Sand, Snow and Solitude

Mercurial Weather
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon

Tourist information about even the most well-watered sectionssay the highlands atop the Mogollon Rim trumpets the fishing and boating opportunities, and then sheepishly admits that sometimes the lakes all dry up.

Forest Service pamphlets contain information like, "Do not be misled by the many lakes pictured on the maps," and "The water-smoothed stones give one the pleasant feeling of being near a brook even if you have to imagine the babble."

Creature Comforts

Throughout the entire length of the Arizona Trail, there is not one segment where a hiker can pass a water source with a casual "I feel fine now, I'll fill up at the next one."

Our first night's campsite notwithstanding, most of the seasonal sourcesand some of the supposedly permanent ones - are dry.

By the time we finish the first leg of our trip, I am ready to come up with my own list of reasons never to hike in the desert. I imagine the ghost of Edward Abbey having the last laugh, and my only criticism is that maybe his warnings weren't quite strong enough.

Slinking into the town of Payson to resupply and lick my wounds, it occurs to me to abscond with my half of the hiking gear north to Utah, or better yet, Colorado, where all you have to cope with in June is falling thigh-deep in semi-soft sun-cupped snow.

Instead, in the air-conditioned hotel room, I turn on the tap and watch the water run, and run, and run.

Six Zones of Separation

Lack of water is one constant factor on the Arizona Trail. Change is the other. As we head north from Payson, the trail is about to display its chameleon character. Leaving the Sonoran Desert, we climb to the Mogollon Rim, the great escarpment that marks the edge of the Colorado Plateau.

Here in the transition zone, ponderosas offer some shade from the glaring sun. Temperatures are cooler. In the distance, I see a blinding white cloud in an otherwise flawless sky, and after squinting to be sure, I realize that what I am seeing is snow atop Humphrey's Peak, at 12,643 feet, the state's highest point.

Arizonans are fond of pointing out that their state contains six of the seven climactic zones in North America, the ecological equivalent of walking from Mexico to Canada.

This is not merely a figure of speech: In the San Francisco Mountains, it snows on us, hard, on the 17th of June. In the Grand Canyon, our thermometer registers a daytime temperature of 118 degrees; two mornings later on the North Rim, it has dropped to 22 and there is ice in our water bottles.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »