To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

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When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these.

First, we need to define each. For our purposes, section hiking is the dividing of a long distance trail into shorter portions that are then hiked separately over time. For example, hiking the Massachusetts or Vermont portions of the Appalachian Trail, or one or more passages of the Arizona Trail. Thruhiking is the hiking of an entire trail in one or, in some cases depending on context, possibly two shots. For example, hiking the entire Arizona Trail, Long Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.

When it comes to thruhiking, the primary challenge to me is mental. The initial commitment to undertake a thruhike is a significant mental challenge in and of itself. Confidence in one’s preparation in advance is important. In addition, particularly on less traveled trails, continuing motivation can be a challenge – obviously success in a thruhike depends on gettining up, packing up, and hiking a certain distance each day unless taking a zero (a day where no trail mileage is logged). There are additional logistical and physical challenges, particularly early in the hike. It takes time to acclimate to hiking extended miles over rugged terrain. Logistics depend on advance research of a trail – on something like the AT, it may be possible to resupply in local trail towns. On others, mail drops – sending advance supplies to oneself via the USPS’ General Delivery system or via establishments along a trail that accept hiker packages – may be required or more convenient. Further, distance between resupply points may present additional challenges. Between Pine and Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail is a roughly 2 week stretch with only one resupply option at Mormon Lake in the north, for example. There are two options that devolve – carry more food, have supplies cached, or gamble and carry less to move faster. Another major challenge can be securing the amount of time that thruhikes can take, particularly for longer or more rugged trails like the Arizona Trail; Pacific Crest Trail; Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Communication may be more limited for longer periods, too.

Saddle Mountain sunset
Saddle Mountain Wilderness
Arizona Trail, Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)

But, there can be major advantages to thruhiking. Namely, once one acclimates to distance hiking and builds up endurance, it becomes easier to hike farther and maintain extended paces. In trail lingo, once you have your “trail legs,” terrain and distance challenges are a much more diminished challenge. Some logistical challenges, such as transport to and from the trail, and associated costs can be diminished or eliminated by thruhiking as well.

Section hiking, on the other hand, requires less consecutive time and may not require the same logistical preparation, although this depends on the situation and precise trail circumstances. it can also allow more targeted experiences of sections at the “best times” to see them. However, it may sometimes be more difficult to reliably get the blocks of time off for a section hike, or at the best time consistently. More importantly, it can be easy to get off trail just when one is getting into peak trail shape, or getting one’s “trail legs,” which can mean that section hikers, despite hiking shorter passages of a trail and in theory having fresher legs, take longer to hike the same distance than a thruhiker does. They may end up taking more time overall for the trail as well. Some trails are also not as conducive to section hiking.

If I had to summarize the biggest difference between the two in a sentence, it would be that thruhiking, especially solo, is a bigger mental challenge while section hiking involves a bigger physical challenge. Both offer the benefits of interactions with the incredible trail communities on and off trail.

For those who want to see each part of a trail at its peak, or who don’t want to deal with the logistics of an extended hike, section hiking likely appeals. For those who want immersive experience with extended periods of time disconnected in wilderness, or who are drawn by the romantic image of hiking something like the AT, thruhiking likely has a greater appeal. But ultimately, which is best for any one person is a personal decision. Both are significant accomplishments in their own way and should be recognized as such.

Four Peaks
Arizona Trail (Four Peaks passage)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest, Arizona

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To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these. First, we need to define each. For our purposes, … Continue reading To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Cottonwood Creek (Passage 19, Superstition Wilderness)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Superstition Wilderness Passage from Roosevelt Lake up Cottonwood Creek at the start of the Superstition Wilderness passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the Superstition Mountains and the monarch of the Southwest, the saguaro cacti.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Saddle Mountain, Part I (Day 53, Passage 23)

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In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

This stretch takes me from the Mount Peeley Trailhead past Thicket Spring to McFarland Canyon. The views of the central Mazatzals, including Mount Peeley & Sheep Mountain, are magnificent. Framed views of the Four Peaks in the southern Mazatzals also present themselves. The trail climbs out of McFarland Canyon and back onto the mountain slopes, revealing more magnificent views of other sub peaks and ranges of the Mazatzals – including Mt Ord, Cypress Peak, and Edwards Peak. From McFarland Canyon for about 6 miles south the trail returns to the Mazatzal Wilderness before exiting it for good and descending from the mountain flanks to AZ-87.

One of my favorite wildlife encounters on the trail occurred at the end of the evening following this day. I was lying in my sleeping bag under the stars after a classic Arizona sunset when I heard a sound near the foot of my sleeping bag. I picked up my headlamp and turned it on to see a Mazatzal fox scurrying around the campsite and trail. When it saw my light, it looked up a then lay down on the ground as if it thought that would get it out of the light and make it invisible before running off. The cycle repeated several times; it seemed quite playful.

(If you missed my description of the Mazatzal Mountains, you can find that as well as logistics and ecology reports for the passage after the photos.)

Relive route for today
Rounding the eastern flank of Mt Peeley, Sheep Mountain around corner. Backpacking view on the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Mt Peeley, backpacking view from the AZT.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Snake encounter at Textile Spring, backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Sycamore Creek backpacking view from the Arizona Trail below Thicket Spring
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Fall foliage hiking in the bed of Sycamore Creek below Thicket Spring
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Arizona Trail view in the central Mazatzal Mountains along Sycamore Creek ravine; Sheep Mountain at left
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
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Crossing bed of Sycamore Creek hiking on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Fall foliage along Sycamore Creek, backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Sheep Mountain view backpacking away from Sycamore Creek on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains, viewed hiking the Arizona Trail. Sheep Mountain at left, Mt Peeley at right
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Arizona Trail crossing the rolling Mazatzal hills below the spine
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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One of two potential halfway points of the Arizona Trail, depending on routing
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking across rugged canyon-carved foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking view out of McFarland Canyon in the central Mazatzals to the Four Peaks in the southern Mazatzals. Brown’s Peak, the highest of the Four Peaks, is the highest mountain in the range.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Wildflowers backpacking along the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Lingering survivor pine trees in the central Mazatzal Mountains backpacking the Arizona Trail near McFarland Canyon
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Impressively, fall colors continue to linger in the central Mazatzals, hiking the Arizona Trail in McFarland Canyon
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Tonto National Forest
Indian Paintbrush backpacking the Arizona Trail in McFarland Canyon
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains, hiking out of McFarland Canyon on the Arizona Trail. Sheep Mountain at center.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Central Mazatzal Mountains near sunset backpacking the Arizona Trail. Sheep Mountain at left, Mt Peeley center, Mazatzal Peak at right.
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saddle Mountain at sunset backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Edwards Peak (left center) and Cypress Peak (right center), viewed backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Mt Ord at sunset, seen thruhiking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Sunset panorama backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunset hiking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunset backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 21, Saddle Mountain
Mazatzal Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

