10 Highs and 5 Lows from My 2018 Arizona Trail Thru-Hike

The Trek (July 17, 2020) by Jean Taggart

It’s July 2020 and COVID is still upon us. Summer has arrived, the weather is warm, and some folks have even resumed thru-hikes. The Arizona Trail (AZT) beckons. But the official word on the Arizona Trail website is as follows: “The CDC currently recommends all Americans avoid discretionary travel. If access to the Arizona Trail is available in your community or within close proximity, it continues to be a great place to get outside, enjoy your public lands, and find mental and physical relief from the conditions created by the pandemic. However, if travel is required to reach the AZT, we recommend instead that you explore your local trails and open spaces to reduce risk of spreading the disease.”

If the AZT is not in your backyard and you’re still interested in exploring its ruddy canyons, high plateaus, and sunwashed deserts, consider reading about my 2018 experiences as a paltry substitute until you can safely embark on your own adventure.

I hiked the AZT in the fall of 2018. Solo and SOBO, I started at the Utah border and walked south to Mexico. It was unseasonably wet and rainy, and rivers flowed where only washes had existed previously. Initially I was nervous about water sources, but my worries quickly faded. I had endless positive and negative experiences, thankfully mostly positive, and met many amazing folks along the way. Here I share a handful of memorable moments —the ten highest of the highs and the five lowest of the lows. While some of these experiences are inherent to the essence that is the AZT, other encounters are specific to my individual trail experience.

Highlight #1. The Grand Canyon

The Grand frickin’ Canyon. Iconic, immense, cavernous, picturesque layers of colorful rock representing over two billion years of geologic time. Most definitely a highlight of the AZT for all. When I reached the canyon a storm was approaching, actually a rare hurricane—and so I hustled through. I was delighted to run into section hikers with whom I’d been leapfrogging since the start of the trail, Marie and George, at the permit office, which meant we could share a stock campsite. The North Rim was spectacular and my favorite of the two rims. At night the stars and Milky Way were amazing. I started my hike in the dark hours of the early morning and watched the canyon walls, creek, and cacti emerge in the rising light. Phantom Ranch made for a charming tourist visit. The climb up, up, up through the stratified sedimentary rock layers of the South Rim, while a challenging, was colorful and spectacular.

Highlight # 2. Dropping off the Mogollon Rim

The transition from northern Arizona to southern Arizona is defined by the topographic and geologic feature that is the Mogollon Rim. It defines the southern extent of the Colorado Plateau. Hiking SOBO, it was exciting to make the transition from northern to southern Arizona, from relatively flat walking in the north (with the exception of the Grand Canyon) to the more varied and often colorful landscape in the south, typified by sky islands. Dropping off the rim means changes in vegetation from pinyon and juniper to manzanilla, cacti, and agave. It also means lower elevation, therefore better weather and for my hike, thankfully, no more snow. And for me dropping off the rim also entailed meeting new and exciting hiker friends, an increased hiking pace, and THAT Brewery in Pine. Passing through this red rock gateway to southern Arizona is also one reason I would recommend a southbound over a northbound thru-hike.

Highlight #3. Ease of Navigation

Knowing where you are going on the AZT is the easy part. Thanks to the Arizona Trail Association (AZTA) and Guthook—now in partnership with Atlas Guides navigating the trail is a breeze with the app. Guthook is the navigation method of choice on many long-distance trails and using it on the AZT is no exception. The trail is very well signed and maintained by the AZTA and local trail groups. The AZTA also makes preparing for your thru-hike a breeze with detailed accounts of each passage on their website (link). Information for trail angels and gateway communities can also be found on the website, which makes navigating your town days a cinch too.

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