where a hiker might stay.
Every section of trail had something very unique to it, every section had something that made it special. Large rock features, canyons, big mountain views, beautiful pine forests, prairies, boulder gardens, endless cactus of all shapes sizes and colors, wildflowers blooming along the trail, lakes, rivers, cows, there really was no shortage of stuff to see in an environment that is constantly changing. Some sections still had snow patches, some mountains were still capped with white. The sunsets were nearly always the best I have ever seen, and the sunrises and cool morning air was always a pleasure to wake up to.
The trail is truly special, and even more special is the work the Arizona Trail Association has put into it to make it what it is. For being such a young trail, and one of the youngest to be designated a National Scenic Trail by Congress it is truly incredible what the association and it’s volunteers have done to make it what it is. Extremely well groomed, manicured, well routed, well marked, unique features and signs you will only find on the AZT. Very few road walks, and a whole lot of fun hiking. Sometimes people will ask me about a certain trail and where would be a good section to go out and do. When it comes to the AZT I think you could hop on *anywhere* and have a great time. Some areas may have more spectacular views, but when a section lacks that, it almost always made up for it in different ways. You could truly hike on any part of this trail and would wind up seeing something special.
Some of my personal favorite sections include Colossal Cave, Saguaro NP, Mt Lemmon, Kearny to Superior, the Mazatzals, the Highline Trail and Mogollon Rim, the San Francisco Peaks, and the Grand Canyon.
In the end it was a very fun hike and some day it might be fun to come back and do it again, but on a bike.
In 2019 my girlfriend Lotus had done this trail so I did have some idea as to what was ahead, though as we all know nothing will prepare you like actually getting out there yourself. Thanks to her I had a much better idea of what the cactus I was seeing were, what the water situation might be like, temperatures, what type of gear I should bring, and many many other things. She definitely served as a great guide when going into this trail even if we both hiked it in very different ways(she started in February!) Her support throughout, and knowing I would get to see her once or twice along the way definitely made the trip so much better.