Trekking the Arizona Trail

By: Tim Vanderpool

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Hike, bike or ride via horseback through the state's varied terrain, from Southern Arizona to the Grand Canyon.

About the author

Tim Vanderpool

Tim Vanderpool

Tim Vanderpool is a Tucson-based freelance writer whose hankering for adventure and trusty VW van have taken him to the far corners of our great state. His travel writing has appeared in publications ranging from Sunset and The Christian Science Monitor to National Geographic Traveler.

It was 1985 when a plucky schoolteacher named Dale Shewalter trekked the length of Arizona, from Nogales to the Utah line. Shewalter’s goal was simple: to showcase his dream of connecting disparate trails into a single route that could highlight the state’s vast and diverse beauty. 

By 1990, Arizona State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service began efforts to establish segments of the Arizona Trail. And soon after, the Arizona Trail Association was created and the path was designated as a National Scenic Trail.

Now broken into 43 sections spanning more than 800 miles, the Arizona Trail takes in the sweep of Arizona’s stunning terrain, from high-country alpines to lowland saguaros, from national monuments and pristine historic sites to prime fishing holes and picturesque, rural hamlets. 

In addition to hiking, many trails offer horseback exploration; others encourage mountain biking. No matter your travel mode, here is a brief sampling of routes, along with tips for enjoying the wondrous Arizona Trail.

Scotia Canyon Trail 

Follow this route through a lussycamore-shaded canyon, a rustic short-grass prairie and right to the shimmering tip of Southern Arizona’s Parker Canyon Lake, where great fishing awaits, as well as ample birdwatching opportunities in the riparian areas. Along the trail, enjoy tranquil views of the low-slung Canelo Hills to the west.

Canelo Pass to Patagonia Trail

This passage from the Canelo Pass Trailhead, four miles south of Canelo, reaches a 5,600-foot-high saddle, before dropping into the ranching grasslands of Meadow Valley. The surrounding landscape is classic Western, with the Santa Rita Mountains as a soaring backdrop. Your journey ends in Patagonia, a picture-perfect burg dotted by cozy shops and cafés. 

Kentucky Camp Trail

When pedaling or hiking through this stretch of Southern Arizona’s Patagonia Mountains, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of surrounding ranges, including the Whetstones and Huachucas. Along the path, Kentucky Camp provides colorful history. Flourishing as a rowdy gold-mining hub in the early 1900s, the ghost town has been restored as an authentic piece of history.

Gordon Hirabayashi Trail

This path meanders along scenic Sycamore Canyon, in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, before dropping into Sabino Canyon, past such memorable landmarks as Hutch’s Pool. It’s perfect for equestrians – a campground even features horse corrals. 

Cody Trail

Named for the Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody – who lived briefly in the nearby town of Oracle – this hike in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains looks down upon oak woodlands and, in spring, vast carpets of purple desert verbenas.

Alamo Canyon Trail

Passing through the Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix, this trail starts near Picketpost Mountain and weaves along verdant Alamo Canyon, amid a sea of towering saguaros. After your journey, tool into the nearby town of Superior for lunch at the Los Hermanos Mexican eatery.

Mormon Lake Trail

This six-mile stretch south of Flagstaff taps into Arizona’s frontier history, leading travelers along a hushed, pine-laced former rail line. Here you’ll find cool high-country breezes, prime birdwatching and good fishing when lake levels are robust. 

Marshall Lake to Fischer Point Trail

With backdrops ranging from yawning meadows to intriguing forests, this leisurely trail near Flagstaff begins at a wetlands area known for abundant wildlife. Don’t forget the binoculars – here you’re likely to see everything from elk and deer to glorious bald eagles. Be sure to linger at Walnut Canyon, with its breathtaking view of the San Francisco Peaks.

Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge Trail

The Bright Angel stretch of the Arizona Trail leads you into the Grand Canyon’s glorious depths. Stop halfway down for a picnic at Indian Garden – this paradise comes complete with a gurgling creek beneath the cottonwood trees. Then spend the night at Phantom Ranch (reservations are strongly recommended), more than a mile below the canyon’s rim. 

Travel Tips 

Of course, traversing the Arizona Trail requires common sense preparation. Pack plenty of water, watch the weather and research the best seasons for visiting specific areas. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Numerous groups specialize in horseback rides, mountain bike excursions or simple hiking. The Arizona Trail Association website provides a wealth of information, including community events, maps, trail conditions and more. 


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