The Arizona Trail is one of the most beautiful long-distance hiking trails in the USA. What to know before you start hiking the Arizona Trail? Here’s a guide full of tips!
Introduction: what is the Arizona Trail?
The Arizona Trail (AZT) is one of eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States of America. It runs vertically through the state of Arizona, from the Mexican border to the border with the state of Utah. The trail is approximately 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) long. Most hikers take between six and eight weeks to complete the hike.
The trail has been in existence since 2011 and is designed for hikers and mountain bikers, you can also do it on horseback, and in some parts, you can enjoy cross-country skiing.
On the Arizona Trail, you walk through various mountain ranges and different ecosystems, from the low desert full of cacti to the high desert full of pine trees. You will also hike through two national parks: Saguaro National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. In short, hiking the Arizona Trail is a wonderful way to discover the beauty of the state of Arizona.
I myself hiked the Arizona Trail in the spring of 2022 and it was a fantastic experience. In this article, I’ll share all my tips for hiking the Arizona Trail.
This is what you need to know before you start
Would you like to hike the Arizona Trail? Then there are a few things you should know before you start.
Nobo vs. sobo
One of the first things to determine before you start: are you hiking the trail nobo or sobo? Nobo means northbound, in which case you hike north from the Mexican border to Utah. Sobo means southbound, then you hike from Utah to the Mexican border in the south. They both have pros and cons. Which one do you choose?
Pros and cons nobo
- Most people hike the trail nobo, so that’s the fastest way to meet like-minded people to hang out with.
- You have the sun at your back (most of the time), which gives you the best views.
- The Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike is at the very end, so that feels like a big spectacular finale.
- Nobo is usually done in the spring, chances are you will see (and smell) beautiful flowers in the desert.
- Most of the biggest climbs are at the beginning of the trail, in the first 400 miles. You have to get to 9,000 feet (2750 meters) on day one. That is quite tough if you have not trained very well and are not used to hiking at a high altitude.
Pros and cons sobo
- It is a lot quieter on the trail (this can of course also be a con).
- It starts out relatively easy, except for the Grand Canyon, it’s pretty much flat for the first 200 miles.
- You always have the sun on your face which can be annoying.
- Sobo is usually done in the autumn, so there’s probably less water to be found on the trail.
What is the best time to hike the AZT?
As you can read at nobo and sobo, there are two suitable moments to start hiking the Arizona Trail. For nobo, the best starting time is spring, from early/mid-March to early May. For sobo it would be autumn, from mid to late September to mid-November.
There is a very specific time frame for both directions and that has everything to do with the varied landscape. On the high mountains (there are quite a lot of them) there is snow for a large part of the year. In addition, it can get very hot in the rest of Arizona. So you want as little snow as possible and also want to avoid the heat.
Also, take your hiking pace into account. I myself started in the first week of March and hiked nobo. It took me eight weeks and it was perfect. However, several people started at the same time as me who hiked much faster. They couldn’t walk long stretches of the trail because of the snow in the north. And that’s a shame because it’s such a gorgeous trail. In that case, it is better to start a little later, or just take it easy and enjoy all that beauty even more.
Do you need a permit to hike the AZT?
You do not need a permit to hike the Arizona Trail. You can start wherever and whenever you want and you can pitch your tent (almost) anywhere.
If you want to sleep in the national parks, you do need a permit.
- For Saguaro National Park, it’s very easy to book a spot at one of the primitive campgrounds along the trail; the Grass Shack Campground or Manning Camp. You can reserve a spot via the official website. Although there is usually a spot in (early) spring, it is wise to book it in time. You can move the reservation if necessary (if there is space). A reservation costs $8 per night.
- You can get a permit for Grand Canyon National Park when you are in the park. At the South Rim, you can go to the hiker/biker campground for $6, there is almost always availability. Do you also want to sleep in the canyon and on the North Rim? Then you go to the backcountry office and ask what the options are. They keep a number of group sites available for hikers on the Arizona Trail.
If you’re not from the US, do you need a visa for the USA if you are going to walk the Arizona Trail? No, you can travel to the US on an ESTA (electronic consent form), which is valid for 90 days. In that time you can easily complete the entire trail.
Transportation to & from the trail
How do you get to the starting point of the trail? And when you’re done, how do you get back to civilization?
The starting point (southern terminus) of the Arizona Trail is near the border of Mexico at Coronado National Memorial. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere and you can’t get there by public transport. Alternatively, you can use a shuttle service from Tucson (a 2-hour drive, which costs between $60-$100 per person) or take an Uber from the nearby town of Sierra Vista. An overview of shuttles can be found on this page.
A shuttle or taxi cannot drop you off at the monument on the border but will drop you off it at the visitor center or at Montezuma Pass. From here, you can hike to the monument on the border, which is about two miles.
The northern terminus of the Arizona Trail is also far from civilization, but fortunately at a (primitive) campsite called Stateline Campground. You can book an (expensive) shuttle that will take you to Kanab, but there is always someone at the campground or at the large parking lot of the Wire Pass Trailhead (1.5 miles after the terminus) who can take you to Page, Kanab or st. George.
From St. George, you can take a bus or a shuttle to Las Vegas. You can fly to Phoenix from Page. In any case, you can easily return to civilization.
Where do you sleep on the AZT?
There are only a few villages along the way, so you have to sleep in the desert most of the time. A few bring a hammock (quite inconvenient, because you can’t hang it everywhere in the southern part of the AZT) and some people do “cowboy camping” (sleeping in the open air). The vast majority of hikers bring a tent with them.
