Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Arizona Trail (summary/recap)

The Arizona Trail is an "800+ mile" trail running from the Mexico border to Utah.  It was designated a National Scenic Trail in 2009.  Here is a better/official description.  I should know more about the history of the trail, but alas am just another dirty hiker.

My experience of the AZT, from south to north, is that it naturally splits into two major (geologic, biotic, and scenic) sections - the "sky islands" section (about 2/3 of the trail) and the Colorado Plateau section (the remaining 1/3).  In the sky islands section, the trail alternates between crossing sections of Sonoran Desert and climbing up and over several mountain ranges, including the Huachucas, the Santa Ritas, the Rincons, the Santa Catalinas, the Superstitions, the Mazatzal Divide,  Four Peaks Wilderness (a separate part of the Mazatzal Range), and some smaller hill areas (as well as some hidden gems, like the White Canyon Wilderness) (and some not-so gems, like the angry guys staring at me from their gold mining claims north of the Santa Ritas).  After traversing part of the historic Highline Trail, the trail climbs to the Mogollon Rim, the very edge of the Colorado Plateau.  Here, the character of the trail changes dramatically to relatively-flat expanses of ponderosa forest.  The trail crosses the San Francisco Peaks, and then drops into a section of (privately owned) high desert, before crossing the Grand Canyon via the South and North Kaibab Trails.  After the Grand Canyon, the trail crosses a striking (and often snowy) mixed conifer forest on the Kaibab Plateau, before descending to the wide Orderville Canyon, and ending in full-on Ed Abbey canyon country adjacent to the Coyote Buttes area of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness.  

It's great, but it's challenging, and there isn't much water out there.  You trade the lack of water for lots of sun and stars.    

I hiked the Arizona Trail in four trips, starting on February 15, 2010, and ending on May 25, 2012.  I spent 33 days hiking, and had one “zero day” in Payson after getting blown off the trail by a snowstorm.  I hiked between 25 and 40 miles a day, which would be pretty impressive except for the fact I had months to recover from each trip.  My longest trip was a two-week extravaganza from Tucson (Catalina Highway) to Pine - about 300 miles.  My shortest trip was a four day hustle from Pine to Flagstaff – about 100 miles.  

Outside of Grand Canyon National Park, I saw three backpackers - a couple doing an overnight in the Superstition Wilderness Area, and a guy section hiking (who hadn't seen any other backpackers).  I also met a thru-hiker while driving through Superior with my family and several day hikers and riders (but oddly no bikers).  There is solitude on the Arizona Trail.    

I posted trail journals about the trail at this blog - just click on the "Arizona Trail" label.  In retrospect, I wrote too much quite a bit about the trail, leaving me with little to add here.

I posted my trail photos at my Flickr site.  They should be easy to find, or there are links to the photo sets in my blog posts.  

I decided to hike the AZT after section-hiking the ColoradoTrail in 2009.  I wanted to start another long trail, but couldn't justify something really massive or distant due to work and family commitments.  I also didn't know Arizona at all – friends raved about the various sky island ranges in the south, but I had never made it down there.  I also had wanted to hike across the Grand Canyon since I was five, when my sisters tricked me into sticking my head out over the South Rim at Mather Point (at least that’s how I remember it).  I generally liked/understood desert hiking – or at least I thought I did.

More philosophically, I wanted to “connect” – mentally and spatially – some areas I didn’t know with some areas I know somewhat better.  Specifically, I wanted to connect the Sonoran Desert and the Lower Colorado River Basin with the Colorado Plateau and the Upper Colorado River Basin.  This in turn linked to my legal work on Colorado water rights, allocation, and conservation.  Look, I even took pictures of ditch systems and stream gauges.  
So I flew to Tucson in February of 2010, hired a ride to Coronado National Memorial, and basically got my doors blown off.  The Huachucas were covered in snow, and I was overwhelmed by the number of tracks up there from border crossers.  I then dropped down into the Canelo Hills and got worked over by the combination of heat, prickly plants, and endless small climbs - not to mention getting buzzed by surveillance drones and generally spooked by the non-recreational trail traffic.  I was just getting used to the heat when I got hit by two feet of snow in the Rincon Mountains.  I left the trail with my tail between my legs soon after.

