Hiking across Arizona

In December 2015 I hiked across Arizona, from the Mexican border in the south to the Grand Canyon in the north. This was a fantastic experience going through deserts and mountains, with some of the finest landscapes I have ever seen.

The trip was about 800km (500mi) in length. I hiked an average of 50km / day (31mi), with a longest day of 70km (44mi). Overall it took only 3 weeks, including 6 rest days. I frankly really needed these to recover, but I also had to wait several times just for bad weather to pass. Not every day was easy, and I almost quit a couple of times. Putting in so many miles (walking ~13h/day) is the result of all the daily training I do year-around, but seeing so many things in just a few weeks is an immense reward for all the invested efforts !

Some more details on this adventure :

  • The route
    The inspiration for the trip came from the Arizona trail, which is an official route that traverses the state using a network of single-track trails and gravel roads. I roughly followed it, but also took numerous detours/shortcuts, usually to walk directly through towns for resupply (hikers usually rather hitchhike between trail/towns) or to follow faster (less technical) trails and to avoid impassable snow-covered sections.

    I found the Arizona trail to be a perfect variety of terrain and landscapes. I love the desert, so I had a blast until north of Payson. The trail then goes up the Mogollon rim (a net climb between 2 plateaus at different altitudes). Once you reach the higher altitudes (around 2300m / 9000ft), the scenery changes dramatically to Pine forests (not much to see), and stays so all the way to Flagstaff and then the Grand Canyon.

  • The weather
    The preferred season for this trip is the Fall or the Spring. The summer in the desert is way too hot, and the winter... well, I got a bit of everything ! I got both sunburns and frostbite (nothing serious, just superficial frostbite on my hands/knuckles). The southern part was great, temperatures around freezing at night, and 15-25 degC (70 degF) during the day. Further north (after Phoenix), I got some serious winter conditions: a couple of snow storms, and night temperatures often below -5degC (20degF). I was prepared, but this still incurs challenges. E.g. hiking through deep snow, finding liquid water when most streams are frozen, or just putting on frozen socks/shoes in the morning !
  • The limited daylight also was a challenge. Since I wanted to put in the miles (and not wait for hours in the tent, doing nothing), I shifted my schedule to the early mornings. My typical day was:
    3:30am Get up, pack the tent, sleeping bag, etc.
    4am Start walking (in the dark)
    7am Sunrise
    ... keep walking ...
    5pm Sunset, walk another hour until it gets dark
    6pm Set up camp, relax, eat
    7:30pm Sleep

    That gives 13-14 hours to walk each day, and I found psychologically easier to walk in the dark in the morning, rather than in the evening. Each day I got to experience the beautiful change from a pitch-black sky (with a zillion stars!) to all the blue-orange-yellow hues of the sunrise. This schedule also keeps you active during the coldest hours of the night, when it's hard to get good sleep anyway.
  • Resupply for food and water on the Arizona trail requires some planning. You absolutely need maps with the locations of water sources (springs, wells, tanks for livestock). There are also some caches with jugs of water maintained by volunteers in the driest desert sections (see a picture above).

    The towns are usually about 150-200km (100-120mi) apart, which can mean quite a few days depending on your pace. Be prepared to be hungry and/or carry lots of food ! In my case, walking long distances each day, that was "only" 2-4 days, but I was also burning about 5000/6000 kcal a day, so I still carried lots of food (and I still lost some weight even then). I occasionally met hunters or people in off-road vehicles, but I regularly hiked >50km (30+mi) sections without seeing anyone. So don't plan for asking for help around if you're in trouble !
If you're planning to take on this hike yourself, the Arizona trail association has a fantastic website with all the maps, condition reports, etc. (it literally took me only 3 days of preparations between thinking about doing this trip and hopping on a plane to Tucson and starting to walk !). Just e-mail me if you think I could help you out prepare your own trip !