About the area: This stretch of the Arizona Trail lies within the Mazatzal Wilderness in the Tonto National Forest. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Wilderness, which the trail will remain within now until just shy of Sunflower in the central Mazatzals, is about 390 square miles in size and surrounds the Mazatzal Mountains. It was one of the original Wilderness Areas designated upon the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

The Mazatzal Mountains themselves are an incredible place. Formed during an orogeny (a term referring to the process that creates mountains) when Arizona was a coastal region on the margin of what became North America, the Mazatzals gained their rugged nature as tectonic collisions compressed rock, lifting it and thrusting it above other rocks (overthrust). We’ll see the resulting folding in the next entry during a short side hike on the Barnhardt Trail. Mazatzal Peak, the highest point of the Northern Mazatzals, towers 1700 ft above the trail with a jagged west face that makes it appear as though half the mountain was simply cut away. This passage passes through the northern half of the full range. Unfortunately the area was greatly impacted by the Willow & Sunflower Fires, which burned much (though not all, as we will see) of the old ponderosa forest that had made the mountains one of the most popular long-distance stretches of the Arizona Trail. Yet the incredible geology, solitude, sunsets, and views remain for the hardy and prepared souls who venture into this special place. Bagworms spin magnificent webs here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation.

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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

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Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)24.3
SeasonAll year, but snow can make sections impassable in winter.
Potential Water SourcesThicket Spring (Mi 402.3 NB, 386.4 SB)
Sycamore Creek Canyon (mi 400.6 NB, 388.1 SB)
Creek (mi 392.5 NB, 396.2 SB)
Wash (mi 391.5 NB, 397.2 SB)
Stock Pond (mi 390.5 NB, 398.2 SB)
Rock Spring (mi 388.9 NB, 399.8 SB)
Hiker box at AZ 87 (mi 386.7 NB, 402 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Mt Peeley Trailhead
South: Arizona 87 near Sunflower
Trailhead AccessNorth: Foot & 0.5 mi hike on Cornucopia Trail from dirt road trailhead
South:
Wilderness50%
Possible resupply pointsNone
ATA-Rated DifficultyModerate
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)There are a number of options, particularly on the southern third of the passage. There are also good sites in the area around McFarland Canyon and a few sites just south of that point.
Ecosystems TraversedInterior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
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Interior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Continuing to hike down the North Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park from Roaring Springs, one descends through Bright Angel Canyon, passing the Manzanita Resthouse and Cottonwood Campground while crossing and recrossing Bright Angel Creek. The trail flattens out around Cottonwood, halfway from the North Rim to the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground. The bridge to Ribbon Falls is out, but I’m able to ford the creek – something that was not possible the last time that I hiked this trail, during the spring runoff. I’m able to identify a trail that leads to the falls and make it over to see them briefly before making it back to the main trail and continuing toward the River.

Continue reading “Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)”

Continuing to hike down the North Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park from Roaring Springs, one descends through Bright Angel Canyon, passing the Manzanita Resthouse and Cottonwood Campground while crossing and recrossing Bright Angel Creek. The trail flattens out around Cottonwood, halfway from the North Rim to the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground. The bridge to Ribbon Falls is out, but I’m able to ford the creek – something that was not possible the last time that I hiked this trail, during the spring runoff. I’m able to identify a trail that leads to the falls and make it over to see them briefly before making it back to the main trail and continuing toward the River.

Continue reading “Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)”

Arizona Trail Approach Day 3: Paría Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness (Vermilion Cliffs National Monument)

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Moon above Paria Canyon’s Wingate Sandstone walls in the morning
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Slow start this morning. The spring that I reached yesterday, the first on the trail, is little more than a trickle, and I have a lot of water to fill. It marks the border between the Chinle Formation and the Wingate Sandstone.

Panorama of the moon above the walls of Paría Canyon in the morning light
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

As I begin to wind my way further up Paria Canyon, deeper and deeper into the wilderness, the gorgeous weather and cool breeze continues.

Hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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I pass a great gallery of petroglyphs, one of the largest I’ve ever seen. Every time I thought that I’d documented all of them I spotted more and had to go back up again. Just incredible. Canyon perils exist, too – I narrowly avoided injuring myself trying to (successfully) avoid stepping on a canyon tree frog. But after doing my program on those this summer at Grand Canyon, I couldn’t harm one here.

Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Petroglyphs spotted hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

As the canyon rises, the Wingate Formation gives way to the Kayenta Formation and the canyon enters a wider and more heavily vegetated stretch, where sediment has clearly been both deposited and eroded by severe flash flooding – the vegetation growing is evidence of the amount of water provided by the river and the thick rich silt it has deposited, but the current river channel is also in places feet below the level of the vegetation, with a bank that just drops off, evidence of the power of the floods that can sweep through here.

Backpacking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking through Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Hiking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

But not today, thankfully.

I ultimately make it to just above Wrather Arch – a cave-type arch in Wrather Canyon. Beautiful regardless of the technical terminology involved. Hopefully I have time to hit it quickly in the morning before continuing upcanyon. The red rock is simply magnificent as it glows in the evening light.

Hiking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Backpacking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Backpacking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Hiking Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon transition between Wingate Sandstone and Kayenta Formation
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Transition between Wingate Sandstone and Kayenta Formation in Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Transition between Wingate Sandstone and Kayenta Formation in Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon, wide angle panorama
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Swiss cheese-style erosion in the Navajo Sandstone in Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

It’s here. The Mazatzal Divide represents the heart of the longest stretch of the Arizona Trail within a designated wilderness area. To that end, a reminder on the meaning of wilderness. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is “an area where man is but a visitor and does not remain.” Consequently, motorized access as … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 47: Red Hills, Part II/II

Second day hiking through the Red Hills toward the Mazatzal Mountains. Earning their name through the red rock colors, the Hills also provide hikers with wildflowers and diverse vegetation, in addition to showing the scars of recent wildfires and spectacular views of the range north toward the Mogollon Rim.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 49: Whiterock Mesa, Part III

Departing Polk Spring, the trail continues to provide magnificent views of the northern Mazatzal Mountains and the neighboring Red Hills as it descends to the East Verde River. The trail will pass through both mountain ranges – first the Red Hills, then the Mazatzals. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” The Mazatzal Wilderness, which the trail will remain within now until just shy of Strawberry in the central Mazatzals, is about 390 square miles in size. It was one of the original Wilderness Areas designated upon the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – FR 194 to Pine Spring (Passage 45, Whiterock Mesa)

I got started around 10, heading down Passage 25 toward the East Verde River.
I hike through a gate and enter the Mazatzal Wilderness. Following cairns, the surface alternates between the basalt and more dirt – like walking through a wash. As the trail skirts the rim briefly, a magnificent view of the Mazatzal Mountains and Red Hills opens up to the hiker, then the trail experiences yet another spectacular sunset as it and the backpacker fall off the Mesa to Polk Spring near the East Verde River.