That probably would have been the end of my AZT yearnings if not for a surprise two-week break between jobs in April, 2011.  I cowboy-ed up, packed my giant 2-gallon MSR water bag, and headed back to Tucson.  This time I was at least mentally prepared for the heat, and I was able to enjoy the trail more.  After a few days of temperatures in the mid-90's, I escaped to the cooler Superstitions (beautiful) and Four Peaks Wilderness (also beautiful).  I had one of my stranger trail experiences at Roosevelt Lake Marina, where I hiked half a mile of dock out into the lake from the baking saguaro desert to hang out with guys from New Jersey on boats.  Near Sunflower, it snowed – a lot – and I spent a day drying/recovering in Payson.  In Arizona, the snow melts quickly, and I got back out there to hike the Mazatzal Wilderness.  I found it the most moving and beautiful part of the trail, and right now a large part of that area is on fire.  More on that below.  

I returned over Labor Day 2011 for a relatively uneventful, but mileage-intense, trip from Pine to Flagstaff.  The highlights were the Highline Trail and Flagstaff, the best trail town in the world.  I complained about trail conditions and long sections of road walking.  I also regaled you with stories of getting up close and personal with a bear, and some guys who tried to take over my campsite.  

I returned again this May to finish the trail – the highlights were the Grand Canyon and the fine mixed conifer forest to the north.  No snowstorms, no endless heat – just good backpacking, finishing a journey, and meeting my wife and son in the absolute middle of nowhere at Coyote Buttes.

In retrospect, I accomplished my goals, but went about accomplishing them in perhaps an overdramatic fashion.  Certainly I’m happy to have gotten to know the sky island ranges, and I’ll be back to visit those ranges – and others (I haven’t even been to the Chiricahua’s yet).  I was also able to “connect” some big areas of the Southwest mentally, and more importantly to put parts of those areas into context – while the Mogollon Rim area looks a certain way, the Kaibab Plateau is a lot higher, “bumpier,” and has a lot more plant diversity, etc.

I won't bore you with a "how-to" of the AZT.  There's a lot out there about how to hike the trail, and I've gone on and on in previous posts about details of the trail already.  Also, if you've read the title of this blog, you know I'm not a backpacking gram-counter.

With that said, three points:

-I didn't understand the nature of the borderlands, or how long the trail wends through that zone.  I wouldn't overnight there by myself again.

-I sometimes carried 2 gallons of water, and once or twice 3.  Yes that means that my water weighed significantly more than my entire kit.  You may decide to carry less, but if I had to do it again I'd carry that "extra" weight again.  For me, it beat being thirsty, dealing with dubious cattle tank water sources, driving around to plant private water caches, and/or praying for water at the (frequently empty) public water caches.  The heat/desert was definitely a good stretch for me - hiking 60 miles without water resupply?  80?  When it's in the mid-90's?  While a weird Gila monster slowly hikes down the trail?  It was all very new and interesting.

-Be aware that the snowstorms and snowpack in Arizona are the real deal.    

(-Bonus third-and-a-half point: Although the trail is generally easy to resupply, I wish I had sent some food to the Roosevelt Lake Marina.  There wasn't much available there.)

I'll close by revisiting another topic from a previous post - fire.  These days I feel like I'm in a race against time to see the best of the southwest before it burns (or maybe I'm just getting old).  Each of the AZT sky island ranges have either had a catastrophic burn or are ripe for one.  Much of the wonderful Mazatzal Wilderness was burned in a catastrophic 2004 fire, and as I was heading out a few weeks ago, much of the rest was burning in another catastrophic fire.  Part of the Huachucas have burned since I was there.  In the last hours of my hiking, I was thinking about future trips, and settled on the Gila Wilderness as the top of my list.  As of now, 265 square miles of that area are burning - the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.  If you are considering taking on the Arizona Trail, get some good shoes and/or tune-up your bike and get out there now - the trail as we know it won't be around forever.

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