I lived in the Phoenix area for about 5 years, back in the late 80’s. I didn’t like anything about Arizona at that time in my life, except maybe the novelty of mild winter temperatures. Yes, it was fun to wear shorts on Christmas and share cactus-themed holiday cards. For about a year, I traveled to many rural areas around Arizona and clearly remember describing to others the barren ugliness of it all. I wasn’t a hiker back then, but always appreciated scenic landscapes and was extremely homesick for mountains, big beautiful west coast mountains.
It’s been from this perspective that I’ve described Arizona and desert environments. Certainly not a place I had any interest in revisiting, except maybe Sedona, although much too touristy, and the Grand Canyon where I’d previously enjoyed day trips. So thanks to Sirena and Joan, I had an opportunity to reconsider my perceptions of this harsh landscape by hiking 300 miles of the Arizona Trail in March 2015.
Myth 1: It never rains in Arizona (except during Monsoon season)
We had rain at least 4 out of 24 days, plus the day before we started the trail. It’s March, not July or August when monsoons can be expected. It rained hard one night and for a short period one day while hiking. We were glad to have our double-duty umbrellas and rainproof outerwear and shelters.
Myth 2: It’s a “dry heat”
Myth 3: It’s always at least 100 degrees
Myth 4: There are no trees or streams in Arizona
Myth 5: There are no REAL mountains in Arizona
During this 300 mile segment, the low spot was about 2,500′ and the high 9,400′. We spent most days either ascending or descending REAL mountains. This trail is not for out-of-shape hikers, nor those looking for flat easy fast terrain.
Myth 6: There are no flowers in Arizona wilderness (except cactus)
I was astonished by the number and diversity of wildflowers we found. We were a bit earlier for cactus blooms and only got to see one, but friends who were a couple weeks later have seen both wildflowers and lots of cactus flowers. There are many wildflower photos within my Passage 1-17 posts.
Myth 7: Illegals and drug runners are everywhere
Reality 1: Only a small portion of Saguaro NP has wall-to-wall saguaros
I was expecting Saguaro National Park to be packed with a fantastic display of saguaros, but within the 17.5 mile segment of trail which passes through the park, only a couple miles include wide-sweeping views of saguaros, the rest is either forest at high elevation and desert at lower elevation. This was the first saguaro we saw, 11-12 miles from the northern boundary.
Reality 2: Water can be disgusting and sparsely available
The water report was key and even more important was learning how to use both the report and the resources. Cattle troughs and tanks all require special skills. I included some tips in my Passage 14 post. Joan wrote a very helpful and detailed blog post.
Reality 3: The vegetation is not human friendly
Reality 4: Navigation can be challenging
The Arizona Trail is still considered young when compared to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or Appalachian Trail (AT). As such, signage is inconsistent, sometime confusing and non existent. By joining the Arizona Trail Association we’d downloaded the trail track and waypoints to our GPS phone apps which was extremely helpful. Additionally we had the databook, which we used extensively, and paper maps. Joan wrote a detailed post about navigating the AZT.
Reality 5: It can be a lonely trail
There were days when we saw no one, others when we might see a few comrades. The number of annual thru-hikers is still small, most likely totaling less than 25. This is a shared trail, with plenty of day and section users, especially bikers and equestrians but you’re likely to see more cows or ATV’ers than our friends on two feet carrying small backpacks.
YES, my perceptions have been changed forever! I will never again describe Arizona and desert environments as barren ugliness. In fact, I look forward to completing the remaining 500 miles of the Arizona Trail. I’m also reconsidering my previous decision to skip the first 800 miles of the PCT. This trail opened my mind to so many other possibilities such as the Grand Enchantment Trail, the Hayduke Trail, the Continental Divide Trail which all contain long stretches of desert.
- What to Expect on the Arizona Trail by Joan (aka Rambling Hemlock)
Tips and Resources:
- Link to my other Arizona Trail (AZT) posts
- Rambling Hemlock (aka Joan)
- Arizona Trail Association
- Fred Gaudet’s Water Report
- Umbrella and Mariposa Pack Links
- Disclaimer: As a Gossamer Gear Ambassador, I was gifted the pack, but paid for all the rest of my gear