Pink ribbons spread across the bluish/purple sky at sunset

Fossil Springs Wilderness – FR 708

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

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Fossil Springs Wilderness – Waterfall Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

Fossil Springs Wilderness – Fossil Springs Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. The Wilderness has 11,550 acres with 30 species of trees and shrubs and over 100 species of birds. Fossil Creek itself is one of two Wild & Scenic Rivers in Arizona as well, designated by Congress in 2009 after the Fossil Springs Dam was decommissioned by Arizona in 2005. Fossil Springs, the source of the creek, release 30 million gallons of water per day, incredibly prolific for its location in Arizona.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine Ridge to FR 194 (Passage 26, Whiterock Mesa)

I finally get off around 11:30 & run into Matt and a female friend near East Tank. I’m glad for the company and we walk together for a while. The road condition is terrible – lots of loose basalt – and the going is slow. I finally reach the split to Strawberry and encounter them again, and their friend who picked them up flags me down and brings me a beer. Some more trail magic! I think my biggest challenges are becoming the pack weight and the solitude. I head for a short side trip to Fossil Creek.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Pine to Pine Ridge (Passage 25, Whiterock Mesa)

The trail first rolls through the pines and passes Pine Creek (dry) and Bradshaw Tank on its way to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa, which provides an excellent overlook of Oak Spring Canyon, the highlight of the passage, before dropping to the bottom. Like on the Highline, foliage still lingers in the warmer Canyon. I also spot some cool geology in what appears to be dikes in some of the rocks.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 41, Part II – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

Having filled up on water and eaten lunch, the trail ascends from Webber Creek and the Geronimo Trailhead toward Milk Ranch Point, jutting out from the Mogollon Rim. This is a much more consistently wooded & shaded stretch that appears to have been spared by the Dude Fire of 1990 and February Fire (2006). It also seems to be wetter here – there are still touches of green in the ferns as the trail ascends. Gamble oaks, maple and ponderosa dominate the trail through this stretch, and the light filtering through the canopy and the leaves is magical.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 40-41 – Highline Trail (Passage 27, Highline)

The trail continues to roll across the eroded foothills of the Mogollon Rim, the impressive and distinctive southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, where the elevation jumps around 4000 ft in elevation. The Highline continues to define itself as a diverse landscape where the species of the desert below and the pine forests above mingle.

The Mazatzal Mountains – the next major hurdle once I make it to Pine – loom in the distance as well, and ironwood line the more open stretches of path across the Highline, where the Dude Fire burned the forest in 1990.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Highline Trail, Part II (Passage 27, Highline)

The Arizona Trail continues west toward Pine, curving around parts of the Mogollon Rim that reach out, and segments that sit farther back, rolling across the eroded foothills beneath the parapets that’s tower overhead. The diverse plants continue to amaze. How often do you find blue spruce growing next to agave cactus!

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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Trail SurfaceRustic (the river is the trail)
Length (Mi)45 (Lee’s Ferry to Wire Pass via Buckskin Gulch)
38 (Paria Canyon, Lee’s Ferry to White House)
20 (Wire Pass to White House via Buckskin Gulch)
22, approx. (Buckskin Gulch to White House)
1.8 (Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch)
SeasonFall-Spring. Brutally hot in summer.
Potential Water SourcesSprings. Unless informed otherwise by a BLM ranger, there is likely no water in Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River should be considered undrinkable even when filtered. Know how to recognize desert springs.
TrailheadsParia Canyon North: White House
Paria Canyon South: Lee’s Ferry
Buckskin Gulch Middle Exit
Buckskin Gulch West
Wire Pass
Trailhead AccessVehicular access to all trailheads
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsNone
DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Best near springs. Some higher-water campsites in north, south of Buckskin Gulch-Paria Canyon confluence.
ThreatsFlash flooding – Extreme hazard here. Know the forecast daily (an inReach or other satellite communicator helps with this). Know how to recognize the signs of a flash flood and how to react. You cannot outrun a flash flood; you must climb above it. This is not possible in Buckskin Gulch – do not enter it if storms threaten.

Heat – wear a cotton shirt so you can soak it. Synthetics aren’t great in the desert.

Hyponatremia – “drunk on water.” To avoid, ensure adequate salt & electrolyte intake and ensure you eat as well as drink water. Symptoms are almost identical to dehydration, but drinking more makes it worse. Prevention is by far the best solution.

Dehydration

Because there is no trail, there are places where boulders must be climbed around or over and at least one spot where your pack must be hauled over a boulder jab. Flash floods change the trail, shifting obstacles around, removing some and adding others. Expect the unexpected.
Permits Required? Yes. 20 people max per night issued on BLM website.
Miscellaneous Leave No Trace is different in the desert. Know desert principles and carry wag bags. One will be provided with your permit.
Cell service?Nonexistent
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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Cottonwood Creek (Passage 19, Superstition Wilderness)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Woke up to a wet sleeping bag again this morning. Going to have to get scientific about sorting out the exact differential between temperature and dew point for such condensation to occur (at least in a desert climate). After drying stuff out, I begin the ascent into the Superstition Mountains, at first on Forest Service roads then along Cortonwood Creek. I quickly feel vindicated in my decision not to chance this section in the rain – on some stretches, there is a 2-3 ft gap between the trail and the creek bed below, evidence of significant recent flash flooding, probably related to the Woodbury Fire that occurred in the watershed this summer. Magnificent views of saguaros are also present, though, as the trail climbs through the creek side vegetation to a wide basin that obviously suffered in the fire, where there’s enough space to make camp for the night before proceeding to the wilderness boundary and beyond tomorrow.

The Superstition Mountains are volcanic in origin. The current mountains are the eroded remnants of the resurgent lava dome of a supervolcano similar to Yellowstone but on a smaller scale – comparable to Yellowstone’s “little brother,” in a sense. The caldera boundary can still be seen within the mountains today. The name comes from the various superstitions that surround them – legends such as that of the Lost Dutchman mine, and a belief among some Apaches that the road to the lower world is located there. More to come on these mountains as we enter them shortly.

