Important Information for Arizona Trail Thru-Hikers and Riders – Spring 2021
As we embrace a New Year and look forward to a healthier 2021, the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) invites you to experience the Arizona National Scenic Trail on foot, mountain bike or horseback along 800 scenic and diverse miles between Mexico and Utah. This letter is specifically intended for those attempting a thru-hike or thru-ride in the Spring of 2021, but the information applies to anyone recreating on the Arizona Trail (AZT) this year.
The Arizona Trail is your trail, and it’s our collective responsibility to care for the trail and all the associated resources (water, wildlife, scenery, natural quiet) that make the AZT unique. And as members of the thru community, it’s also an opportunity to help care for each other and those we encounter along the way.
With more people working remotely, unemployed, or reprioritizing their lives, we anticipate record numbers of northbound thrus on the AZT this season, in addition to the ever-growing number of day trippers and weekend warriors who are section hiking and riding the AZT. Expect especially increased volumes of people near towns and trailheads. There will still be plenty of opportunities for solitude – a defining feature of the AZT – but be prepared to see more folks on the trail when you’re out there.
With increased use comes potential impacts to the fragile natural resources that make the AZT experience so special. Please take extra care to recreate responsibly, leave no trace, protect water resources, and don’t leave a mess for anyone else to clean up. Instead, think about how your actions on the trail will benefit the next thru that comes along, or better yet – future generations of thrus.
If there’s one rule to follow while thru-hiking or riding the AZT, it’s to BE KIND. People head into the great outdoors to escape conflict and strife, so let’s please work together to increase the peace whenever interacting with others on the trail and within gateway communities. Remember that you represent the trail and all its users, so please be kind. No one user group is more important than another; we’re all part of the same Arizona Trail Family.
By now, you’re probably familiar with COVID protocols. These all apply to life on the trail, and especially within gateway communities where you will be resupplying. We believe the AZT is one of the safest places on Earth to be during the pandemic, but frequent hand washing, maintaining distance, and wearing a mask whenever interacting with others is vital in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, Arizona remains a global hotspot for the spread of the virus and our hospitals are currently at capacity, and some are overwhelmed. This is something to seriously evaluate before starting your long-distance adventure. If you are injured from an accident on the trail, do you recognize you may not have access to medical care? If you get sick, do you have the resources necessary to quarantine for two weeks? If you are hospitalized due to COVID, did you know that you may have to be transported significant distances to a hospital with the capacity to treat you, including out of state?
Everything from traveling to and from Arizona; sharing a ride to or from a trailhead; closing a steel gate; pouring water from a gallon jug in a public water cache; opening a resupply package; eating inside a restaurant; asking someone to take your photo…they all have their risks that didn’t exist before COVID-19. Please be extremely cautious and don’t underestimate your ability to spread the virus, even if you’re not showing any symptoms.
Aside from coronavirus, perhaps the biggest challenge for thrus this year is going to be a lack of natural water sources. This has always been a real challenge on the AZT, but after the hottest and driest summer in history, followed by the hottest and driest winter, many of Arizona’s reliable water sources are dry. For day hikers, this isn’t a big deal. For thrus, it could be extremely dangerous, even fatal. Planning where to tank up on water days in advance will be vital to staying hydrated and healthy. You’ll also need the storage capacity for 2 to 4 gallons of water, and the energy to haul an extra 20-30 pounds of water in your pack.
There will be times where you will need to carry days’ worth of water between reliable sources, and those sources may be of questionable quality. Along most other trails in the world, you wouldn’t dare to fill and filter a liter from a dirt tank with cow feces and a thick green layer of algae and dead bugs. But on the AZT, water is water, and water is life. Don’t walk past any water source, no matter how manky and unappealing, until you know how far your next source is. Sometimes the water will smell too foul to drink, so bring tablets or electrolyte powder to help mask the funk and replace important minerals you’ll lose from long days on the trail.
Fortunately, the Guthook AZT app makes finding water a little bit easier. You can look ahead at water source icons to see what the source is, and recent comments on its quantity and quality. Please leave your own notes within the app for others, too, since the most reliable source of up-to-date information is other trail users. Whenever you have a strong cell phone signal, refresh the data within app to download the most recent comments. Throughout Arizona, Verizon Wireless provides the most reliable service, although only 67% of the trail is within the range of most cellular telephones.
While planning your trip, please use the AZT Water Report online to target water sources, plot the distance between water sources, and have a backup plan if you miss a source or it’s dry when you arrive. This website links directly to the Guthook AZT app, so recent comments left by trail users will appear here.
