Hiking Arizona’s National Scenic Trail
Grand things happen in the Grand Canyon State. Not only does Arizona hold claim on that huge scenic hole in the ground, it also is home to a lengthy, and unique, hike across the state --- from the border with Mexico to the border with Utah --- a trek of some 817 miles.
Back before there were state borders and official trails, Native Americans created trails all over this territory, marveling at its pristine forests and clear mountain streams and stressing the relationship between man and nature. As Chief Qwatsinas of the Nuxalk Nation acknowledged: “We must protect the forests for our children and for those who can’t speak for themselves, the birds, animals, fish, and trees.”
This indigenous respect-for-nature philosophy was eloquently summed up by Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux when he said, “The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of the forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas…he fits into the landscape.”
There is a certain irony therefore that the Arizona National Scenic Trail that traverses the state’s topo map from bottom-to-top runs adjacent to and/or parallel with acreage of Arizona’s 22 federally-recognized tribes --- while not overlapping any actual Native American ground.
“The fact it’s not on any tribal land surprises most people,” acknowledges Arizona Trail Association spokeswoman Terri Gay. Her boss, ATA Executive Director Dave Hicks adds: “Trail planners pretty much laid out the general route as a central corridor across the state, staying within National Forest lands as much as possible.”
However, because nature belongs to us all, Native American and those without tribal affiliation, all get to share this outdoor majesty. An early advocate of wilderness preservation and one of America’s most famous hikers, naturalist John Muir, advised: “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Climb mountains and get their good tidings. Keep close to nature’s heart. Spend time in the woods. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”
The alluring border-to-border path is meant for everyone as long as your method of transport is non-mechanical --- hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians. As of today, 99 percent of the trail is complete and many have hiked it, pedaled it, or hoofed it in advance of its official ribbon cutting in February 2012 when Arizona celebrates 100 years of statehood.
A special Outdoor Centennial Celebration in advance of all the fanfare is being held from mid-September till the end of October when groups of four or more are invited to either tackle the full trail or cover one or more of 100 sections over the 6 week period.
“This trail is eye candy, a treasure beyond belief, the granddaddy of the state’s hiking paths, and ranks as one of the premier trails in the U.S.,” says former Arizona Trail Association President Jan Hancock. “Much as the Appalachian Trail that started some 75 years ago has become one of America’s most renowned outdoor experiences in the East, the Arizona Trail will become the shining jewel in the West.”
As wide as four feet near urban sites --- and as narrow as 18 inches in rural countryside --- it covers a vast span of diversified topography, a roller-coaster route from a low-altitude of just under 2,000 feet to almost 10,000 feet near Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks. The primitive long-distance pathway is a naturalist’s dream, passing through seven mountain ranges and two-thirds of Arizona’s national forests and providing biological, geological, and climatological diversity along the way.
Dale Shewalter, who initially conceptualized the trail concept in 1985, called it, “A path through the great Southwest, a diverse track through wood and stone.”
Referring to the trail as “the state’s best day hike,” many have chosen not to wait for an official proclamation before kicking up trail dust. Some have walked the full length, others are close to accomplishing that goal, and still others take it one stretch at a time in day-trip increments. “I do chunks of it here and there,” says 85-year-old Don Fletcher of Tucson, who tries to tackle short segments once a week.
Some, like Tucsonan David Baker, have walked the entire length…in his case, 38 actual walking days averaging 21 daily miles. “It’s an incalculably valuable gift to those who love the outdoors, an elegant line that travels through a heavily populated state and still goes across a lot of empty, gorgeous country in the process. When it comes to beauty, you’ll be amazed and delighted by the many delights you had no idea even existed. As for solitude and time for reflection, many passages are devoid of people and allow solo days for minds to flush out mental clutter.”
While Baker spent a lot of time hiking with his head down to keep an eye on footing, he did see, hear --- and frequently come close to stepping on --- a plethora of wildlife. “Deer, coyotes, antelope, and elk were plentiful as were sightings of all sorts of raptors, some screech owls, a golden eagle, and campsites patrolled by curious hummingbirds. Less frequent observations included desert tortoises, rattlesnakes, and a big tom turkey.”
Ken Jackson, a 60-year-old Kingman doctor, was the first reported horseback rider to complete the trip. “I wanted to be a trail blazer and although I’ve now been-there/done-that, I’d do it again because it was so much fun.”
Southern Arizona two-wheel enthusiast Scott Morris liked the idea of thru-biking so much he did it twice, an initial 25 day trek and a repeat trip that set a land speed record of 7 days, 8 hours. In some areas, like the Grand Canyon, cyclists disassemble their bikes and hike little-used walkways before they resume making tire tracks. “I crossed the canyon with my bike on my back in a single day,” he says.