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Begins: Sep 19, 2009
Date: Mon, Nov 16th, 2009
Daily Distance: 0
Trip Distance: 777.2
Entry Visits: 3,522
Journal Visits: 36,551
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Guestbook Entrys: 32
My thoughts on the AZT
Here's a summary of my thoughts on the AZT and hopefully some helpful information for future hikers:
2014 Update: I thought I’d reevaluate what I wrote below in 2009. I’m not super focused on the AZT anymore since I’ve already hiked it, but I generally know what’s going on with the trail. The biggest change in the last 5 years is maps and guidebook. In 2009 the guidebook was super old and the maps within it still had a lot of dotted lines denoting a possible future route that was now generally actually the trail. These days, there is a brand new guidebook and also a mapset developed by the AZT and Brett Tucker. I’ve haven’t seen the maps, but I used Brett’s maps for his Grand Enchantment Trail and can vouch that his maps are great so I’m sure the AZT maps are great too. The other big change is probably a much improved trail condition. In 2009, the trail was challenging, but not crazy or anything. I hiked the Grand Enchantment Trail in 2014 which shares about 80 miles of the AZT. I was amazed by how good condition the AZT was in. Also, there seemed to be a fair number of new trail miles where in 2009 I might have been on a dirt road or cross country. The AZT seems to have a pretty good volunteer base and I think the trail overall is just in a lot better shape these days which is great to see.
DOESN'T THE DESERT SUCK?
This trail has more beauty and more variety than you can possibly imagine. I promise that you will walk away amazed at what Arizona has to offer. I was blown away.
WHEN TO GO:
I did a Fall Southbound hike. South makes sense to beat the cold in the north and the heat in the south. The main benefit of a Fall hike is that the first 200+ miles to Flagstaff are pretty damn easy. The climbs are gradual (like 3,000 over 30 miles) and the trail is exceptionally well marked. The south is pretty damn hard and not as well marked so starting in the north was nice. Also, I had a very good weather (see below). The major drawback is water (see below). This alone may be a good reason to go in the Spring, but don't count out a Fall hike just because of water. I did it and others have done it before.
I don't know much about a Spring northbound hike, but since 90% of the hikers do that I'm assuming it's the way to go. Water will clearly be a lot better. Don't know about weather and other factors.
I really did like a Fall hike. There was practically no one else out there and the colors were incredible. I just don't know how it compares to Spring.
First off, lower your standards! A Fall hike is tough. Many, many of the running water sources (springs, creek) are completely dry. Many of the cattle tanks are either dry or low. The water report is extremely helpful by lisitng all of the potential sources, but was fairly limited in helping me figure out where there might be water. The "current" water report is only as good as the hikers who hike and report to Fred. For me all of the sources had info. dating 4-5 months back which is an eternity in the desert and over a summer. The "historical" water report I found difficult to interpret for Fall. Every year is so different and I found that most of the time it was tough to tell what was reliable.
With all that being said, I survived just fine. I never carried more than a gallon, although I did carry a gallon a lot of times (keep in mind that you may need more....I tend to do better than most without water). Also, I had very, very low standards. I pretty much drank everything and everything included some pretty bad water. There are almost no caches on the trail, but several times I ran across a gallon or so that someone had randomly left for AZT hikers. Also there are hunters and vehicles occasionally on dirt roads. I tried not to take big risks, but I also tried not to carry an insane amount of water. I walked a very fine line and occasionally it was stressful.
This was way better than expected. I think the ATA and volunteers have been out in droves the last few years finishing the trail and marking it better It's certainly not like the AT or PCT, but it was also much better than expected.
I think my best tip would be to have a "keen eye" for the trail. The trail can be very vague at times and follow cairns or the occasional post. I found myself almost subconsciously following the correct trail and knowing when I was off it. It's an acquired skill that you have if you've done a lot of hiking. The other tip would be to just know which direction you should be going. I found myself navigating a lot by the sun and knowing which way I was walking versus which way the map said I should be walking. Of couse if I really thought I had an issue I would look at the maps in more detail. I only got myself in a bad spot once.
I can't say staying on the trail was easy by any means, but I also think it is a lot better than what you might read in past journals.
In my opinion staying on the trail is much easier than going cross country. When you find yourself off the trail (which you will a fair amount) resist the urge to just take off cross country to get back on. The desert is deceiving and can be very slow and very painful to walk through. 90% of the time when I was off trail I stopped, looked around and either spotted a cairn in the distance or backtracked a minute and found where I had gotten off. This was way better than bushwacking. What about the other 10%? Bushwack and love it!
