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From its origins at the Coronado National Memorial near the U.S.-Mexico border to its terminus at the Utah line, the 800-mile long Arizona National Scenic Trail spans the entire north-south length of the state.
The variety of scenery and elevation is staggering. Completed in 2011, the trail passes through the Huachuca, Santa Rita, Rincon and Catalina Mountains. It crosses the San Francisco Peaks, the Mogollon Rim, and the Coconino and Kaibab Plateaus. It even dips into, and out of, the Grand Canyon.
The trail passes through the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. And its rim-to-rim spanning of the Grand Canyon makes it the only trail that traverses one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
A continuous journey from one end of the trail to the other, without restful diversions into civilization, is called a “thru-hike”. The youngest person to thru-hike the trail was 19 years old; the oldest was 78. About 100 hikers completed such a journey last spring.
In its entirety, the Arizona Trail—known to serious hikers as “the AZT”—might seem daunting. But there are sections in the Phoenix area that are challenging-yet-doable day hikes.
I spoke to Sirena Dufault, who has completed two thru-hikes of the AZT and is the former Gateway Community Liaison for the Arizona Trail Association. She works with 33 towns, situated on or near the trail, that provide resupply resources for hikers and organize “Trail Days” events.
Dufault had worked for the trail association since 2011, and four years prior to that she volunteered to build trails near Tucson. She’s been an advocate for the AZT since its inception.
An avid hiker myself, what I want to talk to Dufault about is the 1,600 miles she covered during her two thru-hikes of the AZT.
“The first trip was mostly solo before the trail was complete, and it was a life-changing experience for me,” she tells me. “I hiked it to raise awareness for fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition I’ve had since I was hit by a car while walking across the street in 1997.”
The excursion was one of geographical and personal discovery for Dufault, who had lived in Arizona for more than a decade when she first took to the trail.
“The Arizona Trail showed me that the state was way more diverse that I’d ever imagined,” Dufault says. “I found spectacular places along the trail that I’ve revisited time and time again. It was a very tough journey for me, but once I finished, I felt like I could accomplish anything.”
The second time Dufault thru-hiked, she promoted the trail itself and fundraised for the Arizona Trail Association. She welcomed people to join her for parts of the journey via five backpacking trips and seven day hikes, and she blogged and posted on social media so others could follow along.
“It was a very different experience than my first hike, as I was very familiar with the trail by then,” she recalls. “It was like visiting an old friend.”
I ask Dufault about sections of the trail near Phoenix that day-hikers like me can tackle for a taste of the AZT.
“The best part about the Arizona Trail is that there are bite-sized sections that are suitable for all different fitness levels,” she says, “whether you want to go out for an afternoon, an overnight or a week.”
Dufault has a couple of favorites. One is about an hour east of Phoenix, just off on Highway 60, heading south from the Picketpost Trailhead.
“The trail goes through gorgeous stands of Saguaro beneath Picketpost Mountain and has wonderful views of the Superstition Mountains,” she explains. “It’s an easier piece of the trail, on great terrain for hikers, bikers, runners and equestrians.”
Another section of the trail Dufault recommends is north of Phoenix, off Highway 87. “Park off the highway at Bushnell Tanks, in Sunflower, and take the road to a short connector trail to get on the AZT heading south in Sycamore Canyon,” she says. “It’s a beautiful hike through a riparian area with large trees and a stream that runs seasonally. The trail is sometimes along the streambed but occasionally goes up on the slope above for views into the Mazatzal Mountains.”
Each of these sections can be done as an out-and-back hike, which allows you to pick your own turnaround point and customize the length of the trip. As with any desert journey, preparedness is key. Visit www.aztrail.org to get more information on how to gear up.
“The Arizona Trail is full of incredible locations to visit, even if you’re not planning on doing the entire trail,” Dufault says.
For some of us, sections will have to suffice until we can invest the time to tackle the AZT in its entirety.
About the author: Suzanne Wright
Suzanne Wright first stepped into the Sonoran Desert some 30 years ago and was immediately smitten. She has written for national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and American Way, but she’s happiest exploring and writing about Arizona for regional outlets like AAA Arizona Highroads, Arizona Highways and the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.