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Arizona Trail story

"Pathway to Paradise," by Lee Allen

The 817-mile long Arizona Trail that traverses our state from the Mexican border to Utah is the granddaddy of the state’s hiking trails and one of the premier pathways anywhere in the United States. Now officially designated as a National Scenic Trail, it’s also a fantastic footpath on which to encounter a complete checklist of what Arizona has to offer in the way of wildlife.

Dale Shewalter, the Flagstaff schoolteacher who originally thought up the idea of the trail, calls it “a naturalist’s dream” because the hiking/biking/equestrian trail passes through seven mountain ranges and two-thirds of Arizona’s national forests — providing biological, geological and climatological diversity along the way.

The roller-coaster route from a low-altitude point of 1,500 feet near the Gila River to about 10,000 feet at Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks represents all aspects of Arizona’s ecological offerings. “It’s a path through the great Southwest, a diverse track through wood and stone,” Shewalter says.

Divided into 43 passages, each one 8 to 34 miles long, the trail takes outdoor enthusiasts from the Coronado National Memorial along the U.S.-Mexico border into the Huachuca, Santa Rita and Rincon Mountains of southern Arizona, then into the higher elevations of northern Arizona and across the Coconino Plateau to the Grand Canyon before terminating near the Arizona-Utah border in the Kaibab Plateau region. According to Dave Hicks, the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, it is “THE place to enjoy everything Arizona’s outdoors has to offer.”

The dreaming and planning stages of the trail began in 1985, with the first pick-and-shovel efforts to build such a path starting shortly after and continuing today. Approximately 95 percent of trail miles have been completed, with less than 40 miles left to go before an official grand opening and ribbon-cutting planned during the state’s Centennial celebration in 2012. “It’s no longer an idea or a vision, it’s a reality,” Hicks says.

Indeed, many are choosing not to wait for official proclamations before kicking up trail dust. The most avid and adventurous already have hiked the trail where it has been constructed, bypassing the short sections remaining to be worked on. 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.

Logbook entries are starting to fill up with comments from those who have walked its entire length. Dave Baker did it footstep-by-footstep in 38 walking days, averaging 21 daily miles and burning nearly 3,000 calories each day. “It’s an elegant, beautiful line that travels through a heavily populated state and still goes across a lot of empty, gorgeous country in the process,” he says.

Praising the trail’s beauty, Baker adds, “As for solitude and time for contemplation and reflection, a few trail sections are popular and well-used by hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders, but many passages are devoid of people. After several solo days, your mind flushes out the mental clutter associated with day-to-day existence and landscapes that normally would seem quite mundane begin appearing as incredibly beautiful. It’s moving and inspiring to spend several days in a row walking along and not seeing anyone at all.”

What Baker did see, hear and frequently come close to stepping on was a plethora of wildlife. Deer, coyotes, pronghorn antelope and elk were plentiful, as were sightings of ravens, all sorts of raptors, some screech owls, a golden eagle and, at more than one stop for the evening, “a campsite patrolled by curious hummingbirds.” Less frequent observations included Gila monsters, desert tortoises, rattlesnakes and a big tom turkey. “I spent a lot of time hiking with my head down keeping an eye on my footing. Had I been searching my surroundings more closely, I’m sure I would have observed even more wildlife that were in the process of watching me,” he says.

Scott Morris two-wheeled his way through the trail, enjoying the experience so much he biked it twice  — a 25-day trek in 2005 and a repeat 7-day 8-hour trip that set the record for fastest total time. “The biggest issue for cyclists is designated wilderness areas where bikes aren’t allowed,” he says.

In some areas, such as the Grand Canyon, cyclists disassemble their bikes and hike through by treading little-used walkways before they resume making tire tracks. “I crossed the Canyon with my bike on my back in a single day,” Morris says. While coming down the South Kaibab Trail, he came across a California condor that let him walk on by while taking photos. In addition to the usual menagerie of wildlife, Morris logged several Gila monsters and “quite an array of snakes.” Because he traveled without a tent and slept in a sleeping bag on the ground, he admits the snake sightings made for light sleep.

Wendy Erica Werden has walked and biked segments of the trail, but prefers to enjoy her miles on horseback with a favorite equine companion. “I’ve hiked it and biked it enough to know I’m glad I ride a horse,” she says. Of the trail itself, she says, “This is the right thing at the right time in the right place. It’s a win-win-win situation now before the encroaching development of urbanization moves closer to these rural, remote places.”

