It's hard for most people, let alone dogs, to grasp the concept of a through-hike. Walking 750 miles -- in the age of automobiles and jet planes and two-week vacations -- is a ridiculous idea to many folks. Like Sukha and I, most hikers travel long distance trails one section at a time, grabbing a weekend here and there whenever possible.
With the completion of the Arizona Trail, the Grand Canyon State will put itself on the long distance hiking map. When finished, the trail will extend from the Mexican border across deserts, mountains and canyons all the way to Utah. With the trail more than half-complete already, I decided it was high time for me to check out Arizona's contribution to through-hiking.
On the Trail
Sukha and I arrive in Patagonia on an early morning in September. I've decided to make my first foray on the Arizona Trail on a 40-mile section through the Santa Rita Mountains. The trail is being developed in "passages" all over the state, creating a patchwork of paths that offer a sampling of Arizona's diverse terrain. Most of the passages are ideal for weekend trips, offering up the Arizona Trail to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians in bite-size pieces, rather than the whole 750-mile feast.
For through-hikers who do attempt the whole distance, Patagonia will offer a comfortable place to rest and resupply before hitting the trail again. Patagonia is one of the few towns that sits directly in the Arizona Trail's path. Eventually, the route will be signed right through the historic town, linking the Santa Rita Passage with the Canello Hills Passage to the south.
For weekenders like me, Patagonia offers good coffee and friendly directions to Forest Road 72. From town, the Arizona Trail follows the forest road for 12 miles through the foothills of the Santa Ritas. Like other long distance routes, the Arizona Trail uses a combination of dirt roads, existing trails and new paths to cover the route's vast territory, so it's no surprise to find myself on an old jeep road at the start.
Brand new Arizona Trail signs point the way as I hike up the rough dirt road. I splash through a clear creek and continue on the other side while Sukha crosses and recrosses the stream three or four times. I can understand his reluctance to abandon the cool water.
The Santa Rita Passage starts at an elevation of about 5,000 feet and, though I can see the shady pines of the Mount Wrightson Wilderness ahead, prickly pear, yucca and sunshine dominate this section of the trail.
A recent monsoon rain has washed the sky. The air, the mountains, even the rocks and plants look scrubbed clean. Monsoon wildflowers -- yellow and purple and white -- dot the grassy fields on either side of the trail. The track climbs steadily into the Santa Ritas and, to Sukha's great relief, it crosses several more streams and creeks.
After several miles, the gradual incline takes me above the last of the ocotillo and into the first of the pines. The Santa Ritas, topping out at 9,453-foot Mount Wrightson, rise abruptly from the desert floor to create one of southern Arizona's remarkable sky islands. The distinct ecological zones overlap at this mid-elevation, with yucca plants growing in the shade of pine trees.
I reach the top of a hill and turn to look back. The road is hidden from view, buried in the folds of canyons and washes. But what I do see stops me in my tracks. Gazing south from this vantage point, I can see the Patagonia Mountains and the Canello Hills and beyond, to range after range receding into Mexico. The Huachuca Mountains rise out of the plains to the southeast; they seem only a short walk away in the clear desert air.
I finally turn away from the captivating vista in deference to Sukha. He's panting and impatient, exhausted but too excited to rest. I understand his enthusiasm. The wide jeep track is more like two trails running side by side than a road. And with the gentle slope, easy walking and warm sun shining down, the path seems to pull me effortlessly along.
When the road ends, however, the effort starts. Forest Road 72 comes to an abrupt halt at the edge of the Mount Wrightson Wilderness. From here the Walker Basin Trail ascends steeply, slowing even the dog as we make our way up a series of switchbacks and into the dense pines at the top of the ridge.
A new trail descends from the ridgetop into Casa Blanca Canyon. The dirt on this two-mile path looks freshly turned, as if the shovels and picks have just been put away. On the descent through the wilderness area, Mount Wrightson's rocky summit appears frequently in gaps in the trees; it looks like a bald head sitting atop shoulders of green. The hike down the new trail is smooth and shady, and soon I hear the murmur of a creek in the ravine below.
At Bear Springs, Sukha trots ahead to the clear pool and starts lapping at the water. I sit on a rock next to him with my water filter, feeling slightly envious as I watch him instantly quench his thirst.
Bear Springs marks the start of the historic Ditch Trail. From here, the century-old path twists and turns through the hills, traveling eight and a half miles to Kentucky Camp. The trail, built in 1904, was part of a project designed to bring water from the springs to a mining camp..
The Ditch Trail is a nearly level path for most of its length. It follows a ditch workers dug in the rocky soil, an open trench that carried water to the mine at Kentucky Camp. About three miles from Bear Springs, a 1,000-foot tunnel enables the water to jump from Casa Blanca to Gradner Canyon. I leave my pack at the creekside campsite and go for a late afternoon hike to see the tunnel.
Remnants of the ditch are readily visible along the path, and I can almost imagine what it looked like with water sluicing through the tunnel. The path contours along the eastern edge of the Santa Ritas on an ever so slightly downward course. It's an easy stroll and Sukha, who seems to sense that the load has been lightened somehow, gets his second wind.