I found a GPS to be extremely helpful. I loaded the ATA's waypoints and had Mapsource topo on the GPS. My unit only held 500 waypoints, but that was more than enough. I realize some folks like to really be on there own, but if you are not one of them then carry a GPS. It was very helpful.
This ain't the AT. Do what you want out here. Look at your maps. Have fun. The guidebook doesn't really point out alternates so you are on your own. Summit those peaks the guidebook mentions. Cut off a few miles by taking a dirt road shortcut occasionally. Take the alternates walking into Flagstaff, Oracle and Summerhaven. Just have fun with whatever you do.
If you are hiking the AZT then I'm sure you know all about gear. I'll just mention a few things specific to the AZT:
-A blow up pad will probably pop at some point.
-I would try gaitors if I hiked again. So much stuff always in my sneakers.
-Hiking poles were very helpful in "pushing" the insane brush out of the way as I was walking.
-It barely rained on me, but I guess it could have. I'd go light on the rain gear / shelter.
-A good hat is essential. Sunscreen if you are not dark.
-Long pants for the section from Pine to Superior. I did it in shorts and paid the price. The rest of the trail shorts were generally fine.
-It was in the 20's at night in the North and 90's+ in the south (both occasionally). Be prepared for it all (I realize that's crappy advice, but it's true!).
-The trail is frequently rocky so wear whatever footwear works for you.
My phone (AT&T) worked in every town except Jacob Lake and Superior. It frequently worked on the trail as well.
I really enjoyed the trail towns. Unless you go into Tuscon then Flagstaff is the only big town with everything. I enjoyed all the small ones, the character and the locals. I have a separate entry on my thoughts on each town in a little more detail.
One nice thing is that the trail either goes through (via official or suggested alternate) or very close to almost all the towns. The only town I had to hitch into was Superior. Almost no hitching was a major benefit.
I had very good weather almost the whole way. It almost never rained on me. The days in the North were nice (60's, 70's) and the nights were chilly (40's, 30's a couple 20's). The South had a few hot days at the lower elevations, but overall it was never insanely hot. The nights were nice. The day after I finished a major cold front was coming and the snow level was dropping to 5,500 (you go to 9,000' on the last day). However, I don't think they were actually expecting a lot of snow. This was FALL. I have no idea about the Spring.
MAPS / GUIDEBOOK, ETC.
Here is a list of what I carried and my thoughts:
-Guidebbok: Essential because it has the 1:24,000 topo maps. I found these maps to be shrunken down too much and difficult to navigate when I really needed them. It's almost impossible to see the other trails and roads on the maps it's so small. The guidebook info. is from 2004 and a lot has changed since then, but it is still helpful. I believe the AZT's site says an updated book is due out in 2010.
AZT Large Scale Maps: There are 16 of these. I had them printed at Office Depot on 11x17 paper in color and they were very nice. The scale is large (160' contour intervals). These were nice overview maps. They also have the most current trail drawn on them which can be important since there is so much new trail since the guidebook was published. They also show reroutes if the trail is closed for say fire or something.
Delorme Maps: I always carry these just in case I really need to bail. It's only a few pages for several hundred miles, but I probably wouldn't take then again since I had the AZT large scale maps. Delorme is even higher level, but not really needed with the AZT maps overall.
Current and Historical Water Reports: Essential
Databook: Extremely helpful. One warning: I don't believe the main purpose of the databook is to let you know high and low points so don't get pissed on your 20th hidden climb between datapoints that don't have much elevation change.
Dave Hick's e-book: Dave's info. was probabaly the best info. avalable before the guidebook, but since the trail now is mostly complete I didn't really use his pages much. He has a great sense of humor and good tips so I would read them in towns, but didn't find that I needed the detail trail info.
CACTI AND BRUSH:
You will kick a prickley pear and a jumping cholla will impair you. The Mazatzal's, 4 Peaks and Superstition Wildernesses will tear you up with some of the most evil prickley plants you have ever encountered. Laugh it off as much as possible. Cry occasionally. Beat a couple of plants to death to relieve stress.
Keep your head up and eyes open and scan the terrain. You'll see tons of it.
It can be. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the remoteness and not many people on the trail coupled with lack of water and potential navigation issues is a tough combination if say a simple broken ankle were to occur. Just be smart and be careful. =
The Arizona National Scenic Trail is a continuous, 800+ mile diverse and scenic trail across Arizona from Mexico to Utah. It links deserts, mountains, canyons, communities and people. Learn more: www.aztrail.org
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