Looking back toward Roosevelt Lake as the AZT climbs into the Superstition Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaro cacti dot the foothills of the Superstition Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaro cacti on the SuperstitionMpuntain foothills above Cottonwood Creek, climbing into the Superstition Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaros and rocky walls rise above the bed of Cottonwood Creek in the Superstition Mountain foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Flash flood impacts are evident in the bed of Cottonwood Creek in the Superstition Mountain foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Evening in the Superstition Mountain foothills Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Clear Creek to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing. I was told that there may be water in one direction near the crossing but didn’t need it and therefore didn’t check. Climbing out the other side, the northern aspect of the slope is apparent – while ponderosas covered the southern slope opposite, the northern one featured Douglas fir and blue spruce. Obviously the different sides show different microclimates depending on the sun aspect, the temperature and moisture levels on each side given the orientation and angle of the slope. The trail rises back to the ponderosa forests on the Mogollon Plateau and traverses them, the site of my first human sighting in 3 days, then reaches General Springs Canyon. Dipping into General Springs Canyon, silence and quiet take hold. I passed a nice campsite near the end of GSC, but the pools nearby were still frozen at the end of the day, suggesting it would get colder in the canyon overnight (and that solar exposure during the day was limited) than on the Rim, so I continued forward to the rim itself. Lights can be seen in the distance, but I’m not sure which town. Likely Pine or Strawberry. Tomorrow begins the descent off the rim at long last.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 38 – Blue Ridge Ranger Station to Mogollon Rim (Passage 28, Blue Ridge)

Managed to push through the entire Blue Ridge Passage today, one of my best days on the trail. I left the Blue Ridge Ranger Station this morning and headed south for the Rim. Saw a herd of elk near the Blue Ridge Campground and Elk Tank while climbing Blue Ridge itself. The trail also passed through an active prescribed burn, though it was low intensity so probably not considered a public hazard at this point. I’m familiar with them anyway, having worked as a PIO (public informations officer) on one over the summer at Grand Canyon. The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing.

Arizona Trail, Day 36 – Passage 29 (Happy Jack)

The low last night was projected to be 12º, the coldest night yet on the trail, and I would say that may well have been accurate. Fortunately I came prepared for such conditions. Today I will be one of the first to walk the full new Happy Jack passage routing south of Shuff Tank.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail – Mormon Lake to Shuff Tank (Day 34; Passages 29 & 28, Mormon Lake & Happy Jack)

It’s brutally cold this morning, notably because of the strong wind that whips across the clearing to the west. Not setting up the tent last night was a mistake. I ultimately fill up for the last time at Navajo Spring and run into a few dayhikers who have completed over 300 miles of the trail themselves. Two of them are the Grouper and the Oracle. I continue south, aiming for Gooseberry Springs TH and Passage 29, Happy Jack.

Arizona Trail, Day 33 – Mormon Lake Zero

It’s cold and raw after the rain the night before. I walk about 3 miles up the road to Double Springs and then use the AZT to get back to my prior campsite to grab the sleeping pad, then retrace my steps again. Did it hail up here?

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Arizona Trail, Day 31 – Anderson Mesa to Double Springs (Passages 30, Anderson Mesa & 29, Mormon Lake)

There is a lot of cool railroad history west of Lake Mary Road, the trail follows an old logging railroad grade for much of the route and in places the ties are still visible. Very cool. The forest turns into a dense mixed conifer and I have a chance encounter with a mountain biker named Chris who recently moved here from Idaho. We talk about the trail ahead and some I’m looking at doing in Idaho.

Arizona Trail, Day 30 – Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 and 30, Walnut Canyon and Mormon Lake)

The trail reaches Lowell Observatory’s Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI). The NPOI measures precise relative positions of stars in the sky for the Naval Observatory to use as reference when determining geographic positions of locations on both Earth and in space, as well as for use in timekeeping. Over four football fields long, it uses a six-mirror array directing multiple light beams from a star to a single point, enhancing image detail and separating stars that are so close that even the largest conventional telescopes cannot separate them visually. Near the NPOI is an excellent view of Upper Lake Mary in the valley of Walnut Creek below, after which the trail continues across Anderson Mesa.

After reaching Horse Lake, I make camp for the night. The sky is black as coal and the night is filled with coyotes howling.

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Passage 21 (Four Peaks)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)19
SeasonMarch-May, September-November
Potential Water SourcesPigeon Spring (Mi 421.6 NB, 421.6 SB)
Bear Spring (mi 400.6 NB, 422.5 SB)
Shake Spring (mi 392.5 NB, 423.4 SB)
Granite Spring (mi 391.5 NB, 431.3 SB)
Buckhorn Creek (mi 390.5 NB, 432.9 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Lone Pine Saddle
South: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; via graded dirt road
South: Vehicular access (parking at Roosevelt Lake Marina)
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix (north end)
Roosevelt Lake Marina (south end)
Farther, Globe and Tonto Basin
ATA-Rated DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Precipitous terrain limits options, but there are some spots around Mills Ridge Trailhead & the Chillicut Trail junction
Ecosystems TraversedArizona Upland
Interior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
Highlights Four Peaks
Views of Tonto Basin & Roosevelt Lake
SOBO, first saguaro appearance on trail
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Arizona UplandInterior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* * Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

After getting a ride back to Roosevelt Lake from Walter, owner of one of the inns in Tonto Basin, I did a short hike back up to Inspiration Point above the lake on the north side of the Salt River. The morning light on the rocks and saguaros is gorgeous. I then followed the trail back south across the bridge at Theodore Roosevelt Dam and onto passage 19, the Superstitions. Climbing out of the canyon of the Salt River, it winds among the foothills of the Superstition Mountains before reaching the old Roosevelt Cemetery and the actual side trail to Roosevelt Lake. I drop my pack near here for a bit and head down the road to explore Tonto National Monument, which will get its own entry as a national park.

This short stretch bridges the Mazatzal and Superstition Mountains. The Mazatzal Mountains formed during an orogeny (a term referring to the process that creates mountains) when Arizona was a coastal region on the margin of what became North America, the Mazatzals gained their rugged nature as tectonic collisions compressed rock, lifting it and thrusting it above other rocks (overthrust). Mazatzal Peak, the highest point of the Northern Mazatzals, towers 1700 ft above the trail with a jagged west face that makes it appear as though half the mountain was simply cut away, while the Four Peaks, iconic mountain landmarks of Phoenix, are the highest in the range and include a rare active amethyst mine legendary for its quality. Unfortunately both regions of the range have been greatly impacted by recent fires. The Willow and Sunflower Fires burned much of the northern portion, while the Lone Pine and Bush Fires have burned much of the southern. This hike was completed before the 2020 Bush Fire, so the area will have changed since the following images were taken. Much of the old ponderosa forest that had made the mountains one of the most popular long-distance stretches of the Arizona Trail has been lost in these burns, yet the incredible geology, solitude, sunsets, and views remain for the hardy and prepared souls who venture into this special place. Bagworms spin magnificent webs here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation.

The Superstition Mountains, by contrast, are volcanic in origin. The current mountains are the eroded remnants of the resurgent lava dome of a supervolcano similar to Yellowstone but on a smaller scale – comparable to Yellowstone’s “little brother,” in a sense. The caldera boundary can still be seen within the mountains today. The name comes from the various superstitions that surround them – legends such as that of the Lost Dutchman mine, and a belief among some Apaches that the road to the lower world is located there. More to come on these mountains as we enter them shortly.

