The Arizona Trail, Day 3: Northern and Central Kaibab Plateau (Trans-Arizona/Utah Hike Day 10)

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 across the northern Kaibab today and onto the central (Passage 41).

I encounter my first AZT hiker, Eric, to whom I give a great recommendation for Vermilion Cliffs – anyone who read my entries for the first week of this trek surely knows why. I also encounter some friends from Grand Canyon who were out for a trail run after attending the condor release conducted by the Peregrine Fund at Vermilion Cliffs today. My only regret about this hike was that the timing prevented me from attending, so it was good to hear how that went. I’m sure word of my trek will now make it back to Grand Canyon for my return there in the near future.

The trail winds through extensive ponderosa groves and some large meadows created by wildfires. While smaller fires that clear out underbrush and allow additional nutrients and space is a natural occurrence in the ponderosa forests of the Colorado Plateau – on which sit many smaller, higher plateaus like the Kaibab – large scale fires that reach the crowns of trees can destroy wider sections of forest and subsequently replace it with rice grass meadows. Ricegrass is a common pioneer species – one of the first to move into an area after a disturbance has occurred.

Backpacking through ponderosa pines dominating the route of the Arizona Trail across the northern Kaibab Plateau
AZT Passage 42 (Kaibab Plateau North)
Kaibab National Forest
Hiking through ponderosa pines that dominate the route of the Arizona Trail across the northern Kaibab Plateau
Arizona Trail, Passage 42 (Kaibab Plateau North)
Kaibab National Forest

After 5 miles, I cross US-89 and enter Passage 41, the central Kaibab. In the next few miles, the first aspens are sighted. Like the ricegrass, aspens are a pioneer species, one of the first trees to appear after a disturbance. It appears that my hope of seeing some foliage color in the has been fulfilled. Fingers crossed that continues heading south.

After a few more miles, it’s camp for the night and a side hike to Jacob Lake for dinner. Some real food for the first time in almost a week and a half.

Greater short-horned lizard
Arizona Trail, Passage 42 (Kaibab Plateau North)
Kaibab National Forest
Backpacking the Arizona Trail, winding through rice grass and ponderosas on the northern Kaibab Plateau
AZT Passage 42 (Kaibab Plateau North)
Kaibab National Forest

My camp tonight is in a clearing thinned (though not completely exposed) by wildfires on the central Kaibab. I lay looking up at surviving ponderosas creaking and swaying in a gusty Kaibab breeze, one of the loudest winds I’ve ever heard, silhouetted against the light of the Milky Way stretched out across the heavens. I could hear others creaking unseen, the sound the only clue to their presence. Unreal. I’m not sure even if I had my real camera with me to capture that that it could do that moment justice. (If only I had a portable wind turbine as well as a solar panel. I could have charged everything off the breeze in that clearing tonight.)

Tomorrow morning, back to Jacob Lake for a real breakfast and then 15-20 miles down the trail through the central Kaibab.

Arizona Trail passing through an area burned by a wildfire
Kaibab National Forest
Camping among young aspen and ponderosa
Kaibab National Forest
Camping among young aspen in fall foliage on the northern Kaibab Plateau
Kaibab National Forest
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National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

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 – 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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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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Passage 42 ( Kaibab Plateau North)Passage 41 (Kaibab Plateau Central)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack Dirt singletrack
Length (Mi)17 17.2
SeasonSpring-fall best; extensive snow possible in winterSpring-fall. No vehicular access to this section December-April. Feet of snow in winter.
Potential Water SourcesRock Creek Apron (mi 13.3 SOBO/mi 775.4 NOBO)
Government Reservoir (mi 17.8 SOBO/ 770.9 NOBO)
Umbrella Tank (mi 20.3 SOBO/768.4 NOBO)
Ponderosa Trick Tank (mi 20 SOBO, 768.7 NOBO)
Orderville Trick Tank (mi 21 SOBO, 767.7 NOBO)
Wildlife Tank (mi 36.9 SOBO, 751.8 NOBO)
Cement Trough (mi 37.3 SOBO, 751.4 NOBO)
TrailheadsNorth: Winter Road
South: US-89A
North: US-89A
South: Telephone Hill
Trailhead AccessVehicular access. North trailhead dirt; south pavedVehicular access
WildernessNo, but it can feel like it outside of the 89 crossing at the south end.No, but it can feel like it. Most hikers in the area stick to the national park. Or are passing through to reach routes in the national park.
Possible resupply pointsJacob LakeJacob Lake
ATA-Rated DifficultyEasyEasy
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Various points throughout; terrain is not a limiting factor here. Various points throughout; terrain is not a limitation here. Avoid the burn area from the 2006 Warm Fire in the event of high winds, since shelter is nonexistent there.
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandGreat Basin Subalpine Conifer Forest
Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland

