When you’re dealing with a trail as scenically varied and rich as the Arizona Trail, how can a single passage distinguish itself? I mean, come on, you’ve got the GRAND CANYON on one end, Sky Islands on the other… what can a 40 mile piece of land in the middle of the desert – a land of low mountains and dry gullies – possibly offer that would leave a lasting impression? Maybe you picture a dusty boot print, a scorching sun over a spiny cactus, a parched throat and a ankle full of cholla?
Think again my friend. This is the Upper Sonoran at it’s best, and it’s some of the best trail in the country. Period.
I joined Sirena on the trail once again for a number of reasons, but the real truth is that I can’t get enough of the passages between Superior and Kelvin. She and I were among the first people to through-hike these two passages (which were the last completed in the AZT system), and I’ve hiked on them a number of times since. I even adopted a part of passage 17 as a trail steward. Here, the saguaros are huge, the mountains are colorful and the trail conditions are pristine. There’s even a guest-appearance by the rarest of desert features: a flowing river complete with trees, grass and naps. How could I resist?
Five of us set out from the Picket Post Trailhead outside of Superior and we hiked south. This meant a bit of a flip-flop for our through-hiking guide, but it was a wise choice. With unseasonably high temps and dry conditions, it’s best to keep things predictable and easy. We hiked TO the river, rather than away from it, and it made all of the difference both mentally and physically. Each person in the group was equipped with an umbrella – for there is no better invention for those days when the Sonoran sun won’t stop. At many points on the trail, we were circled by hawks and vultures – all of whom were likely attracted to our bright, unusual footprint on the landscape.
Our hike coincided with the Arizona Trail 300/750 bike race, which left from the border the day before we left from Picket Post. The leader of the race passed us while we slept under the stars the first night – he finished the 300 mile trail race in under 2 days! Though we missed him, we did encounter a number of riders on the trail, and we were always excited to wish them luck. It was hard to imagine when we were hot and tired from walking for 8 hours that these folks had been riding bicycles on the same trail – nearly non-stop for days! We shook our heads at the hardy dedication as we sat in whatever shade we could find with our feet up munching on our ample supply of trail goodies.
There were so many highlights of the trip, all of them from the smorgasbord of wonder that is our Sonoran Desert…
Unexpected wildflower shows… With such a dry winter and spring, I certainly did not expect to be greeted by a green desert and a profusion of blooming plants! Conditions must have been just right for some of the plants however.
Wildlife encounters… Along with our first snakes of the season, we were lucky enough to have a close encounter with one of the most unusual desert residents: the Gila Monster. Considering that these creatures spend more than 90% of their lives underground, it was a real treat to find one just hanging out on a rock next to the trail – soaking up the rays and lookin’ for some dinner. Of course, he wanted nothing to do with our party.
Crazy geological features… The region is full of stunning land features like buttes, cliffs and canyons. One of my personal favorites occurs near the northern end of my passage – small as buttes go, but with striking colors. I like to call it Stripey Butte. Other features of note include the distant cliffs of the White Canyon Wilderness, the walls of Martniez Canyon and the rock monolith that AZT hikers are calling Dale’s Butte (in honor of Dale Shewalter, the Father of the AZT).
Incredible plant life…One small valley along passage 17 is home to a population of shrubs that are either unusually large or typically found at much higher elevations. Oaks and Junipers are joined by enormous ephedra plants more than 12′ high and massive Sotol (desert spoon) that dwarf their counterparts from the next valley over. We call this area the “Valley of the Mutant Shrubs”…it’s a magical, mystical place that seems more than just a little alien in the afternoon light. Not to mention wandering through forests of some of the largest saguaros in Arizona.
Our own piece of the AZT… Sirena and I are both Passage Stewards on this piece of adventure. My passage (17a) is remote, hilly and home to features like the Valley of the Mutant Shrubs and Stripey Butte. Sirena is further south, with the sandy bottom of Walnut Canyon and the steep, rocky slopes of the Spine. Being a steward is a magical opportunity – it lets you feel as if a piece of the AZT is truly yours: your home, your responsibility, your joy. It’s more than just trimming a few bushes or moving around some rocks, it’s about knowing your bit of trail in and out, about bragging on it to whomever will listen and about helping out trail users who think you’re THE BOMB for helping out. It’s something to be proud of. (And, it’s something that’s still available if you’re interested in taking on the challenge. Visit the ATA Website here for more information!)
A verdant river corridor… It’s time for the farmers to water their crops, and the waters of the San Carlos Reservoir are released in abundance to meet the need. This means that the Gila River through this area is flowing deep and fast. It’s cool waters mean a welcome respite from the desert, and we spent a delightful hour resting in the shade of the willows on shore.
Took a nice long break by the river
A historic trestle bridge…the Copper Basin Railway still uses the tracks that parallel the Gila River – and near the town of Kelvin, that river corridor narrows, forcing the tracks to the opposite bank. The rails cross the river on a old steel trestle bridge that makes for an excellent wayfinding landmark as well as another shady spot to rest for a moment.
These two passages demonstrate what the whole Arizona Trail can be one day: amazing trail construction, wide-range of users, incredible destinations and fantastic community connections. We were supported by trail angels, who left behind gallons of water to keep us going and who helped us to set up shuttles which made the entire hike possible. In Arizona, it’s not just the trail that’s amAZing…it’s the folks behind it as well!
A special shout out and thanks to John, Ed and Steve who were amazing company throughout the hike. It’s such a pleasure to share the area with people who are just as passionate about it as we are!
If you haven’t already donated to Sirena’s campaign to raise money for trail construction, maintenance and promotion, please visit the Indiegogo campaign here . Then head out to the trail and experience it for yourself!