Arizona Trail – Post Trip Report – Myths, Perceptions & Realities Unveiled

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”

With all this rain, we definitely experienced humidity (and mud).

Myth 3: It’s always at least 100 degrees

We experienced wide ranging temperature variations, from freezing to HOT! It’s important to come prepared for both extremes.

Myth 4: There are no trees or streams in Arizona

There are REAL mountains in Arizona with REAL trees, vegetation such as ferns and natural waterways.

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

The only evidence we saw was Border Patrol, and one small pile of debris obviously discarded by illegals.

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

Everything was stickery and prickery. I was glad to be wearing full coverage snag resistant clothing, and even so experienced several painful pokes and pricks.

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.

Relevant Links:

Tips and Resources:


13 thoughts on “Arizona Trail – Post Trip Report – Myths, Perceptions & Realities Unveiled

  1. I am so happy your perception as been changed for
    ever. I love the desert, but only because I have been able to spend enough time in it to understand and appreciate it. You were there at the perfect time this year! Wonderful and descriptive blog!

  2. Twinkle will be of little help when it comes to fit. I taught him (& all 3 other) kids to sew when they were young. He got into ultralite early, and sewed his own tarp, sleeping pad, sleeping bag and about 3 backpacks so far. He really has the knack for it! The problem is we live thousands of miles apart, and I’m lucky yo see him twice a year. He’s either in busy season (he’s an accountant) OR he’s out hiking and rock climbing. His love of nature came from me, but gypsy blood & wanderlust runs deep on both sides. All 4 kids are very well traveled. Saw all the lower 48 as kids. Our graduation gift to them was a trip abroad. They picked: Sicily & Greek Isles, Argentina, Italy and Spain/Portugal. Great kids all college graduates, two with Master’s, and youngest (24) is finishing up a 2-year gig in Teach for America. I’d guess law school is in her future. We are blessed to have raised such great human beings!

    • It was a good mix of discomfort and awe. Thankfully having a partner who also valued preparedness and safety, and who was analytical and perceptive made for a positive growth experience.

      I’m reading Joan’s posts now (didn’t want to be influenced by her thoughts while I was writing my own) and they contain significantly more emotional detail. Well worth a read if you get a chance.

      • Will do… When baby girl is tucked up in bed i read hiking blogs and dream! Lol. I’ll go visit Joan’s blog too, have been meaning to get over there!

            • Thanks so much. Did you and/or Joan meet Twinkle on the PCT last year? BTW, my trail name is Pigpen. I hope we cross paths some time. Twinkle’s doing the CDT starting next month. I plan to do some biking (for a cycling trip this fall) which should help build my endurance. Then smaller hikes such as the North Country trail, as it goes through my home state of Michigan. My husband is retiring 2016 & wants to do some hikes with me. The NCT along the Southern shore of Lake Superior is a great start – it’s very hilly, in the Porcupine Mountains, and the hike is quite technical. I know this because we did it as a family when my oldest daughter was home on leave from the Navy, and the kids all hiked a large section with us. BTW, the NCT national HQ us 40 miles from here. It’s the geographical center of the trail. Plus I’m reading “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” right now. If she can do it, so can we.

  3. Terrific overview of your hike on the AZT. Liked the perceptions versus reality. Helpful.
    Should I do the AZT next year after I finish the PCT.
    See you on the trail.
    Dana Law

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