Joel McCurry

Creation of the Arizona Trail  on the Tusayan Ranger District, Kaibab National Forest

The Kaibab National Forest played an important role in the initial development of the Arizona Trail.  Dennis Lund, the Kaibab National Forest’s Recreation Staff Officer, hired Dale Shewalter, the trail’s visionary and a local Flagstaff school teacher to start the coordination between the different agencies and entities needed to allow the construction of sections of the Arizona Trail across their lands.  I’m not sure what prompted Dennis to hire Dale, but it happened.  Their association gave the North Kaibab and Tusayan ranger districts of the Kaibab National Forest an inside track on the development of their respective Arizona trail sections. Tusayan now has 40 miles of completed Arizona Trail across the district.

Following successful coordination efforts, initial development plans were created

by John Schuyler, Recreation Staff on the Tusayan District from 1987-1989.  John laid out the first six miles of the Arizona Trail and contacted the Student Conservation Association for its development.  Construction began in the summer of 1989 by six students and one supervisor from different parts of the country who spent their summer camping out and digging trail.  Trail construction began at the Grandview Lookout Tower and followed the Coconino Rim to the southeast.  This section later became known as the Coconino Rim Segment from Grandview Tower to Russell Tank.  Joel McCurry, Tusayan District Trails Coordinator, supervised this endeavor and would lay out and develop the remaining 34 miles of Arizona Trail across the Tusayan Ranger District.

Dale’s original thoughts on the trail route from Flagstaff were to find a way through the San Francisco Peaks that would come out near Cedar Ranch on state and private lands (mostly Babbitt) and follow the road north towards Tubb Ranch.  As I recall, a 2-track dirt road just north of Tubb Ranch veered to the northeast and cut across a corner of the Navajo Reservation.  This 2-track continued through Cottonwood Canyon and turned into Forest Road 301 on the Tusayan district’s southern boundary.  The trail would then follow FR 301 up to FR 310 (the Coconino Rim Road) and the Grandview Lookout Tower.  Dale’s thoughts from here were to develop a route from the lookout tower to the utility corridor (electrical lines) within the Grand Canyon National Park two miles to the north of the lookout tower.  The trail would then follow the power lines to the west and onto the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail, whichever one the Grand Canyon National Park Service decided to designate as the official route of their section of the Arizona Trail.

This layout was, in essence, a “Get ‘er Done” approach; however, the Forest and the Park Service had a lot of hoops to jump through, particularly the planning process under the auspices of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

I was given the task as NEPA team leader for the planning and implementation of the Arizona Trail across the Tusayan District.  The NEPA process involved a team of specialists who represented their particular resource, i.e. archaeology, wildlife, soils and watershed, recreation, silviculture, plants, fire, range, etc.  I walked many miles across the district looking for and designating three proposed route alignments, or alternatives, to be considered by the specialists, interested publics, and other federal, state, and local agencies.  The existing trail alignment that was selected had the least impact on resources and the fewest concerns from the specialists, public, and other agencies.  A big draw was the availability of water at Russell Tank since Tusayan has limited year-round water sources.

Returning to trail construction, the Tusayan District hired two college students in 1990.  Blake McGrew and Lance Freeman comprised the district’s trail crew.  They built just over four miles of rough-cut trail by hand that summer including the switchback section, ending at FR 310 at the head of Russell Wash.  Most of the work involved the clearing of the proposed route.

It was apparent after the summer of 1990 that a two-person trail crew was not going to be sufficient in completing the trail in a timely fashion.  So, the trail crew was modernized with the addition of a “ripper and blade” to be pulled behind two four-wheel ATVs.  The two-person trail crew consisting of Lance Freeman and Robert Spottedwolf finished Russell Wash down to FR 320 during the summer of 1991 with the help of the motorized trail makers.  This section of trail was named the Russell Wash Segment.  Lance and Robert returned in the summer of 1992 and roughed in the Moqui Trail Segment which was 5.2 miles down to the forest boundary.  The names of the trail segments came to be known as the Coconino Rim Segment (12 miles), the Russell Wash Segment (12 miles), and the Watson Wash Segment (16 miles) for a total of 40 miles of some of the most scenic and serene miles along the Arizona Trail.

The trail crew was reduced to one person during the summer of 1993.  David Griffith spent the season signing most of the completed segments with the exception of the first 8 miles that Dale Shewalter and I completed on one long day.  Signing involved installing 4X4 juniper posts with a tree auger and branding the Arizona Trail logo into them as we went along every one-quarter mile.

The summer of 1993 marked the first National Trails Day event across the country.  The district dedicated the opening of the Coconino Rim Segment of the Arizona Trail on that occasion.  Dale attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony along with Smokey Bear played by Barbara McCurry (my better half) and Park Service Rangers on horseback.  This event also celebrated the opening of the Grandview Trailhead much as it is today.  I believe this was the first segment of the Arizona Trail to be dedicated and open for business.

Very little trail work was completed by district personnel during the summers of 1994 and 1995.  Instead, trail work was being done by volunteer groups.  The district started receiving requests from various groups to work on the Arizona Trail.  We had the route brushed in, but the tread was non-existent or substandard in many places.  I owe many thanks to the following individuals and groups for the improvement and completion of the Arizona Trail across Tusayan:  the Sierra Club led by Linda Takala on numerous occasions; NAU’s Blue Key Fraternity; Arizona Boys Ranch; Americorps; Orme High School students and faculty; Tuba City High School students led by Michael Carr; the Arizona Horseman’s Association; the Flagstaff Horseman’s Association; and the McCurry Family including my 80-year old mother that spent a day of their family reunion digging a piece of the Arizona Trail.

A memorable moment from all of these volunteer efforts involved a reporter from the Arizona Republic Newspaper.  He was covering one of the Sierra Club’s weeklong volunteer efforts on the Arizona Trail at Hull Cabin.  Hull Cabin was a popular home base for many of the volunteer groups, including the Sierra Club.  Following supper that evening, the reporter decided to go for a jog up to the Forest boundary with the Park.  As he stopped to open the wire gate, he noticed a yellow flash to his side.  He turned around to face a mountain lion crouching and inching toward him.  He started throwing rocks and sticks at it, but it continued its approach.  He yelled but no one could hear him.  He slowly started backing up toward camp while facing the mountain lion, continuing to yell and throw rocks.  Eventually, and fortunately, the mountain lion disengaged and headed back into the forest.  The reporter shared his experience in the article he penned about the Sierra Club and the Arizona Trail.  Since then, the Grand Canyon National Park ‘s wildlife research department has trapped and collared mountain lions in that area in order to better understand their behavior and movements.

A severe drought in 1996 in the Southwest brought an influx of firefighters detailed to the Tusayan Ranger District.  The Dine Scouts #3, a Navajo twenty-person fire hotshot crew led by Amos Begay was assigned to the Tusayan district for standby in case of lightning strikes.  While on standby they completed approximately eleven miles of trail rehabilitation.  Quite a feat!

The last one-half mile of the 40 miles of Arizona Trail on the Tusayan District was completed in the summer of 2010.  This last section was constructed from the Tusayan District’s bike trailhead near the district office to the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim boundary.

Over the last 24 years, Tusayan’s portion of the Arizona Trail was completed by a diverse group of hard-working dedicated volunteers and Forest Service employees that loved the outdoors and believed in the dream of a Flagstaff school teacher.  My thanks to Dale for creating a lasting legacy that will be enjoyed by so many for years to come.  It was a privilege to play a small role in making his dream come true.