Sand, Snow and Solitude

Picketpost Mountain
Picketpost Mountain
A Work in Progress

The fledgling Arizona Trail is the country's newest long trail, and one of its most scenic and diverse.

The border-to-border dream has made remarkable progress toward a bona fide pathway in the 14 years since Flagstaff teacher and hiking enthusiast Dale Shewalter first proposed the idea to the Arizona State Parks Board.

"Our vision is to have a primitive, non-motorized trailsingle track wherever possiblefrom one end of the state to the other by the year 2,000," says Eric Smith, the Arizona Trail Steward from 1994 to 1996.

About 70 percent of the trail passes through Forest Service land, and another 15 percent through national park and Bureau of Land Management land. But trail organizers are quick to point out that this is not just a federal government effort.

With a long list of donors and participants and volunteers from both the private and public sector, the Arizona Trail Association is well on its way to its goal of having the entire trail finished by the year 2000.



Stuck at home in a New York winter, sunny Arizona had sounded like the promised land. Searching for a new long trail to hike, my husband Dan and I had stumbled onto a brochure describing the new, not-yet-completed 750-mile long Arizona Trail.

Just hearing where it goes tells you that it's got to be one of the most diverse trails in the country: from Mexico to Utah through the Huachuca, Santa Rita, Rincon, Santa Catalina, and San Francisco Mountains, large segments of Sonoran Desert the Mogollon Rim, several wilderness areas, and, as if that wasn't enough, the Grand Canyon.

Contributing to the trail's variety is the unique geography of Arizona's mountains, which, unlike the mountains of other long trails (think of the Appalachian Trail or the Continental Divide), are discrete ranges, not one long, connected system.

Ridgeline trails contain plenty of diversity over their entire length, but they tend to stay in the same general ecological zone for long periods at a time.

By contrast, the Arizona Trail climbs and slides along the state's jagged and abrupt mountains in a constant ecological rollercoaster ride: up to the ponderosas, down to the pinons, up to the oaks, down to the saguaros.

Desert Islands

This geography gives rise to the so-called sky-island phenomenon, in which populations of alpine and subalpine species, isolated from each other by the surrounding sea of desert, evolve differently (think of Darwin's Galapagos).

Several plant species you'll find here exist nowhere else on earth, along with animals, like the coatimundi, that rarely wander north of the Mexican border.

Adding to the diversity are the riparian corridors, which in a desert attract local residents and migratory visitors from miles around. An Arizona Trail hiker who is both lucky and observant might see mountain lions, bighorn sheep, coyotes, javelinas, elk, and antelope.

Finding your way remains a challenge on the unfinished Arizona Trail, and even when the trail is in placeas it was in the Four Peaks Wilderness, it can be badly overgrown and elusive.

And then there are the usual challenges of any southwestern hikeissues on the order of rattlesnakes, water shortages, and the violent implacable sun. In June.


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