From here it's another five miles to Kentucky Camp, where the Arizona Trail passes right through the historic adobe buildings. The Santa Rita Passage links a series of trails and forest roads to get from there to Oak Tree Canyon at Highway 83 -- the end of the line until the next passage is completed.
For Sukha and I, the tunnel is the end of the line for this hike. We head back to Bear Springs just as the sun dips behind Mount Wrightson.
When we finally arrive at Bear Springs Sukha collapses in a tired heap. Then, as if it's not enough that he's exhausted and has sore paws, he must suffer the indignity of an intrepid deer traipsing through our camp. If you're going to hike the Arizona Trail, I want to tell him, you better pace yourself.
Huachuca Mountain Passage. If you want to start at the beginning, this is it. The southern-most section of the Arizona Trail begins at Montezuma Pass in the Coronado National Memorial. Work is currently underway, however, to extend the trail another two miles south to the Mexican border. By the summer of 1996, you'll be able to start your journey on the U.S./Mexico international border. The 20-mile passage through the Huachuca Mountains travels through the Miller Peak Wilderness on the way to Parker Canyon Lake. Somewhere in the vicinity, the 16th-century Coronado Expedition passed by on one of the first recorded thru-hikes of Arizona. Contact: Sierra Vista Ranger District, (520) 378-0311; Coronado National Memorial, (520) 366-5515.
Canello Hills Passage. This 30-mile route leads north to the town of Patagonia. The relatively low elevations should make this an ideal winter hike. Sierra Vista Ranger District, (520) 378-0311
Santa Rita Passage. For details on this 40-mile passage from Patagonia to the Empire Cienega Ranch, contact: Nogales Ranger District, (520) 281-2296.
Rincon Mountain Passage. Approximately 20 miles long (there are two different routes: equestrian and hiking), this passage crosses the varied terrain of Saguaro National Park. The route links Miller Creek Trailhead in Happy Valley with the Italian Spring Trailhead in Redington Pass. Backcountry camping permits are required for this section, and mountain bikes are not permitted in the park. Contact: Saguaro National Park, (520) 733-5100; Santa Catalina Ranger District, (520) 749-8700.
Santa Catalina Mountain Passage. Another sky island passage, you'll travel through several different life zones on this section of the Arizona Trail. The route is approximately 22 miles long, linking Molino Basin Campground to the American Flag Corral Trailhead near Oracle. A series of trails, most managed as wilderness, are linked together for this passage. Contact: Santa Catalina Ranger District, (520) 749-8700.
Blue Ridge Passage. This section of the Arizona Trail starts at the top of the Mogollon Rim. From General Springs Cabin, the eight-mile Blue Ridge Passage crosses meadows and forests as it heads north, ending at the Blue Ridge Campground. Contact: Blue Ridge Ranger District, (520) 527-3670.
Marshall Lake to Fisher Point Passage. This short section of the Arizona Trail (five miles) offers great views of the San Francisco Peaks and good wildlife watching opportunities. Bald eagles, osprey, elk, deer and pronghorn antelope are a few of the more notable inhabitants of this region. Contact: Mormon Lake Ranger District, (520) 527-3650.
Coconino Rim Passage. This 22.3-mile passage links the historic Moqui Stage Stop with Grandview Lookout, on the East Rim of the Grand Canyon. Part of this section parallels the old stagecoach route that operated between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon from 1892 to 1901. Contact: Tusayan Ranger District, (520) 638-2443.
Kaibab Plateau Passage (southern segment). The Arizona Trail crosses the Kaibab Plateau between the Grand Canyon and the Utah border. This 20.3-mile passage connects the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Forest Road 241 near Telephone Hill. The route winds through pine, fir, spruce and aspen trees, with a spectacular overlook at East Rim View. Contact: North Kaibab Ranger District, (520) 643-7395.
Kaibab Plateau Passage (central segment). Stretching 16.7-miles from Telephone Hill to US 89A just east of Jacob Lake, this passage marks the northern-most section of the Arizona Trail to date. Contact: North Kaibab Ranger District, (520) 643-7395.
Getting There: Take Interstate 10 through Tucson and then go south on Highway 83 to Sonoita. From Sonoita, take Highway 82 southwest to Patagonia. Just past the Patagonia High School, turn right (north) on First Avenue (Forest Road 72). Proceed six miles to the trailhead parking area.
Season: Year-round (though winter temperatures can be cold at the higher elevations).
Maps: Coronado National Forest; USGS topos, Mount Wrightson and Patagonia. Newly constructed trails are not shown on maps. Contact the Nogales Ranger District for directions on the entire length of the Santa Rita Passage.
For more information: Coronado National Forest, Nogales Ranger District, 2251 N. Grand Avenue, Nogales, Ariz. 85548; phone (520) 281-2296. For more information on the Arizona Trail, or to find out about volunteer opportunities, contact: Eric Smith, Arizona Trail Steward, Arizona State Parks, 1300 E. Washington, Phoenix, Ariz. 85007; phone (602) 542-7120; the Arizona Trail Association, P.O. Box 36736, Phoenix, Ariz. 85067; phone (602) 252-4794. Visit Trails.com for more info on Arizona Trails.