By David Schaller
The Arizona Trail is 800 miles long and stretches from Mexico to Utah, crossing our state’s deserts, mountains, canyons, forests, and large swaths of wilderness. There is even a small portion of the trail that threads an urban path through Flagstaff before connecting again on either side to the open spaces of the Coconino National Forest. If you’re reading this in Payson, Globe, Page, Oracle, Sahuarita or other spots near the trail, you are in an Arizona Trail Gateway Community, poised at one of the over 30 such jumping off points for access to the Arizona Trail and adventure hiking.
Arizona’s great wilderness champion Edward Abbey once wrote: “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for.” It is hardly possible to travel 800 miles too fast. Thus, time on the Arizona Trail is precisely the antidote for a world of stress and urban solitude that Abbey so passionately sought. Inspired by the more publicized journeys of Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail hiking enthusiasts, Arizonans are now responding to the lure of their own ultra-trail challenge and walking the Arizona Trail.
The Arizona Trail links communities, cultures, history and landscape as it provides a non-motorized passage for walkers and hikers to cross the length of Arizona. Something this unique and consequential did not happen by accident. Little more than 20 years ago, an idea became a plan. The Arizona Trail Association was created to help stitch together existing trail networks, build new ones where none had existed, and then maintain the cross-state marvel that the Arizona Trail is today. At the end of 2017, the Association had a membership of 1,500 people dedicated to the monumental task of safeguarding a trail more than 30 marathons in length and crossing all major climatic zones in the state.
Each year, a growing number of us resolve to complete the full extent of this trail. Some seek to do it in one continuous through-hike, a trek often measured in weeks, while others prefer Abbey’s more leisurely approach and take its 43 distinct “passages” one by one, sometimes over a period of years. Even a day on the Arizona Trail is worth the effort. It’s a fair bet that if you’ve spent any significant time in Arizona’s outdoor country, you’ve likely walked on a portion of the Arizona Trail, perhaps without knowing it. Association Executive Director Matthew Nelson said, “The last passage to be built was that through the challenging Gila River Canyons.” In other places, to improve the overall hiking experience “we are building new trail to replace segments of road,” he added.
Since its inception, the Arizona Trail Association has trained and organized thousands of volunteers to protect the work already invested in the trail. The task is immense and never-ending, as 800 miles of trail are subject to everything from major disruptive events like rockfalls and floods, to the smaller, erosional damages from everyday wind, rain and human footprint. Volunteer crews are mobilized annually as there are always places along the trail where priority maintenance and repair work is needed.
The Association has opened the door to statewide opportunities for green living in practice. They have given a chance for us to build camaraderie while paying forward one generation’s gift to those who will hike the Arizona Trail in the future. Nelson invites Arizonans to volunteer their time for upcoming 2018 trail work and donate to support the protection of this long and winding passage across our state.
For more information on how to become part of the Arizona Trail community, contact the Association at aztrail.org.
David Schaller is a retired environmental scientist living in Tucson, where he writes on climate, water and energy security.