The Arizona Trail

Arizona TrailJanuary 12, I was simultaneously cursing and thanking Dale Shewalter. I hadn’t ever met the man, an elementary school teacher in Flagstaff, Arizona for 30-some years. And I won’t get the chance to meet him: he died of cancer that very same day (I didn’t know he was sick; if I had, I’d like to think I would have held off on some of my curses). Now that nearly a week has passed though, and the reasons I had been cursing him — scratches, blisters, punctures and general soreness visited upon me by his creation, the 817-mile long Arizona Trail — have healed, I wish I had had the chance. If you’re ever wondering if one person can make a difference, look no further than Mr. Shewalter. Or better yet, take your backpack, mountain bike or horse and go enjoy his trail.

In the 1970s, Shewalter dreamed of a trail stretching the length of Arizona, 800-some miles, from the state’s border with Mexico to its border with Utah. In 1985, Shewalter quit his teaching job to spend the year walking the state south to north to get a feel for where this dreamed-of trail of his might go. He walked through communities, mountain ranges, canyons, deserts, forests, historic sites, wilderness areas and other points of interest. The Arizona Trail might not rival the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail in distance — although 817 miles is certainly nothing to sneeze at — but Shewalter saw it could surpass either of those with its diversity, history and grandeur. Really, can anything along the Appalachian Trail or PCT begin to compare to the Grand Canyon, which the northern part of the Arizona Trail goes down in to? Do either of the longer trails pass cliff dwellings? (The Arizona Trail takes you by them twice, in the Walnut Canyon and Tonto National Monuments.) Shewalter spent the next years driving 60,000 miles around the state meeting with and lobbying state and federal land agencies.

When he died Sunday, and when my friend Jill and myself were wrapping up three days of hiking sections of the trail around Superior, Arizona, about an hour’s drive east of Phoenix, Shewalter’s 817-mile Arizona Trail is just 37 miles from completion. Last year, an Act of Congress designated it as a National Scenic Trail.

Because Shewalter and the non-profit group founded to champion and construct the trail, the Arizona Trail Association, realized few people have the time or energy to hike 817 miles in a single go, the Arizona Trail is made up of 43 passages ranging from 11 to 35 miles in length. With Superior, a former mining town on track to again being a current mining town, and a place that could very well become another Jerome, albeit with better rock climbing (Queen Creek Canyon is minutes outside of town), as our base, Jill and I tackled three-and-a-half passages over three days.

DAY 1

Out and back covering all of Alamo Canyon (passage 17) and some of White Canyon (passage 18): 26 miles roundtrip; 7,000 feet each of elevation gain and loss; 1 stop for blister prevention (sadly, it was made too late); 9:45 hours of walking; 0 miles of bushwhacking.

Saguaro CactusStarting at the Picketpost Trailhead three miles west of town and heading south, Alamo and White Canyons are awesome sections of trail, not that either Jill or myself fully appreciated it at the time. Used to hiking in Wyoming, where there are no plants capable of inflicting major pain, and possibly even death, we considered any prickly pear cactus growing within two feet of the trail worthy of complaint. I did thoroughly enjoy hiking through a national forest – the Tonto National Forest – where the “forest” consisted entirely of saguaro… at least until I got the idea that if one happened to suddenly fall over, it would kill me in a most painful way. Still, after learning that saguaros don’t even begin to grow their first arms until they’re 75 years old, I couldn’t help but look at them with respect. (If you see a beefy, multi-armed saguaro, it could be upwards of 300 years old.)

Like other long distance hiking routes, the Arizona Trail uses a combination of dirt roads, existing trails and new paths. The Alamo Canyon passage is almost entirely new singletrack with just a few miles of two track. Although there were three other cars at the trailhead, we didn’t see another person until we pushed, well after dark, into Los Hermanos, a Mexican restaurant where a top-shelf margarita and a deluxe hamburger with fries each cost $3.50.

DAY 2-3

Point-to-point covering Reavis Canyon (passage 18) and the Superstition Wilderness (passage 19); 32 miles total, 22 of which were hiked in Crocs (my feet were still fairly angry from Day 1); 42,291 feet of elevation gain and 41,109 of elevation loss (perhaps Jill’s GPS might be off by a few thousand feet here… but only a few thousand, this is rough country); one ½-pound Reese’s peanut butter cup eaten; one ½-pound Carol’s chocolate/peanut butter cookie eaten; four liters of water drank; one raging campfire built; 16 hours of hiking.