Mesquite trees in the morning, with the leaves folded. As the sun rises and the light gets more intense, the leaves will unfold, and then close again in the afternoon toward nightfall.
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Tonto National Forest
Following AZ-188 toward Theodore Roosevelt Dam, the Superstition Mountain foothills bristle with saguaro cacti in the morning light
Saguaro cacti bristle on the slopes of the Superstition Mountain foothills along AZ-188 in the morning light
Saguaro in the morning light in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains along AZ-188
Inspiration Point in the Mazatzal Mountain foothills rises above Theodore Roosevelt Bridge over the Salt River at Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Tonto National Forest
Ancient saguaro cacti in the Superstition Mountain foothills. It can take 75-100 years for a saguaro to grow a single arm. This one is hundreds of years old.
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Mountains)
Tonto National Forest
Crossing Theodore Roosevelt Bridge over the Salt River, one of four rivers the AZT crosses (the others are the Colorado, East Verde, and Gila)
Arizona Trail, Passage 20/19 (Superstition Wilderness/Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Saguaro Cacti rise above the AZT in the southern Mazatzal Mountain foothills above the Salt River.
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Desert Marigolds bloom in the Arizona sun
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Saguaro and prickly pear coat the south-facing slope of the Salt River canyon as the Arizona Trail enters the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. The Superstition Mountains rise behind.
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Theodore Roosevelt Dam and Bridge, with the southern portion of Theodore Roosevelt Lake and Tonto Basin behind.
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Theodore Roosevelt Lake and the Sierra Ancha behind, with the northern Mazatzal Mountains at left; north view near Inspiration Point
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of Theodore Roosevelt Lake and Tonto Basin from near Inspiration Point on the AZT. The Sierra Ancha rise across the Basin and the northern Mazatzals are at left.
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Theodore Roosevelt Lake and Bridge, with the Sierra Ancha behind, south view descending from Inspiration Point.
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Tonto National Forest
Ocotillos green up after the recent rain along the AZT Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Tonto National Forest
Saguaros crowd the hillsides beside the AZT on the south side of the Salt River
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Tonto National Forest
Roosevelt Lake, north view from the AZT climbing above the Salt River
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Tonto National Forest
Desert Marigolds bloom in the Arizona sun
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Tonto National Forest

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 29 – Flagstaff to Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 & 33, Flagstaff & Walnut Canyon)

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. After doing a full resupply yesterday to get me through to Pine, where my next box has been shipped, and replacing some gear, including a new pair of boots and new sleeping pad, today started with breakfast with Oscar at Tourist Home, … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 29 – Flagstaff to Anderson Mesa (Passages 31 & 33, Flagstaff & Walnut Canyon)

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Arizona Trail Thruhike, Day 26: Passage 31 (Walnut Canyon), Part 2 (Arizona/Utah Day 33)

The ponderosas are dense throughout, and their reddish bark glows in the light that filters through the green needles. The gambel oaks continue to impress along the route as well, adding splashes of yellow, red, and orange to the green ponderosa woodlands. The trail crosses two spur trails leading to overlooks with more magnificent views of the canyon.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Passage 31 – Walnut Canyon (Arizona/Utah Day 33)

The trail crosses FR 303, Old Walnut Canyon Road, and heads west toward Flagstaff. Rolling in and out of drainages, It traces the rim of Walnut Canyon in places, and veers away into the woods in others. Heading west, the forest transitions back to the ponderosas, rolling up and down through drainages. The ponderosas are dense throughout, and their reddish bark glows in the light that filters through the green needles. The gambel oaks continue to impress along the route as well, adding splashes of yellow, red, and orange to the green ponderosa woodlands. The trail crosses two spur trails leading to overlooks with more magnificent views of the canyon. Both well worth the minor extra mileage and time.

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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 3

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part II

Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 420 national parks in the National Park System, protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

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Passage 21 (Four Peaks)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)19
SeasonMarch-May, September-November
Potential Water SourcesPigeon Spring (Mi 421.6 NB, 421.6 SB)
Bear Spring (mi 400.6 NB, 422.5 SB)
Shake Spring (mi 392.5 NB, 423.4 SB)
Granite Spring (mi 391.5 NB, 431.3 SB)
Buckhorn Creek (mi 390.5 NB, 432.9 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Lone Pine Saddle
South: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; via graded dirt road
South: Vehicular access (parking at Roosevelt Lake Marina)
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix (north end)
Roosevelt Lake Marina (south end)
Farther, Globe and Tonto Basin
ATA-Rated DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Precipitous terrain limits options, but there are some spots around Mills Ridge Trailhead & the Chillicut Trail junction
Ecosystems TraversedArizona Upland
Interior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
Highlights Four Peaks
Views of Tonto Basin & Roosevelt Lake
SOBO, first saguaro appearance on trail
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Arizona UplandInterior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* * Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Well, the first major winter front has passed through. Clearly, the seasons are shifting.

The sun did not come out for three days straight. The mountains that had towered over the town of Tonto Basin completely disappeared in the cloud bank (see picture below).

Three days of constant rain.

To make matters worse, the grill at the hotel I’ve been staying at was broken, and a rolling blackout power outage closed a second place I tried to eat, leaving me with just one option from a food perspective. I don’t care how good a place is – if you have to eat there 2-3 times a day for three days straight, it’s going to get a bit old.

Having said that, the dusting of snow the mountains received looked pretty nice – though I am really glad I was not hiking through it. The food in Tonto Basin was also pretty good. The hotel, while dated, had a special rate for AZT hikers and offered a free drink at the bar for all customers. It was also located right next to the post office. People were friendly – indeed, when the owners of Big Daddy’s, the pizza place that I had walked to for 30 minutes in the rain only to find they were closed due to the blackout, learned that I was hiking the trail and had gone out of my way to try and stop by, they gave me some of what they had free and gave me a lift back to where I was staying. Much appreciated.

For those doing a resupply at grocery stores, there’s an IDA grocery and ACE hardware store that sells food as well as alcohol and canisters for stoves. Better selection than the marina in Roosevelt Lake.

Obviously the main problem with using this town as a resupply point is geographic location (located both off-trail and along a less-traveled road than many alternatives, such as Globe and Payson. The easiest way to reach Tonto Basin is seemingly to cut across on forest roads through the central Mazatzals off of Passage 20 (Pine Mountain) or to get a ride from someone at Roosevelt Lake Marina who may live there. In either case, the big problem is getting back. After a decent walk to the place, Walter, the owner of a second inn down the road, was kind enough to provide that lift, otherwise just the walk from Tonto Basin to the marina to pick up the trail again would have bee; the better part of a day – and as noted, the road between the two (AZ-188) is less traveled, meaning fewer opportunities to hitch, even if you are a hiker accustomed to hitching. Which may not be the case, particularly for those from the U.S. east coast, where hitchhiking is often both relatively taboo and illegal.

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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part I

Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight

Red sky in the morn, sailor’s be warned.

