A green desert trail with cactus, mesquite trees and mountains. A sign reads "Superstition Wilderness."
White Rock Springs (Credit: Meghan Lewis, @miss.spork on Instagram)

Arizona's Backcountry Experiences and (Mostly) Hidden Hikes

Arizona's backcountry is the perfect place for experienced hikers to expand their trail horizons.

The following adventures and lesser-known hiking gems range from moderate to difficult, but they share several qualities in common: getting away from the crowds and immersing yourself in the most diverse ecosystems, wildlife and scenic beauty that Arizona has to offer.

Note:
Backcountry trails are, by definition, remote and isolated, often without services or access roads. Even trails categorized as "easy to moderate" require a higher than average level of hiking experience and preparation. In some cases, specialized equipment and vehicles may be necessary. Before you hit the trail, we strongly recommend you visit Appreciate AZ to brush up on Leave No Trace principles and important outdoors tips for experiencing Arizona's wildlands.


The Arizona Trail

The Arizona National Scenic Trail comprises 43 passages along 800 miles from the Arizona-Mexican border to the Arizona-Utah border. These two passages offer much in the way of backcountry exploration.

  • Passage 34 San Francisco Peaks
    Nearest town: Flagstaff
    Distance: 35.3 miles point-to-point
    Difficulty level: Moderate
    This trail skirts the southern and western flanks of the San Francisco Peaks, starting at Schultz Pass a few miles north of Flagstaff and terminating further north at Cedar Ranch. Along the route, hikers are treated to outstanding views of Agassiz and Humphreys Peaks (Arizona's two highest peaks) and the photogenic meadow around Bismarck Lake—with plenty of chances to spot elk, deer and other wildlife. This long trek is well suited to backpacking and camping, with water at Schultz Tank and Alfa Fia Tank, and sometimes at Kelly and East Cedar tanks (make sure to bring a purifier).
  • Passage 23 Mazatzal Divide
    Nearest town: Payson
    Distance: 24.3 miles point-to-point
    Difficulty level: Moderate
    The Mazatzals cut an imposing figure to the west as you drive along the Beeline Highway (Hwy 87), but the hike from the Mt. Peeley Trailhead to Red Hills Trail junction provides a solitary wilderness experience far from the hum of tires. Much of the trail tracks along the ridgeline, offering spectacular views both east and west. Brody Seep junction, where Chilson Camp can be found, is one of the recommended areas to set up for the night. Water, which must be purified, can generally be found at Bear Spring, Chilson Spring, Horse Camp Seep and Hopi Spring.

Kelsey-Dorsey Loop

Nearest town: Flagstaff
Distance: 7.3-mile loop
Difficulty level: Moderate
The adventure starts with the drive to the trailhead—about 21 miles of rugged road from the turnoff from Route 66 onto Forest Road 231—and it's best navigated with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The benefit, of course, is that the jostling ride keeps traffic to a minimum, leaving you in peace to enjoy the panoramic vistas (particularly of Sycamore Canyon), lush vegetation, natural springs and wildlife. If you're not doing a day hike, the camping area near Dorsey Spring offers an outstanding option for sleeping under the stars.

Hell's Gate Trail

A man and woman (wearing a bright pink backpack) wade through a small river among trees and rocky mountainsides.

Credit: @wanderlust.nation on Instagram

Nearest town: Payson
Distance: 14.5 miles round-trip
Difficulty level: Strenuous
Twelve miles east of town, this trail descends from the pine forest into a gorgeous canyon where Tonto Creek flows into Haigler Creek. The hike in has some ups and downs, prior to a final stretch that drops 1,800 feet in 2.5 miles—and you can anticipate taking almost twice as much time and stamina to climb back out. If anything, it's an excuse to spend a night in the canyon, enjoy the swimming hole and bring your gear to fish for trout. Be forewarned that summer weekends will be busy. The creek water is potable if filtered.

Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain's red rocks covered in snow during the day

Credit: @kenharris85 on Instagram

Nearest town: Sedona
Distance: 4.6 miles round-trip
Difficulty level: Strenuous
Bear Mountain, one of the tallest peaks in Sedona, earns its name from its vague resemblance to Ursus americanus, but you won't encounter any of Yogi's relatives on this hike. Among the many hikes in the area, this is among the less-heavily trafficked due to the rough terrain and steep ascents on several false summits as well as the peak itself. The exertion of climbing 1,800 feet in 2.3 miles pays off with 360-degree views of the red rocks, Jerome, Kendrick and the distant San Francisco Peaks. This is a day hike only and requires a $5 Red Rock Pass that you should purchase prior to hitting the trail.

White Rock Springs

Nearest town: Mesa
Distance: 23 miles round-trip
Difficulty level: Moderate
This multiday hike starts at one of the easiest places to access the Superstition Wilderness, First Water Trailhead. Civilization soon disappears as the trail weaves through the iconic Superstition Mountains through towering saguaros, by jumping cholla cacti and in full view of the 1,000-foot Weaver's Needle. Due to loose rocks and steep sections, hiking poles are helpful. There are plenty of backcountry camping opportunities to rest up at night; before you go, get your pass and the current water report from the Tonto National Forest Mesa Ranger District.

West Baldy Trail

Two children follow a woman up a grassy trail into a forest of trees

Credit: @krisheap on Instagram

Nearest town: about an hour east of Pinetop-Lakeside
Distance: 14 miles round-trip
Difficulty level: Moderate
A variety of evergreen species, alpine meadows, giant boulders and wildlife from black bears and deer to mountain lions and beavers make this a must-hike in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. It's also on the peak-bagger bucket list at #7 in Arizona; although Baldy Peak is only open to tribal members, the highest point of the ridge (11,420 feet) is on Forest Service land. You'll encounter other hikers at lower elevations, but eventually steep switchbacks thin the crowds—and open up expansive views.

Mount Wrightson Trail

Nearest town: Tucson
Distance: 13.1-mile loop
Difficulty level: Strenuous
Because this is one of the favorite hikes within the Santa Rita Mountains, you might not be flying solo to the top of Tucson's tallest peak, 9,456-foot-high Mount Wrightson. Old Baldy Trail (not to be confused with West Baldy Trail) is the more challenging of two routes to breathtaking summit views, taking switchbacks from the wildflower-strewn Sonoran desert into the Ponderosas and Douglas firs. The 13.1-mile Super Trail (a.k.a., Loop Trail) is easier and generally has fewer hikers. Note: Spend time on the Arizona Trail, Passage 5 Santa Rita Mountains, just to the east.

Hualapai Peak Trail

A man sits atop a rock next to a larger rock formation jutting out among trees

Credit: @neroZ77 on Instagram

Nearest town: Kingman
Distance: 8.1-mile loop
Difficulty level: Moderate
Start on the Potato Patch Loop, which most hikers take clockwise, before spurring off to the highest point in Mohave County. Enormous granite rocks and outcroppings are a primary feature along the trail, transitioning to huge pillars at the top. The climb gets tougher in the final 2 miles towards the top, with a bit of scrambling and bushwhacking, and a sign noting where there's a 23% pitch. Summer can be toasty—with the ever-present possibility of monsoon storms in July and August—but if you're lucky, you might be greeted by friendly ladybugs. Located in Hualapai Mountain Park, $10 day-use rate per vehicle.

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About the Author

Jake Poinier

Jake Poinier is a veteran freelance writer, editor, and author whose work has appeared in USAToday, Blue Water Sailing, and Golf Illustrated, among numerous other publications. When he's not at his desk writing for corporate clients and editing books, he can probably be found hiking or fishing along the Mogollon Rim, skiing in the White Mountains, or sailing just about anywhere.