Featured, Outdoors, Travel

How Alaskan Hikers Survive Winter: The Arizona National Scenic Trail

By Kelley Lane for Seward City News-

The Arizona National Scenic Trail had been on our radar since 2014, when I met a fellow hiker who had completed it a few years earlier. “You’ll have to rent a car partway through, buy water and then drive around to cache it for yourself,” said Brian Adams, who was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail at the time. Adams explained that the Arizona Trail traverses long desert sections with few or no natural water sources. Sometimes there are cattle tanks of varying types that draw water out of the aquifer and deposit it into metal, cement or dirt tanks. These tanks are intended for cattle, but hikers can use them. The cost is time intensive filtering and forcing oneself to get past the disgust factor of drinking water with visible cow drool, hair, footprints and, occasionally, feces.

Adams talked about the beauty of the trail as well, but mostly what I heard was the challenge of dealing with having enough water. Still, I was interested, because it’s a trail that must be hiked in the shoulder seasons, and thus is considered a “winter hiking trail,” as it can be hiked in October-November and March-May. Our current lifestyle and work demands, as is true for many people who live in Alaska, necessitate that we work the summers here. This financial and social reality means that most of the long distance hiking trails aren’t realistic for Alaskans, because they require hikers to walk their miles during Alaska’s busy months, May through September.

Horny Toad spotted amongst the rough trail tread of the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

In March and April of this year, we quickly pulled together a last minute plan and got ourselves to Tucson to start the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT). The AZT is an 800 mile route that traverses the length of the state, from the Mexico border to Utah. The trail met our criteria:  1)somewhere that we could hike while it was too cold and snowy in Alaska, 2) a place that we could get to through normal means of transportation, and 3) somewhere that we could resupply along the way, thus eliminating the step of pre-purchasing and shipping food to ourselves.Arizona is well known as a dry climate, and as such, water sources are one of the first things to consider when planning a thru hike. A “thru hike” is a long distance hiking term that indicates a hiker’s intent to hike the length of a given trail, from one end to the other end, all in one go, without leaving the trail for an extended length of time. In the hiking world, it is considered a privilege and an honor to be able to hope for, and especially, to execute a successful thru-hike. When we decided to fly to Arizona to hike, we didn’t know if we’d be able to do it as a “thru,” but we figured that we’d give it a shot. As such, we needed to start at the southern terminus, which is about a 2 hour drive south of Tucson. We were fortunate to connect with Trail Angel Howard, who picked us up at our friend’s house in Tucson and drove us right to the trailhead in Coronado National Monument. A trail angel is someone who gives support to hikers, offering rides, meals, lodging or logistical help.

Forest fires raging in a different part of the state made for a gorgeous sunset in the Superstition Mountains.

 

Advertisement

North of Oracle, Arizona, clouds gathering in the distance.

The first section of the Arizona National Scenic Trail starts and stays high, a 50 mile section that ends in the small town of Patagonia. We struggled through this section, our bodies adjusting to the new demands that we were placing on them of carrying backpacks and walking on rough, rocky trail tread at 7,000 feet and higher. Upon reaching Patagonia, we were eager to shed weight from our packs, and at the same time, to buy more junk foods. For the next two months, chili cheese fritos were one of our staple foods. We bought groceries, stayed with new friends for a night in their little hobbit house, and then departed town the next morning. We stayed fresh for a couple of hours, thanks to the showers that we had enjoyed in Patagonia. Then the dust and sweat saturated us, a state of being that would become normal on the trail. Our packs weighed about 35 pounds each, including a 2 pound, 2-person tent, sleeping bags and pads, clothing, assorted gear and about 20 pounds of food and water. We carried too much water on the front end of the hike, the first few hundred miles, as we learned what to expect in terms of finding water along the route. This meant that we usually had between 2-6 quarts each, thus we carried 4-12 pounds of water.

Tarantula nest dug into the trail tread in southern Arizona.

The trail miles changed our bodies quickly, and our appetites. Instead of the usual meat and vegetable diet that we eat in Seward, we found ourselves craving and consuming pop tarts, excessive amounts of anything salty and crunchy, as well as Snickers candy bars. Each time we reached a town, we would head straight to the deli to buy fried chicken and a tub of potato salad, with various treats thrown in, such as a 16 ounce container of whole fat yogurt in the Grand Canyon gateway town of Tusayan. We added a bag of frozen fruit to it and ate the whole thing within a couple of hours.

The AZT stayed high for most of its 800 miles, ranging between a low of 3,000 feet near LF Ranch in the Mazatzals to a high of 9,300 feet near Snowbowl Ski Resort, north of Flagstaff. The variety of ecosystems was astounding, from riparian zones, wet and lush with vegetation, to high and dry ridges. We walked through two national parks, Saguaro East and Grand Canyon, as well as hundreds of miles of public lands in the form of national forests and state lands. I found that the most challenging sections ended up being my favorite, such as the 5,000 foot climb up to Manning Camp in Saguaro National Park. When we traversed the Babbitt Ranches, we found no water sources for more than 30 miles, but the ease of terrain allowed us to walk our longest mileage day of the trail, 25.5 miles.

There’s plenty more that I could say about being on the trail, which is my favorite way to see a place. At 3 miles per hour, one can soak in the topography, see the animals and feel the weather intimately. The changing elevation and temperature heavily impact hikers, allowing them to know a place in a special way. The Arizona National Scenic Trail made me fall in love all over again with long distance hiking. I once again experienced the generosity of strangers in small towns, who helped us complete the trek. The last day on the trail, when we reached the Utah border was both a triumph, because we had made it, and a readjustment, because our great adventure was complete. Until next time.

At the start of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, Montezuma Pass in Coronado National Monument, author Kelley Lane with Reed Lane.

Advertisement

Comments are closed.