Born and raised in Asheville, NC Kersten Vasey is a freelance photographer, producer, writer & gluten enthusiast who now calls Colorado home.
In 1985, a teacher from Flagstaff named Dale Shewalter hiked the length of Arizona to begin plotting out the route that would eventually connect sky island mountain range ecosystems, quaint gateway communities, the Sonoran Desert, the Mogollon Rim, Coconino National Forest, the Grand Canyon, and more in a long-distance hiking trail now known as the Arizona National Scenic Trail. Roughly 70% of the trail winds through national forest public lands, and, just before Shewalter passed away in 2010, the Arizona Trail aka AZT was finally designated a National Scenic Trail. The final portions were completed in 2011.
Several hundred people thru-hike the entire trail each year, and thousands more access “passages,” or short sections of the trail. (Check out my recent trip report and photo essay from hiking a 100 mile section in northern Arizona to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.) Thru-biking the trail has become increasingly popular, too, even though portions are through wilderness where mountain biking is not allowed, or simply too technical to ride. Mountain bikers who want to stay on trail through the Grand Canyon disassemble and hike their bikes from rim to rim.
817 miles (but exact distance may vary based on occasional reroutes)
The Arizona Trail traverses the state of Arizona a little more than 800 miles from the trailhead at the Mexican border in the Huachuca Mountains to the Utah border between Page and Fredonia (and Kanab on the Utah side), near Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. The trail skirts Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff and sticks to Arizona State Parks and other designated public land management areas while passing through the state's local ranges like the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, and the Superstition Mountains and Mazatzal Mountains near Phoenix. The route offers plenty of diversions, such as the climb up Humphreys Peak in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, the highest point in the state, and overlaps with other trails such as the Mazatzal Divide Trail near Hwy 87 northeast of Phoenix.
Challenging. While the Arizona Trail is relatively short compared to a Triple Crown hike (like the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, or Appalachian Trail), its difficulty lies in managing a wide range of harsh climates, extreme weather swings, water source availability, and intense elevation gains and losses (especially in the southern half of the trail, and through the Grand Canyon). Plan on working up to higher mileage days and taking some “zeros” and “neros” without much movement due to resupplies and unforeseen circumstances.
Best Time to Hike
How you approach the Arizona Trail might change depending on the time of year you plan to go. In the spring, plan on starting in March at the Mexico border (hiking northbound, or NOBO). In the fall, most hikers start in October at the Utah border (SOBO). On average, thru-hikers complete the journey in six to eight weeks (though the current self-supported FKT is 14 days and 12 hours at time of publishing).
Water management is critical in Arizona: scarcity will depend on the amount of snowfall and rain the state receives during the winter and summer monsoon season. Hikers must be prepared for triple digit heat in warmer months, as well as snowfall on the Kaibab Plateau and higher elevations in May and October. Keep in mind the facilities on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are only open May 15th through October 15th, pending snowfall.
The Arizona Trail Association is a non-profit based in Tucson that manages the trail and the corresponding website, Aztrail.com. The site contains a wealth of information ranging from waypoint access to trail angel contacts. There are also Facebook groups for those attempting the thru-hike by year. Active users are known to help with terminus shuttles, water caches, resupply info, and more. There are lots of friendly folks who want to provide a bit of trail magic as well. Check out the public page from 2021 for an example (you must request to join the group for 2023).
Though the majority of the AZT does not require a permit, certain sections require one for overnight camping: Colossal Cave (passage 8), Saguaro National Park (passage 9), and Grand Canyon National Park (passage 38). It is also recommended that you obtain a State Land Recreation Permit if you plan on exploring or camping beyond the trail at any point. It can be rather difficult to obtain a backcountry permit for Grand Canyon National Park, but Cottonwood and Bright Angel Campgrounds both have stock sites (for equestrian passage) that allow for one AZT group stay per night. Make sure to visit the Backcountry Information Center when you arrive and ask for permission as a thru-hiker to use one of these sites.
The FarOut app (formally called Guthook) is a must-have for thru-hikers and thru-riders who want to stay up-to-date on trail conditions, good camping spots, water sources, and reroutes. The app allows for offline use and lets users leave comments with helpful tips for hikers and bikers who follow.
Resupply and Refuel
There are plenty of resupply options at gateway communities on or close to the trail. Hikers and gateway communities enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, as hikers bring money into towns and towns provide lodging, food, and friendly faces. Backpacking Routes published a thorough resupply guide that should aid in planning stops. From Patagonia in the south to Jacob Lake near the Utah border, gateway communities are a huge part of why the AZT is so special.
Keep It Brief
Only have time for a short hike along the AZT? Check out the ATA website to get detailed information and waypoints for each passage. Or, check out a local author’s account of 30 of the most scenic sections here.
Arizona has been inhabited by Indigenous people for over 10,000 years. Today, the Grand Canyon State is home to the Ak-Chin Indian Community (Ak-Chin O’odham); Cocopah Indian Tribe (Kwapa); Colorado River Indian Tribes (Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo); Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation (Abaaja); Fort Mojave Tribe (Pipa Aha Macav); Gila River Indian Community (Akimel O’odham); Havasupai Tribe (Havasuw `Baaja); Hopi Tribe (Hopi); Hualapai Tribe (Hualapai); Kaibab-Paiute Tribe (Kai’vi’vits); Navajo Nation (Diné); Pascua Yaqui Tribe (Yoeme); Pueblo of Zuni (A:shiwi); Quechan Tribe (Quechan); Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (Onk Akimel O’odham and Xalychidom Piipaash); San Carlos Apache Tribe (Ndé); San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe (Kwaiantikowkets); Tohono O’odham Nation (Tohono O’odham); Tonto Apache Tribe (Te-go-suk); White Mountain Apache Tribe (N’dee); Yavapai-Apache Nation (Wipuhk’a’bah and Dil’zhe’e); and Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe (Wipuhk’a’bah).