Sailor’s proverb

Got an early start this morning. Sunrise is beautiful but ominous. Growing up with family from coastal New England I was always taught the old saying “red sky at night, sailors delight, red sky in the morn, sailors be warned.” The sun illuminated a giant cloud bank red this morning before rising into it. I packed up and started double timing it below the Four Peaks, enjoying the rare glimpses of light shining on the peaks when possible but trying to both beat the rain and my friend from Phoenix to Roosevelt Lake. The hike seems endless at points, rolling through drainages in precipitously steep terrain where the trail seems the only flat surface around. My phone died with a couple miles left, so I had to write this retroactively, and the rain hit in the last 30 or so before making it to Roosevelt Lake. After feasting (after such a long period in the wilderness, food was pretty good to have), I got a lift to Tonto Basin to pick up my packages and wait out what will likely be several days of rain.

(If you missed my description of the Mazatzal Mountains, you can find that as well as logistics and ecology reports for the passage after the photos.)

Sunrise over Tonto Basin, backpacking the Arizona Trail in the Mazatzal Mountains near the Four Peaks
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunrise over Tonto Basin, hiking the Arizona Trail in the Mazatzal Mountains near the Four Peaks
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunrise over Tonto Basin, backpacking the Arizona Trail in the Mazatzal Mountains near the Four Peaks
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunrise over Tonto Basin, hiking the Arizona Trail in the Mazatzal Mountains near the Four Peaks
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Moon and clouds in the Mazatzal Mountains, backpacking the Arizona Trail beneath the Four Peaks
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Light on the precipitous slopes of the southern Mazatzal Mountains, hiking the AZT below the Four Peaks
Light on the precipitous slopes of the southern Mazatzal Mountains, backpacking the AZT below the Four Peaks
Surviving stands of pine in a Lone Fire burn scar, seen hiking on the slopes of the southern Mazatzal Mountains north of the Four Peaks
Backpacking the Arizona Trail through the southern Mazatzal Mountains above Roosevelt Lake
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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The Four Peaks come into view, hiking the Arizona Trail in the southern Mazatzal Mountains
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of the southern Mazatzal Mountains with the Superstitions framed in the distance, backpacking south on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of the Four Peaks, seen hiking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Rays of sunlight cross Amethyst Peak, backpacking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Rays of sunlight cross the Four Peaks, hiking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains.
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
The Four Peaks, seen backpacking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains.
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of sunlight on the Four Peaks, view hiking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains. From left: Amethyst Peak, Sister Peak, Brother Peak, and Brown’s Peak, highest in the Mazatzals.
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of sunlight on the Four Peaks, view backpacking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains. From left: Amethyst Peak, Sister Peak, Brother Peak, and Brown’s Peak, highest in the Mazatzals.
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Remnant pines from the Lone Fire, view hiking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of the Four Peaks, view backpacking in the southern Mazatzal Mountains
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of the Four Peaks & southern Mazatzal Mountain foothills, hiking view from the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Panorama of the southern Mazatzal Mountains, view backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Tarantula in the Mazatzals, seen hiking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Mazatzal Mountains around the Four Peaks, view backpacking the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
The first saguaros of the trail appear, hiking south on the Arizona Trail
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaros become a common sight backpacking south on the Arizona Trail toward Inspiration Point & Roosevelt Lake
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaros along the Arizona Trail hiking south toward Inspiration Point & Roosevelt Lake
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaros dot the hillsides as the Arizona Trail descends from the Four Peaks toward Inspiration Point & Roosevelt Lake
AZT Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

The Mazatzal Mountains themselves are an incredible place. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” Formed during an orogeny (a term referring to the process that creates mountains) when Arizona was a coastal region on the margin of what became North America, the Mazatzals gained their rugged nature as tectonic collisions compressed rock, lifting it and thrusting it above other rocks (overthrust). The Four Peaks, the highest points of the Mazatzals, tower above the Arizona Trail with a jagged face that makes it appear as though half the mountain was simply cut away. As the name suggests, there are indeed four Peaks – Amethyst Peak, Sister Peak, Brother Peak, and Brown’s Peak, in increasing elevation. Brown’s is the highest point in the Mazatzals and Maricopa County, while Amethyst hosts the only commercial amethyst mine in the United States. This passage passes through the southern half of the full Mazatzal range. Unfortunately the area was greatly impacted by the Lone & Bush Fires, which burned much (though not all, as we will see) of the old ponderosa forest that had made the mountains one of the most popular long-distance stretches of the Arizona Trail. Yet the incredible geology, solitude, sunsets, and views remain for the hardy and prepared souls who venture into this special place. Bagworms spin magnificent webs here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation.

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Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

Welcome back to Aspen’s Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. I want to note that this hike was completed before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, but it has left me with quite a bit of time in quarantine to write up my experiences on the trail. Exiting the shadow of Elden Mountain, I … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 24: Elden Mountain, Part 3 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 31)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail: Schultz Pass (Passage 32, Elden Mountain)

The Arizona Trail wraps past golden oaks and aspens through Schultz Pass and innumerable drainages, then opens out to areas potentially impacted by the 1977 Radio Fire. Views of Elden Mountain open up, and I hike across US-89 through a tunnel, entering the Painted Canyon Preserve. Sunset clouds glow in the sky as I continue hiking south.

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Arizona Trail, Day 23: Flagstaff Zero (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 30)

Today is going to be a busy off day. I start it with a stop at Macy’s European Coffeehouse, an awesome breakfast place in downtown Flagstaff. They make particularly great waffles, but given the hiker hunger that all thruhikers suffer from, I add a smoothie and a breakfast sandwich for good measure today. I always make a point to stop here when I’m in Flag.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: Dry Lake Hills to Flagstaff (Passage 33, Flagstaff)

The trail crosses to the flanks of Elden Mountain and continues to drop down toward Flagstaff. It crosses the Coconino National Forest border onto McMillan Mesa and into Buffalo Park, managed by Flagstaff. A wide rice grass meadow composes much of the park, crisscrossed with wide paths providing magnificent views of the San Francisco Peaks. Just magnificent, especially seen now in the late afternoon.

Arizona Trail, Day 22: Flagstaff, Part 2 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 28)

The gambel oaks are glorious with the light passing through the leaves, and the views of Elden Mountain – the other side of which was “apocalyptically burned” in the 1970s Radio Fire, according to my AZT guidebook – are spectacular. Mule deer graze among the rice grass and trees. The gambel oaks continue to look incredible. It’s amazing how as I progress south I seem to be seeing the progression of the foliage across different tree species as well as within the species. Makes for an ever changing and spectacular color display.

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Arizona Trail, Day 21, Part 2: Heart of the San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 27)

The Arizona Trail continues through massive groves of mature aspen and across rice grass meadows below the San Francisco Peaks. Contouring around below Humphreys and Agassiz Peaks, the two highest in Arizona, the view of the Peaks themselves and the western San Francisco Volcanic Field, over to Kendrick Peak and Bill Williams Mountain near Williams, is wide-open and magnificent.

