In the Land of Saguaro: A Two-Month Trek on the Arizona Trail
American West (March 14, 2022) by Dave Stamboulis
Arizona gets most of its media attention for a couple of things. For one, a big giant hole up at its northern end, better known as the Grand Canyon, and also for being a sunny winter escape for snowbirds.
However, to truly understand the extremes of terrain, weather and geology, nothing beats a walk along Arizona’s longest hiking route, the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
My wife and I set out last spring to tackle the AZT, which runs from the Mexican border to the Utah state line, taking in several national parks, the Sonoran Desert, the high elevation Mogollon Rim, and an epic crossing of the Grand Canyon along the way. From Day 1, we quickly learned to put any preconceived notions of Arizona aside, as the state, when experienced boots on the ground, doesn’t stick to them at all.
The Arizona Trail begins near the Coronado Monument, down at the Mexican border, in inhospitable scrub desert. To get here, we’d flown into Tucson, further north, where a trail angel (more to come on these) had agreed to give us a ride the two hours further south to the starting point. I’d told my wife that we were probably starting a bit late at the end of March, expecting to get roasted by the desert heat, but after a night flight into Tucson, we awoke to a scene far more resembling the Swiss Alps, with the Santa Catalina Mountains looming over the city covered in snow.
Timing a walk on the Arizona Trail is tricky. You want to avoid the extreme heat of the desert, which rules out mid-summer, but at the other extreme, Northern Arizona has full winter conditions, with the road into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon being closed until mid-May. Yet wait any longer and you’ll have to descend down to the Colorado River in a furnace, as temperatures can reach 100 degrees by early May. Add to this Southern Arizona’s unique landscape, where desert meets a series of “sky islands,” mountain ranges with elevations of 8,000 feet that can stay snowbound into April. Crampons might come in handy here more than even a water bladder.
Ideally, March-May and then September-November are the most practical times to trek the AZT, with spring attempts going from south to north, and then fall sojourns walking from the higher elevations up north to the southern deserts hoping to beat early winter storms.
About a week into our journey we reached Saguaro National Park, whose Rincon Mountain section is one of the least visited national parks in the country, as foot access is the only way in. The park is home to some 1.8 million giant saguaros, a symbol of the Southwest desert landscape. Hiking here at sunrise and sunset is magical, surrounded by these giant cacti that grow to up to 60 feet tall. Additionally, one passes through a living botanic garden made up of 25 other species of cacti, including the fear-inducing cholla, often called the jumping cactus, due to its barbed spines easily detaching onto those who’ve come a bit too close.
While more popular long-distance hiking routes like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail see thousands of hikers each year, the AZT presently only has about 400 hikers per year finish a full walk, and while you invariably camp in spots next to other trekkers, most of the time you are surrounded far more by rattlesnakes and elk than humans.
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