Closures and Detours
Many portions of the AZT remain closed in the interest of public safety due to border wall construction and damage from wildfires. The ATA has been working hard to repair damaged trail and designate detours around closed areas. Please refer to the Current Closures page of our website, and look for the warning icon and reroutes within the Guthook AZT app. As of January 26, here’s the latest:
Passage 1 – Border Wall Construction
The southern terminus of the Arizona Trail at the U.S./Mexico border remains closed due to border barrier construction, as well as the 1 mile of trail north of the border. It’s currently impossible, illegal and unsafe to start the AZT at the southern terminus due to blasting, heavy equipment and other construction activities. Your two options for this location include starting at the Coronado National Memorial Visitor Center and hiking Joe’s Canyon Trail for 2.65 miles to the AZT, then head north. This option will omit the southernmost mile of the AZT that’s currently closed. Or you can begin at Montezuma Pass Trailhead, located on Forest Road 61, which will skip the southernmost 1.9 miles of the AZT. You could always walk 1 mile south on the AZT from Montezuma Pass Trailhead, but don’t venture further south than the Joe’s Canyon Trail junction. Entering this closed area carries a hefty fine, possible jail time, and is patrolled from the air and on the ground. Don’t do it.
Passage 11 – Bighorn Fire Closure
The AZT is currently closed in the Santa Catalina Mountains between Hutch’s Pool (AZT mile 169.5) and Lemmon Rock Lookout Trail junction (mile 179.9) within the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. ATA volunteers, staff and conservation corps are working hard to remove hazards so this portion of trail can reopen again before mid-February. However, if the US Forest Service does not officially reopen the trail before you get there, the best option is to follow other trails and roads within the Coronado National Forest. DO NOT enter any closed areas as there are significant enough risks to keep the area closed, plus the hefty fines that come from being caught within a closed area. Defiance of closure orders also makes thrus look really bad and makes it harder for the ATA to advocate on your behalf.
Here’s our primary detour recommendation for now: From Gordon Hirabayashi Trailhead (AZT mile 164.2), continue on the AZT northbound for 4.3 miles to Palisade Trail Junction. From here, leave the AZT and hike north on Palisade Trail (Trail 99) to Forest Road 750. Follow this road northeast to Palisade Ranger Station. Carefully cross Catalina Highway to the east side and locate the Bigelow Trailhead. Walk along Bigelow Road past the radio towers and descend to Bear Wallow. Once you reach Catalina Highway, walk carefully along the east side of the highway for 0.5-mile until you see a road on the left. Carefully cross Catalina Highway to the west side and locate the Sunset Trail. Hike north on Sunset Trail (Trail 90) for 1.2 miles to Marshall Gulch Trailhead. From here, you’re back on the AZT. Walk north on the paved road through the community of Summerhaven and along Catalina Highway to locate the Mt Lemmon Control Road and Oracle Ridge Trailhead.
Click here for a map of Passage 11 with the detour.
Passages 20 & 21 – Bush Fire Closure
The AZT has been closed from Mills Ridge Trailhead (AZT mile 354.3) to Bushnell Tanks (mile 386.7) for the past seven months but will reopen on February 5. Some of the hillsides impacted by the Bush Fire have been stabilized within priority locations, but hikers should exercise extreme caution within burned areas. Sloughing hillsides, falling trees, unstable soils, debris traveling downhill, and the possibility of flash floods during storms are all very real hazards.
Check the Current Closures page as well as the Guthook AZT app.
Hiking with A Purpose
If you’re interested in helping maintain the AZT as you hike along, check out our Remote Trail Maintenance Task Force. We mail you a hand tool of your choice, gloves, and proper brushing instructions. Then, you can help with trail maintenance as you hike or ride along.
In addition to light maintenance, the ATA is often looking for thrus to help with important data gathering efforts, and stipends are available for qualified individuals. Yes, it’s possible to get paid to thru-hike! Taking photographs, recording GPS coordinates, and writing descriptions of assets along the way are necessary. If you’re interested, please send a résumé and letter of interest to email@example.com if you’d like to help document any of these:
- Campsites — Identify dispersed campsite locations within the trail corridor and document negative campsite impacts.
- Birds — Conduct bird surveys along the entire Arizona Trail.
- Cattle & Ranching Impacts — Document impacts of cattle and ranching activities along the Arizona Trail, including degradation of water sources, soil, stream banks, vegetation, and other natural resources. Also, document ranching infrastructure that is beneficial to trail users, such as water sources.
Once you complete the entire AZT, we’ve got the world’s greatest completion award for you – a copper belt buckle! Just fill out the Completion Survey online and we’ll mail you a buckle and add you to the esteemed list of Trail Finishers. The information you provide within the survey is important in helping us fulfill our mission, and to ensure a positive AZT experience for others in the future.
On behalf of all the staff, board of directors, trail stewards, members, donors, volunteers, business partners, gateway communities and the numerous clubs, groups and organizations who work together to protect, maintain, enhance, promote and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land – we wish you the adventure of a lifetime.