Rugged Arizona route cuts through barren deserts, mountains

Oct 1 2010 - 6:21pm

JACOB LAKE, Ariz. -- It's not as famous nor as long as America's top three long-distance hiking trails: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the Arizona Trail, complete with its own song, continues to thrive and grow.

The north-south trail stretches from the Coronado National Memorial at the Mexican border in the south to the Arizona-Utah border near Jacob Lake in the north. The primitive and still rustic trail runs east of Tucson and Phoenix and through Flagstaff.

The trail, the dream of retired Flagstaff teacher and hiking enthusiast Dale Shewalter, is designed to be one of the premier long-distance trails in the United States. The Illinois-born Shewalter died this year of cancer after devoting 25 years to establishing the trail.

The trail links mountains, deserts, canyons and cactus. It is a trail of communities and people, created through numerous partnerships.

It was designated a National Scenic Trail in early 2009, along with the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Both the North Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon are part of the Arizona Trail.

At the trailhead where the North Kaibab Trail drops into canyon, you can walk across the road and continue north on the Arizona Trail as it heads through the Ponderosa pines to Jacob Lake. It runs close to state Route 67 as it crosses meadows and wooded tracts north of the Grand Canyon.

The trail runs through Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab National Forest as it crosses The Strip, that northernmost section of Arizona that lies between the Grand Canyon and the Utah border. A seven-mile leg of that 50.5-mile segment across the fairly flat Kaibab Plateau was the first section of the Arizona Trail to open to the public in 1988.

The trail is 96 percent complete. To date, about 785 miles of the 819-mile cross-state non-motorized trail have been signed and are open to the public.

The remaining 34 miles are all on federally owned land. The biggest section still to complete is 18 miles of the White Canyon area near the Gila River.

Highlighting diversity

The trail is used by hikers, backpackers, equestrians and mountain bikers (outside of federal wilderness or other specially designated areas, although alternate bike routes are being sought). It can also be used by snowshoers, cross-country skiers, joggers and pack-animal users.

It was envisioned to be a primitive, long-distance trail that "highlights the state's topographic, biologic, historic and cultural diversity," according to the Arizona Trail Association, the grass-roots group founded in 1994 that promotes the trail.

The trail goes through four national parks and four national forests, six wilderness areas, one state park and two BLM field offices. It spans seven Arizona mountain ranges: the Huachuca, Santa Rita, Rincon, Catalina, Superstition and Mazatzal mountains and the San Francisco Peaks. It includes seven biospheres, from the Sonoran desert to the Canadian alpine. It ranges in height from 1,700 feet at the Gila River to 9,600 feet in the San Francisco Peaks.

The trail crosses four of Arizona's biggest rivers: the Colorado, Gila, East Verde and Salt. It links such special places as Saguaro National Park, Mount Lemmon, the Mogollon Rim, the Mazatzal Wilderness, the Four Peaks and Walnut Canyon.

It includes ghost towns, American Indian ruins and trails used by early settlers. The trail from Flagstaff north to the Grand Canyon follows an old stagecoach route.

Wild backcountry

It goes through only three communities: Flagstaff (there is a trail bypass) and 1,000-resident Patagonia and Tusayan at the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

Hikers in the southernmost section of the Arizona Trail may encounter security forces and illegal immigrants sneaking into the country via the wild backcountry.

The trail is made of 43 passages or sections that range from 11 to 35 miles in length.

In most cases, the Arizona Trail uses existing trails that are known by their original names and numbers. For example, it follows the Highline National Recreation Trail that stretches 51 miles along the Mogollon Rim, a spectacular escarpment.

Maps and trailhead information about the completed sections are available from the nonprofit trail association. You can also order a CD with 16 maps from the association for $15.

The Arizona Trail Association has published a 328-page guidebook, Arizona Trail: The Official Guide by Tom Lorang Jones and the association. It sells for $21 plus shipping. The association also sells decals, patches, trail access maps and a long-distance hiking planner.

For information, contact the Arizona Trail Association, P.O. Box 36736, Phoenix, AZ 85067; 602-252-4794; www.aztrail.org.

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