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Passage 21 (Four Peaks)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)19
SeasonMarch-May, September-November
Potential Water SourcesPigeon Spring (Mi 421.6 NB, 421.6 SB)
Bear Spring (mi 400.6 NB, 422.5 SB)
Shake Spring (mi 392.5 NB, 423.4 SB)
Granite Spring (mi 391.5 NB, 431.3 SB)
Buckhorn Creek (mi 390.5 NB, 432.9 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Lone Pine Saddle
South: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; via graded dirt road
South: Vehicular access (parking at Roosevelt Lake Marina)
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix (north end)
Roosevelt Lake Marina (south end)
Farther, Globe and Tonto Basin
ATA-Rated DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Precipitous terrain limits options, but there are some spots around Mills Ridge Trailhead & the Chillicut Trail junction
Ecosystems TraversedArizona Upland
Interior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
Highlights Four Peaks
Views of Tonto Basin & Roosevelt Lake
SOBO, first saguaro appearance on trail
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Interior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Day 55 on the Arizona Trail. I spent the morning on job applications for next summer, my highest priority region in the Pacific Northwest/Alaska. I still managed to get a few miles of backpacking in today beneath the incredible Four Peaks. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well – a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire.

Two campers left a campfire smouldering in 1996 near Lone Pine Saddle without extinguishing it properly. Hundred year old pine trees were burned. For 11 days, the fire burned, consuming much of the Four Peaks Wilderness, greatly changing its characteristic experience from one focused on the old growth forest to one centered on, say, the views provided of the Peaks, Mazatzals, and Roosevelt Lake within Tonto Basin. Ultimately over 61,000 acres burned – then the largest fire in Arizona history. More recently, the Bush Fire in June 2020, another anthropogenic (human caused) fire, began at the intersection of Bush Hwy and AZ-87, going on to consume 193,455 acres, and hold the dubious distinction of being the largest fire actively burning in the US.

(If you missed my description of the Mazatzal Mountains, you can find that as well as logistics and ecology reports for the passage after the photos.)

Panorama looking north from backpacking the AZT near Pigeon Spring
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Hiking view toward Roosevelt Lake & Tonto Basin from near Pigeon Spring
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Entering the Four Peaks Wilderness
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Crest of the Mazatzal Mountains north of the Four Peaks, view backpacking the AZT near Pigeon Spring
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Roosevelt Lake, in Tonto Basin with the Sierra Ancha behind, seen backpacking the AZT in the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
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Panorama of Tonto Basin and Roosevelt Lake and the Sierra Ancha Mountains, viewed hiking the AZT in the Mazatzal Mountains Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunset over Roosevelt Lake in Tonto Basin, seen backpacking the AZT in the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Fall colors, hiking the AZT on the precipitous Mazatzal Mountain slopes
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Fall colors and surviving pine trees from the Lone Fire on the precipitous Mazatzal Mountain slopes, viewed backpacking the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Sunset on the Arizona Trail near the Four Peaks
Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

The Mazatzal Mountains themselves are an incredible place. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” Formed during an orogeny (a term referring to the process that creates mountains) when Arizona was a coastal region on the margin of what became North America, the Mazatzals gained their rugged nature as tectonic collisions compressed rock, lifting it and thrusting it above other rocks (overthrust). The Four Peaks, the highest points of the Mazatzals, tower above the Arizona Trail with a jagged face that makes it appear as though half the mountain was simply cut away. As the name suggests, there are indeed four Peaks – Amethyst Peak, Sister Peak, Brother Peak, and Brown’s Peak, in increasing elevation. Brown’s is the highest point in the Mazatzals and Maricopa County, while Amethyst hosts the only commercial amethyst mine in the United States. This passage passes through the southern half of the full Mazatzal range. Unfortunately the area was greatly impacted by the Lone & Bush Fires, which burned much (though not all, as we will see) of the old ponderosa forest that had made the mountains one of the most popular long-distance stretches of the Arizona Trail. Yet the incredible geology, solitude, sunsets, and views remain for the hardy and prepared souls who venture into this special place. Bagworms spin magnificent webs here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation.

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Arizona Trail, Day 21: Heart of the San Francisco Peaks (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 27)

As the trail ascends again to traverse the mountain flank, the ponderosas transition further to aspens and mixed conifer forest again. These seem to be slightly past peak in places, but many are still quite magnificent. The trail passes through mature forest and rice grass meadows as it contours along the lower slopes of the mountains below Humphreys and Agassiz Peaks, the two highest peaks in Arizona. The weather is perfect, and the aspen leaves glow in the high elevation light. I’ll let some of their beauty again speak for themselves here, before continuing on in the next entry.

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Arizona Trail, Day 18: Passage 35, Babbitt Ranch (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 24)

Well, I’ve officially found my least favorite part of the trail so far. The first 5 miles today from Moqui Stage Station to the border of the Kaibab National Forest are nice…and then the views disappear and a long roadwalk down a valley begins where one crosses into the Babbit Ranch Passage (Passage 35). The … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 18: Passage 35, Babbitt Ranch (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 24)

Arizona Trail, Day 17: Passage 36, Coconino Rim (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 23)

Today began with a continuation of the southward trek along the Coconino Rim. The rolling hike along the rim of the Coconino Plateau passes through a combination of ponderosas and, through the trees, views off the plateau toward the Navajo Nation. As the trail rises slowly back to the top of the rim and heads … Continue reading Arizona Trail, Day 17: Passage 36, Coconino Rim (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 15: Passage 37, Grand Canyon South Rim

Hiking across more limestone ridges on the Coconino Plateau past rice grass meadows, scrub, and pines with gambel oaks. The trail ultimately passes through an area that seems the subject of a recent prescribed burn shortly before I call it for the night. The oaks aren’t quite the aspens but they are putting on a good show as well.

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Passage 21 (Four Peaks)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)19
SeasonMarch-May, September-November
Potential Water SourcesPigeon Spring (Mi 421.6 NB, 421.6 SB)
Bear Spring (mi 400.6 NB, 422.5 SB)
Shake Spring (mi 392.5 NB, 423.4 SB)
Granite Spring (mi 391.5 NB, 431.3 SB)
Buckhorn Creek (mi 390.5 NB, 432.9 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Lone Pine Saddle
South: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; via graded dirt road
South: Vehicular access (parking at Roosevelt Lake Marina)
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix (north end)
Roosevelt Lake Marina (south end)
Farther, Globe and Tonto Basin
ATA-Rated DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Precipitous terrain limits options, but there are some spots around Mills Ridge Trailhead & the Chillicut Trail junction
Ecosystems TraversedArizona Upland
Interior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
Highlights Four Peaks
Views of Tonto Basin & Roosevelt Lake
SOBO, first saguaro appearance on trail
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Interior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Pine Mountain (Passage 21), FR 422 to Pigeon Spring Trailhead