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Great Basin Subalpine Conifer Forest/Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Forest
Common Trees/Shrubs* Corkbark fir
* Gambel oak
* Quaking aspen
* White fir
* Blue spruce
* Engelmann spruce
* Buckwheats
* Currants
* Dwarf juniper
* Elderberry
* Fendler’s ceanothus
* Greenleaf Manzanita
* New Mexican locust
* Perry’s rabbitbrush
* Raspberry
* smooth sumac
* Snowberry
Common herbaceous plants* Bracken Fern
* Buckwheats
* Cinquefoils
* Columbines
* Fleabane daisies
* Geraniums
* goldeneye
* Goldenrods
* Groundsels
* Hairy golden aster
* Indian paintbrush
* Lotus
* Lupines
* Meadow-rue
* Parry’s bellflower
* Peavine
* Penstemons
* Puccoon
* Pussytoes
* Thistles
* Western & white prairie asters
* Wild strawberry
* Wormwood
* Yarrow
* Yellow hawkweed
Common succulentsPrickly pear, occasionally
Aquatic* Bulrush
* Buttercups
* Rushes
* Sedges
* Water plantains
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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Prologue: The Arizona Trail

I finally bit the bullet on a thruhike. Since I arrived at Grand Canyon National Park in March, I have been considering thruhiking the Arizona Trail across the state.

For those who don’t know, the Arizona Trail is an 800 mile long hiking trail across Arizona. It starts at the Utah state line, skirts Buckskin Mountain, climbs onto and crosses the Kaibab Plateau, crosses the Grand Canyon and Coconino Plateau. It skirts the mighty San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff and the town itself, and then runs to the southeast past Mormon Lake to the Mogollon Rim, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Dropping off and running beside the rim to the town of Pine, it passes within miles of the Fossil Creek Wilderness area before crossing several mesas and the East Verde River. It climbs into the rugged Mazatzal Mountains and traverses them to Roosevelt, then crosses the Superstitions and desert canyons to eventually reach the Sky Islands near Tucson. Climbing across Mount Lemmon and Santa Catalinas, it drops to Redington Pass before rising again through the Rincon Mountains in Saguaro National Park. It again enters desert but soon climbs again into the Santa Rita Mountains, passing directly below 9400 ft Mt Wrightson. Crossing the Canelo Hills, it makes a final climb into the Huachuca Mountains and ultimately drops to its southern terminus at the US/Mexico border at Coronado National Memorial.

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“The Arizona Trail”
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The hallmark of the Arizona Trail is diversity. Many long distance trails simply follow mountain ranges and focus on views. The AZT, by contrast, focuses on crossing each of the state’s ecosystems, from deserts to ponderosa forests, Sky Islands to riparian areas.

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Of course, this means that the challenges vary greatly along the trail; depending on the area and recent conditions, terrain, elevation, water availability and access to resupplies may all be challenges.

Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Kaibab National Forest



On September 21st, I set off to conquer this trail, adding 45 miles at the start through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to access the northern trailhead.

I have chosen it for three reasons: I wanted one that was unique, that relatively few people successfully achieve. The diversity appealed to me, as it is a novel approach to a trail. And I wanted one that would give me the confidence that no matter what I follow it with, I could do it. And, I’m already in Arizona after wrapping up my season at Grand Canyon. I also hope to raise funds for the Arizona Trail Association and National Park Foundation.

So, I’m coming for you, Arizona. Let’s see just what we are both truly made of.

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