Werden says the appeal for her is a chance to commune with nature and to witness wildlife. “You constantly see deer and coyote, usually a rattler or two, and jackrabbits in some of the protected areas are the size of a small greyhound dog. In the springtime, I like to halt my forward progress periodically and just listen. If you stop yourself long enough to pay attention to some of the smaller critters, you’ll hear the hum of bees in blooming trees. It’s a symphony being played out for you if you’ll take the time to listen.”

While the Arizona Trail Association board member has yet to complete her full trek, other riders have done so in bits and chunks. Fellow equestrian Ken Jackson has completed the journey, purportedly the first horseback rider to do it all at once over a continuous six-week time span. “Three of us, former Arizona Game and Fish biologist Kevin Morgan, stepdaughter and horse wrangler Molly Johnson and I  — thrill-seekers all  — rode from the Utah border to the Mexican border and loved the logistical challenge of every mile of the sometimes difficult terrain. We called it our ‘Manifest West Quest’ because despite all our planning, almost every day we encountered a certain degree of uncertainty.”

Along the way, the trio visited with the usual list of regional wildlife, including lots of deer, javelina and a herd of pronghorn antelope that lined up single file and crossed the trail below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. “Another day we spent several hours traveling in the vicinity of a herd of elk, listening to young bulls trying to call out cows, and an older big bull admonishing them not to overstep their boundaries.”

Even at age 60, Jackson, a family physician, says he’d do the ride again. “I wanted to be a trailblazer and being first to do a through-trip on horseback was an incentive. And although I’ve now been there and done that, I’d do it again because it was so much fun.”

It took time and persistence, but the Arizona Trail now has been designated a National Scenic Trail, the first such designation in more than a quarter of a century. Such Congressional approval, the highest recognition for a U.S. trail, means acknowledgment of a long-distance pathway that provides for the outdoor recreational needs of an expanding population within scenic areas and along historic, remotely located routes.

Until now, only two of eight designated trails were in the West. The other two Western corridors are the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,180-mile Continental Divide Trail, both stretching from the Canadian to the Mexican borders. While few of these continuous protected scenic corridors traverse the Western states, the Gorp.com Web page says, “Some say the West still got the best deal.” These Western pathways pass through Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Designation of the Arizona Trail adds Arizona and Utah to that list.

The National Scenic Trails concept, created in the 1920s and dedicated to non-mechanized travel, established the current list of trails starting in the 1960s, with the last accreditation posted in 1983. Arizona’s request had to wait nearly two years for approval that finally came this spring. “From the start, I knew the Arizona Trail would be a desirable addition because of its diverse landscape and appeal,” says trail founder Shewalter.

With the designation, the dream of offering an array of scenic, historic and cultural attractions to thousands of outdoor enthusiasts moves much closer to becoming reality. Whether they bite it off in one chunk or knock it out a segment at a time and cobble the pieces together, equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers all will be able to legitimately make the claim that they traversed the whole darn thing   — and met a lot of wildlife along the way.

Preparing for a day hike

Those not considering a through-hike experience may pick from other options, i.e. sector or day hikes. “Water and weather are two of the major concerns,” says Dan Davis, a former National Park Service backcountry ranger, who carries a 3-liter bladder of water in a hydration pack  — plus a 1-liter water bottle with an electrolyte replacement added. “You should drink continuously, and because giardia is common in all backcountry water sources, a filter/purifier or purification tablets are essential.”

Davis adds to his list a brimmed hat to cover forehead, ears and neck; sunglasses; boots that fit well and are worn with synthetic socks that wick away moisture; a basic first-aid kit; and a knife or multi-blade tool. “A headlamp is also one of my essentials,” he says. “No one plans to become lost or injured and a headlamp can be used as an emergency signal or to hike out after dark should the need arise.”

While stressing preparedness and safety issues to minimize the possibility of problems, Davis looks to the benefits of hiking the Arizona Trail. “I continue to hike both for exercise and a deep love of the backcountry. I spent my National Park Service career in Grand Canyon, some of the most spectacular natural areas anywhere and Arizona offers more diversity and beauty than anywhere else. Period.”

This article was published in the September–October 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.

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