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Cresting the climb up Boulder Creek, the Arizona Trail emerges onto FR 422 and begins to roll through the south-central Mazatzal Mountains. The vast majority of the route is in shrubland and allows magnificent views of the Mazatzals as well as Tonto Basin and the Sierra Ancha to the west. Sandstone spires rise above the trail, reminiscent of the landscape of Joshua Tree (albeit without the namesake trees). The rock seems to glow somewhat. The trail rolls through a basin and then the legendary, magnificent Four Peaks emerge over the ridgeline ahead. As the trail winds along the crest, the whole mountains appear, and one can look down off the mountains to the west into the Valley of the Sun and Phoenix, and to the east into Tonto Basin. I reach Pigeon Spring trailhead and encounter a couple from Phoenix out camping for the night. They refill my water to get me to Roosevelt Lake and invite me to eat with them while sharing stories from the trail. As night falls, I head partway back and find a pull off along the trail to sleep for the night. It’s striking how exceptionally dark the sky on the mountains and the Tonto Basin side remains despite how bright the light in the Phoenix sky is and how sprawling the development in the Valley is. I’m guessing that in addition to the topography helping block the light pollution, the lack of humidity in the air helps contain it as well (clouds tend to absorb and reflect/reemit light pollution, which is why light pollution is worse on cloudy nights than clear nights). Going to be great to see the views as the trail wraps around the Four Peaks themselves tomorrow.

Metro Phoenix can be accessed off of FR 422 and provides the main resupply option on this passage, though there’s also a way to cut across to AZ-188 as well on the northern segment of the passage, which provides the potential opportunity to cut to Tonto Basin as well. Water supplies is limited on the crest along 422; especially in the fall it’s probably best to assume it will not be available. There are quite a few spots to camp along 422 as well, though.

(If you missed my description of the Mazatzal Mountains, you can find that as well as logistics and ecology reports for the passage after the photos.)

Roosevelt Lake in Tonto Basin, viewed backpacking in the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail through the Mazatzal Mountains as the Four Peaks peek over the hill Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail beneath sandstone spires
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking the Arizona Trail through the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail beneath the rocky southern Mazatzal Mountain ridgelines
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Backpacking the Arizona Trail beneath the rocky southern Mazatzal Mountain ridgelines
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail beneath the rocky southern Mazatzal Mountain ridgelines
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Hiking the Arizona Trail toward the Four Peaks, the highest peaks in the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Four Peaks, the highest peaks in the Mazatzal Mountains, backpacking view from the AZT
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Sandstone boulders beside the Arizona Trail hiking south through the Mazatzal Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Boulder Mountain panorama, backpacking view from the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
View through the Mazatzal Mountains and across Tonto Basin to the Sierra Ancha
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
North backpacking panorama across the central Mazatzal Mountains (center) and Sierra Ancha (right) Mountains visible include Boulder Mountain, Mazatzal Peak, Mt Ord, Baker Butte, Houston Mesa, Gibson Peak, Edwards Peak, Neal Mountain, McDonald Mountain, and Sheep Basin Mountain
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
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Four Peaks at sunset, hiking view from the Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Sunset over the Valley of the Sun, backpacking view from the Arizona Trail near Pine Mountain
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest
Phoenix at night from the Arizona Trail in the Mazatzal Mountains south of Pine Mountain
Arizona Trail, Passage 21 (Pine Mountain)
Tonto National Forest

The Mazatzal Mountains, themselves are an incredible place. The origin of the name “Mazatzal” is unclear, though one possible meaning is a Nahuatl term meaning “place of the deer.” Formed during an orogeny (a term referring to the process that creates mountains) when Arizona was a coastal region on the margin of what became North America, the Mazatzals gained their rugged nature as tectonic collisions compressed rock, lifting it and thrusting it above other rocks (overthrust). We’ll see the resulting folding in the next entry during a short side hike on the Barnhardt Trail. Mazatzal Peak, the highest point of the Northern Mazatzals, towers 1700 ft above the trail with a jagged west face that makes it appear as though half the mountain was simply cut away. This passage passes through the northern half of the full range. Unfortunately the area was greatly impacted by the Willow & Sunflower Fires, which burned much (though not all, as we will see) of the old ponderosa forest that had made the mountains one of the most popular long-distance stretches of the Arizona Trail. Yet the incredible geology, solitude, sunsets, and views remain for the hardy and prepared souls who venture into this special place. Bagworms spin magnificent webs here, and temperatures are relatively tolerable outside of winter, when snow can make stretches impassable for those without adequate preparation.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)

In the land of ArizonaThrough desert heat or snowWinds a trail for folks to followFrom Utah to Old MexicoIt’s the Arizona TrailA pathway through the great SouthwestA diverse track through wood and stoneYour spirit it will testOh, sure you’ll sweat and blisterYou’ll feel the miles every dayYou’ll shiver at the lonelinessYour feet and seat will … Continue reading Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: North Kaibab Trail, Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls (Day 8 – Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 8: Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon, Part 1 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Day 15)

Grabbed a few things at the general store on the North Rim of Grand Canyon today, then packed up camp. The park has a number of special sites at the campground, available first-come, first-served, to those who hike or bike into the park. I then proceed over to the Backcountry Information Center, and get put … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 8: Passage 38, Grand Canyon Inner Canyon, Part 1 (Trans-Arizona/Utah Day 15)

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail: Grand Canyon National Park Boundary to Lindbergh Hill (Passage 39, Grand Canyon North Rim)

To the south lies the San Francisco volcanic field, topped by the majestic San Francisco Peaks rising above. I’ll go into it in more detail as I approach them, but for now I’ll note that were it not for the canyon, the Peaks would be the most famous geological feature in Arizona. Humphreys Peak, the highest point, stands at 12,633 feet. The Arizona Trail will reach and wrap directly around their flank on the journey south. The city of Flagstaff lies immediately beyond, at the foot of the mountain on the south side. Through the trees one can make out the rim of the canyon, but the dominant view in the foreground is the aspen foliage mixed with spruce/fir and ponderosa forest. Grand Canyon National Park fills the foreground with aspen foliage mixed with spruce/fir and ponderosa forest. Heading back down the road, I head west on the AZT to the park entrance and then south through the aspens toward the Rim.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail, Day 6, Part I: Passage 40, Kaibab Plateau South

I’m on the trail early, hiking south toward the northern boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. As I noted in an earlier entry, one of the perils of combining being a seasonal ranger and thruhiking in the offseason (or shoulder seasons) is that one must make oneself available for interviews in sometimes inconvenient times or places. I owe a park a return call at some point today. Based on the tip I received from a nobo hiker yesterday, I hope to have service at the East Rim Overlook about 2 miles south of my campsite last night. Hiking south, the trail passes through even more glorious aspens as well as beautiful subalpine conifer forest on its way to the overlook . Logistics and ecological details follow the photos.

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