Not particularly interested in the first four miles of trail heading north from Picketpost Trailhead — flat, no views — Jill and I snagged a ride with the lovely Merlin, proprietor, with wife Bessie, of the Copper Mountain Motel (the only lodging in Superior). Merlin was kind and brave enough to drive us up Forest Service Road 650, which was often a dry creek bed, in Bessie’s little red sports car, to a point the Arizona Trail crossed it. Almost immediately, we began hiking up Montana Mountain. Had it been any other season but winter, I’m certain we would have burst into flames on the 5,000-foot peak’s south-facing flank, where there wasn’t a lick of shade. But, since it was winter, we were perfectly comfortable.

Topping out on Montana Mountain, we had two miles of forest service road to walk to get to the Rogers Trough Trailhead. We were surprised to see a dozen or so cars parked there. Not surprisingly, we felt slightly superior for having walked the ten miles from Superior.

Arizona Trail Scenery

Now heading up Reavis Canyon proper and getting deeper into the Superstition Wilderness, the plant life had totally changed, which was a very good thing as it was one of the more overgrown sections of trail I had ever encountered. No longer were things pricking and poking us. In fact, there wasn’t a cactus in sight. Instead it was bushes with relatively soft leaves. And pine trees. At times, we were walking on a bed of pinecones. And meadows with tufts of grass like horsetails. The unfriendliest thing was a holly of some sort. And after prickly pear and saguaro, holly bushes are nothing.

Trail ConditionsArriving at the old Reavis Ranch, home to Elisha Reavis, the first Anglo settler in the Superstition Mountains from 1874 until his death in 1896, we saw a few campfires already burning but had no problem finding a site off by itself. At first I thought the gumball-sized brown blobs covering the ground were elk poop. I wasn’t too keen on laying my sleeping bag and bivy sack on top of them. Clearing myself a little sleeping space though, I realized they were chestnuts. I don’t know that I had ever seen a chestnut tree before sleeping under one that night. Sadly all of our efforts to roast some over our campfire were in vain. The fire still ruled though, especially as the temperatures got down into the 20s.

It was the next day that I began cursing Dale, although of course I should have been cursing myself for not having researched the trail conditions better. (Not that reading about how bad they were would have dissuaded either Jill or myself; we would just have been better mentally prepared.) The Arizona Trail continued north from Reavis Ranch. And it just kept getting fainter and fainter. We never lost it — I’ve never seen so many well-built, well-placed cairns as I have along the Arizona Trail — but we did question whether anything other than a few wayward game animals had touched it over the last decade. There was climbing and descending. There were no switchbacks, but lots of loose scree. And the cacti came back. In full force. At one point, Jill and myself both had our pants pulled down and were pulling prickly pear stickers out of our thighs and butts. I don’t think I got them all. Sitting here typing this, my right butt cheek itches like all get out.

Although I started the day in high spirits and, comfortably tucked into my Crocs, my feet felt as if they were walking on clouds, the mean-ness of the terrain eventually got to them. Both my spirit and feet started heading south at about the same time.

Ouch!Thankfully, at that point there was only two miles or so to go. And a lake, Roosevelt Lake, appeared in the distance. We passed the sign marking the end of the Superstition Wilderness and the Two Bar Ridge Trailhead was less than a half-mile past it. An hour later, we were feasting on Fritos (Jill) and Laffy Taffy (me) marveling at the distance we had covered and what we had seen. And we had only covered and seen less than 1/10 of the Arizona Trail. Thanks Dale.

The next day we treated ourselves to pedicures.

For more information on the different Arizona Trail passages, or to see about volunteering to help build the last 37 miles go to AZTrail.org.

DINA MISHEV is a randonee skier, cyclist and hiker who, in February 2009, set the world record for the most vertical feet skied uphill by a woman in 24 hours. She is a category-3 road cyclist who consistently places top 5 in the longest single-day road race in the country… {more »}

Comments

  1. Chris Basinger says:

    Wow you guys are amazing.. I’m Jill’s Aunt and so proud of her.

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  2. This is great, I’m definitely going to start organising my trip right now!

    ~Laura

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  3. DIna says:

    Laura, I know. I can’t wait to go back!! Watch out for those cacti though!

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