Monday, March 30, 2015

What to expect on the Arizona Trail

The Arizona Trail was not what I’d expected.  As a relatively new national scenic trail, there are fewer articles and trail journals about it.  I had quite a few misconceptions about Arizona and what the trail would be like before I started.
This is Arizona Trail I expected.
I was delighted to find that the Arizona Trail is also like this!
And it was also like this!
Here are several of the ways that the Arizona Trail surprised me on my 300 mile section hike on the southernmost part of the trail (Passages 1-17).  I hope this helps give those of you who are thinking of hiking this trail a better sense of what to expect:

Diversity of the Sky Islands

Nothing could have prepared me for the diversity of the sky islands.  Traveling between the mountain “islands” and then dropping down into the sea of lower elevation desert provided incredible contrasts.  We passed through many ecological zones and temperatures even within a single day.  The desert wasn’t what you’d think either- there were washes and the green oasis around streams and rivers.  Totally varied and interesting!
Oasis of green at Cienega Creek.
Climbing up and down the Sky Islands was an unforgettable hiking experience.   I’m not gonna lie trudging through the lower elevations was tough, energy-sapping, and sometimes totally miserable.
Is this really a national scenic trail?
But the expansiveness had a stark beauty that we grew to love.  And experiencing these low points really made me appreciate it when we got to the shade of washes, and made my heart leap for joy when we climbed up into the trees.  Having these contrasts gave a unique perspective to appreciation constant change.
Seeing the beauty of cactus and scrub at lower elevations.
Magnificent high elevation forests in Saguaro National Park.
Spines everywhere

All along the trail, cactus spines and spiny bushes would embed in flesh and clothes.  The trail is overgrown in places so we contended with vicious plants that scratched us up.  Abrasion-resistant clothing and long sleeves and pants, and gaiters, provided some protection but we still got stuck.
Battling overgrown trail. Photo by Jan.
Be careful of the spines.  They will attack sooner or later.
The Arizona Trail is not the AT or PCT

The Arizona Trail provided a different experience compared to my section hikes of other long trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.  It felt more wild and was definitely less crowded.  Navigation and water were more difficult, there were fewer planning resources, and not the network of trail angels/trail magic.  All of this, for me, provided a more desirable experience—I loved the challenge and character of this trail.  The fact that fewer people have hiked it and that it's not all trampled to death made if feel quite precious. 

Because there are fewer long-distance hikers, we didn’t see other hikers in towns or camp with other hikers.  It would have been difficult to find new hiking partners on the trail, which was something that is easy on the AT and PCT.  If you are looking for a social experience, this would not be the trail for you.

Section hiking the Arizona Trail rocks

A wonderful thing about the Arizona Trail is that it is a section hikers’ paradise.  The planning resources are designed to encourage section hiking, with lots of information about how to get to the trailheads, best times of year to hike each section, and mileages are given section by section.  We found section hiking to be a wonderful way to experience this diverse trail.

Water sources are highly variable

Water sources along the Arizona Trail varied in reliability, palatability, and difficulty.  Sources included natural springs, seeps, streams, and rivers, or man-made tanks, faucets, or troughs.  I’ve never seen such diversity in water color and aroma, or seen so much water with algae and cowpies, and floating dead things.  You will drink water that you’d previously never consider letting touch your skin.  You will learn to appreciate water in a deep way.
Excited about water.
We're suppose to drink that?
Border issues weren't an issue for us

I was apprehensive about border problems, but we did not see any illegals or drug runners.  Border patrol was highly visible presence south of I-10, and especially south of Patagonia.  On the trail we stayed visible, didn’t hike in the dark, and hiked together as a group of three.  I spent a lot of time feeling apprehensive and scared.  The northbound hikers, including several solo women, hadn't any problems either, but some of them felt scared too.  I still don't know what to think about how safe it was for us to hike there, but I was relieved we didn't have trouble.

It’s way more beautiful that you can imagine

The stereotype for Arizona is cactus and sand.  But the real Arizona is wildly diverse and the variety of plants, trees, insects, birds, animals and rocks is astounding.  We saw hillsides carpeted in wildflowers, walked through towering pine forest, and found deep swimming holes in huge canyons.  You will be amazed by the ever-changing beauty of the Arizona Trail.
Hillsides of wildflowers.
Another colorful Arizona Trail sunrise.
I hope this gives you a better idea of what to expect on the Arizona Trail.  It’s a wonderful trail that seems to be gaining more popularity, and rightly so.  It will provide you with an unforgettable experience if you rise to meet the challenges it presents.
For more information

The Arizona Trail Association's website has planning info and everything you need to get started.

Jan "Beekeeper" also has photos, videos, and more about our trip here.


  1. Your pictures and reports were very inspiring, such beauty in the landscapes. Makes me want to hike the AZT.

    1. Thanks so much, Andy! It's a gorgeous trail and I'm glad I got that across. Do put the AZT on your list, you will not be disappointed!

  2. Delightful story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Well done Joan, thanks for sharing.

  4. Your articles and pictures are wonderful and give inspiration to us all. When you do the other sections of the trail the state of Arizona should sponsor you! You've shown the beauty and variety of the state many don't consider.

  5. My family and I section hiked a portion of the AZT near Tucson and found the views amazing. We encountered a thru hiker who we gave some extra trail mix and an apple. Her face lit up over the apple since she had not had any fresh food for awhile. You would have thought we handed her some gold! It was gratifying to have made her day a little better.

    1. What a great experience, Vikram! Yes, apples are pretty much gold out there. :)

      That section near Tuscon sure had incredible views. Amazing that it was so close to the city.

  6. Learning about the Sky Islands was one of the highlights of this trip.

  7. I can't wait for my hike to start in 2016. Really enjoyed this inside view of what's to come. I'm not sure about that yellow green water or getting stuck all along the way, but that too would be part of the challenge. Thank you.

  8. How exciting, SwankieWheels, that you are going to be starting in 2016! Super that you are starting to plan so early! Enjoy the trail it is a beauty!

  9. Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading your excellent journal and the fantastic pictures of the AZT. Thanks for posting!
    Martina my wife and I would love to do either or both of the GET or AZT sometime. We were out on the Hayduke Trail to north in the spring of 2014 and back in southern Utah recently in October 2016 and love that area. However the AZT/GET in southern Arizona looks so different and scenic!

    Thanks again

    Brian, Black Isle Scotland

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Brian. Glad it was inspiring. I've got some plans for southern Utah in the near future. So many beautiful areas to explore for sure.