The distance from Mexico to Utah by way of Arizona is 800-plus miles. That might seem a bit of a trudge on foot, but it’s a journey eminently worth accomplishing in a non-motorized mode if you follow a very special route through many of the best aspects of Arizona’s outback – the Arizona Trail.

A meandering thoroughfare that’s friendly to mountain bikers and equestrians as well as foot travelers, the Arizona Trail scrolls across the map, amid cactus-studded desert, over snow-capped peaks and through mile-deep gorges. It’s one of only 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States.

The fact that the Arizona Trail is not yet officially finished (30-some miles remain to be built, marked and signed) has not deterred hardy travelers who have for years been setting off overland, determined to put the 800 wilderness miles on their feet, tires, or hooves. Knowing that they may have to bushwhack over unmarked terrain for a few miles isn’t a problem. It’s the outdoor experience in the grandeur of the Southwest’s most scenic gem that matters.

Passages through distance, topography and history

0038.pngThis best of the best of Arizona hiking trails is broken down into 43 passages, ranging in length from 8.3 to 33.4 miles. Passage 1, designated Huachuca Mountains, heads north from a stone marker at the state’s international border with the Mexican state of Sonora. Passage 43, called Buckskin Mountain, winds down the last 10.8 miles of the trail on the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon, to eventually bump up against Utah. The passages in between not only take you through the most varied and beautiful terrain that Arizona has to offer, but also reveal the richness of the state’s history and cultures.

On the northern foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, the Arizona Trail crosses old mining claims, an unwise investment by famed Buffalo Bill Cody that proved his financial undoing. Further north along the Gila River, south of the town of Superior, the trail crosses a former stagecoach road where the Apache Kid, in 1889, made a violent escape from custody and vanished into legend. North and south of Roosevelt Lake, 700-year-old cliff dwellings once inhabited by Native American cultures gaze down silently as the Arizona Trail and its travelers pass their ancient doorsteps. High in the Mazatzal Mountains near Payson, Basque sheepherders once drove their flocks along the same paths that have become segments of the Arizona Trail today. 

Leave it to a schoolteacher

If falling in love with the Arizona Trail becomes an inevitable outcome of traversing its awe-inspiring expanse, perhaps it’s because the trail’s origins arose from one man’s love of the wilderness, and particularly hiking trails in Arizona. Dale Shewalter, a Flagstaff schoolteacher, conceived the idea of the Arizona Trail in the 1980s.

0037.pngFrom that point, the idea gathered momentum and enthusiasm almost exponentially. Individuals, government agencies and outdoor-savvy organizations embraced the burgeoning project and began years of coordinated efforts that included land acquisition and the pick-and-shovel labors of thousands of dedicated people who carefully crafted a route through the Arizona outback without defacing it. 

Today, the premier information resource and sustaining entity behind the Arizona Trail is the Arizona Trail Association (ATA). The group’s website constitutes a comprehensive Arizona Trail guide, including history, full descriptions of each of the 43 passages, current trail conditions and new developments on the way to completion (planned for the 100th anniversary of Arizona statehood in 2012). 

However, the best way to experience this magnificent venture is to strap on those hiking boots and hit the Arizona Trail.