*This is the second in our series, “Know A Trail Club”.*
The Arizona Trail Association is the caretaker of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, an 800-mile trail that traverses the length of Arizona south to north from the Mexico border to the Utah border. This 21-year-old nonprofit organization has built and continues to maintain the national treasure that is the Arizona Trail.
About the trail:
Location: entire length of the State of Arizona, south to north
Length: 800 miles
Season: All year, due to varied elevation. Desert portions are best for the winter and spring, while northern and high-elevation portions are best for the summer and fall. Desert portions to be avoided in the summer.
Use type: Hiking, biking, and horseback riding. About 70% of the trail is bike-accessible. 30% of the trail goes through wilderness areas, where bikes are not allowed. The ATA has suggested cycling routes around these wilderness areas.
How the trail is organized: There are 43 named “Passages” along the trail ranging from 8 miles to over 30 miles in length
Highlights: passes through 8 Wilderness Areas, 2 National Parks (Saguaro and Grand Canyon), a State Park, and various other county, state, federal and private land parcels.
Trail Description, south to north: The trail begins in grassland at the Mexico border and immediately heads into 9000’ mountains. The trail climbs and descends between 3000’ to 9000’ through “sky islands” (mountains in a sea of desert) before hitting low desert in the middle of the state, near the Gila River. This area has little shade and little water. The trail then heads up to the Mogollon Rim (separating southern Arizona from Northern Arizona) and the Colorado Plateau with its ponderosa pine forests. The trail then passes through the San Francisco Peaks area near Flagstaff and then through the breathtaking Grand Canyon. Finally, the trail goes across the Kaibab Plateau, and finishes in a sandstone wilderness at the Utah border.
In 2015 the Guthook’s Guide team worked with the ATA to build its official Arizona Trail navigational guide smartphone app for iPhone and Android. As we worked through the project, we found the ATA staff and volunteers to be dedicated, hard-working and open-minded — a great combination to ensure the long-term viability and relevance of the Arizona Trail.
I spoke with Matt Nelson, the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, this week to find out more about the Arizona Trail and what the ATA is up to. Matt has a background in natural and cultural resource management and outdoor education. He has been the executive director of the ATA for five years.
Long-distance hiking on the Arizona Trail: “It’s Harder Than You Think.”
Thru-hikers make up a tiny portion of AZT use, but their numbers are increasing. Matt estimates that about 100 people thru-hiked the trail last year. Due to extreme summertime desert heat, Northbound thru-hikers hike in March to May, while Southbound thru-hikers go from August to November.
The fact that this 800-mile trail can be hiked in two months can be misleading to those looking for a medium-length hiking adventure. In fact, Matt says that the unofficial motto of the AZT is “It’s Harder Than You Think.” Even seasoned Triple Crowners (people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and the notoriously-difficult Continental Divide Trail) report that the AZT is the most difficult trail they have ever hiked.
Why so difficult? There is extreme weather and climate variation, severe daily elevation change, few resupply opportunities, little water, and the trail can be difficult to follow in some parts.
Water availability, in particular, is a real hazard in hiking the trail. Fortunately, the ATA has been collecting water information for the past 20 years and has assembled an outstanding water data set for those who want to hike the trail. Each water source is graded by reliability and seasonality. ATA board member Fred Gaudet makes this water data publicly available.
There is a definite upside to the Arizona Trail’s difficulty and remoteness: if you’re looking for solitude, you will find it on the Arizona Trail. The trail goes through some very remote areas – some reachable only by hiking — with breathtaking views.
Resupply and Gateway Communities
Resupplying during a long AZT hike is difficult – resupply towns are often far from the trail and far in between. The ATA has partnered with 33 towns, or “Gateway Communities” to the benefit of the towns and the AZT’s hikers, bikers and horseback riders. AZT users are welcomed and encouraged to visit these towns.
The ATA has also partnered with these 33 Gateway Communities through its Seeds of Stewardship program. About 1200 middle school and high school students from these communities participate each year in programs that get them out on the trail for trail work, species surveys, invasive species removal, and other projects.
Ongoing work of the ATA
The work of the Arizona Trail Association is accomplished largely through the work of its volunteers. Matt, who is the sole full-time employee of the association, wears many hats in directing the efforts of the organization. In addition to Matt, there are 8 additional part-time and volunteer staff to further coordinate the 1500+ volunteers who maintain the trail, install new signs, report trail conditions, conduct outreach operations, and much more.
The association has an Arizona Trail Steward program, where an individual, family, or organization takes charge of a 3 to 7 mile segment of the trail. The steward either maintains the trail itself, or, if the job is too large, reports back to the ATA what kind of work needs to be done. The ATA sometimes employs professional crews to maintain or rebuild trail in remote or damaged areas.
The Arizona Trail Association has active and vibrant volunteer program and a number of events all year long. You can join the ATA at a number of levels, with each member receiving access to its detailed set of trail data.
Data book (available with membership)