You can pitch your tent almost anywhere along or near the trail, as long as there is a flat piece of ground. Make sure you don’t put it on a cactus (your inflatable sleeping pad won’t like that very much) or a red ant nest. Although you can camp almost anywhere, there is a rule that you can’t camp close to water sources, so that wildlife can drink peacefully at night.
What to pack?
What do you need to pack for the Arizona Trail? In any case, a backpack with sleeping gear and a water filter. And preferably lightweight, which makes hiking a long-distance trail a lot more comfortable.
Here’s a quick rundown of the gear I brought on the Arizona Trail:
- Backpack: Osprey Eja 58
- Tent: Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2
- Sleeping pad: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite R
- Sleeping bag: Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt (10 Fahrenheit)
- Water filter: Sawyer Squeeze combined with a Cnoc Vecto 2l.
- Kitchen: MSR Pocket Rocket, Toaks 650 ml, Sea to Summit spork, Opinel knife.
- PLB: Garmin InReach Mini.
In addition some extra (warm) clothing, a first aid kit, and electronics (telephone, camera, etc.).
An extra item that is very useful on the Arizona Trail is a comb. You can use these to remove cacti that stick to your clothing, bag, or in your skin (ouch).
Food & water on the AZT
What do you eat when you’re hiking the Arizona Trail? How do you get your food? And is there enough water in the desert?
You burn a lot of calories during a long-distance hike, so it is wise to eat well. There aren’t that many villages along the way, so you usually need to bring food for five to seven days. You mainly want food that has a long shelf life and as many calories as possible in the smallest possible packaging.
These are some of the things I ate on the Arizona Trail:
- Protein bars and cookies (Complete Cookies are very filling and are also vegan)
- Lots of nuts.
- M&M’s peanut, and Snickers, the combination of nuts and chocolate always works well.
- Wraps (often with tuna or cheese sticks)
- Freeze-dried backpacker meals (can be quite expensive), ramen noodles, mashed potatoes and knorr sides (pasta and rice).
How do you get food on the trail? There are different strategies:
- Buy everything in advance, pack it in boxes and send it to yourself on the trail.
- Buy food in trail towns, this can be done about every five days.
- Or a mix of the above methods.
Most hikers go for a mix and this is also what I did myself. Although buying food in the towns is often more expensive than in advance in, for example, a Walmart, you only know what you like and how much you need when you’re hiking the trail. In addition, you support the local community. People are so friendly in the trail towns! Moreover, sending packages to villages is not free (for a large box you pay about $20) and the post offices have limited opening hours. It can be quite annoying if you arrive in a village on Friday afternoon and can’t pick up your package with food until Monday.
Read more: The Arizona Trail Resupply Guide
Water on the Arizona Trail
Arizona is all desert and there are few rivers or creeks to be found. That is why you often get your water from a so-called wildlife tank. This is either a small lake or a large basin of water (with algae). So it’s a matter of very good filtering.
How do you know where to find water? Almost all water sources are listed on the FarOut app and anyone can leave a message to report whether a water source is dry or not. This way you almost always have up-to-date information.
How do you navigate the Arizona Trail? Fortunately, the trail is very well marked. Are you really unable to figure it out? Then the FarOut app is really a must-have. Put this on your phone, buy the Arizona Trail map ($14.99), and then you have everything you need.
This app not only shows the route (which also works on airplane mode), but you can also post messages at certain points on the route. Some people give tips for good camping spots which can be very convenient.
Last but not least, there’s also a guidebook, Your Complete Guide to the Arizona National Scenic Trail, filled with information about the Arizona Trail.
How much does it cost to hike the Arizona Trail?
In 2019, my five-week hike on the Pacific Crest Trail cost me about $1,500, but traveling in the USA has gotten a lot more expensive in recent years. For two months on the Arizona Trail, I spent over $4000 (including flights from Amsterdam to West Coast USA, all meals, lodging, a SIM card, new hiking shoes, and so on). You can save a lot of money by not staying too long in the trail towns. Food and accommodation are quite expensive there. But also so nice!
Hike your own hike & more useful terms
During a long-distance hike in the USA, you often hear the same terms. But what do they actually mean?
- Hike your own hike: the most important one. Don’t let anyone tell you how to hike the trail. It’s your hike. You know your body best, so if you’re in pain anywhere, take a break. Also always follow your intuition if you have to do something that seems dangerous.
- Thru hiker: A long-distance hiker who hikes the entire trail in one go. If you hike a section of the trail, you are a section hiker.
- Cowboy camping: sleeping under the stars, without a tent.
- Trail Angels: people who have a warm heart for long-distance hikers and are eager to help. Trail Angels can help you with places to stay, a lift from A to B, and sometimes leave water or something tasty along the trail.
- Trail Magic: an unexpected gift on the trail, often in the form of water and food. On the Arizona Trail, you will see many filled bear boxes.
- Trail Family: if you spend a lot of time with the same group of people, it will feel like family at some point.
- Leave no trace / Pack it in, pack it out: pretty clear right? Leave no trace (except your footprints) in nature.
- Zero: A day that you are not hiking on the trail. You probably are in town for two nights.
- Nero: A short day on the trail.
- Hiker Box: In some places, there is a box where you can put things you don’t need anymore, like gear or food. You can also get stuff out of a hiker box. So it’s kind of like an exchange of stuff that hikers need. Very often full of foods that most people don’t like.
- Hiker Trash: That’s you! A hiker who hasn’t showered in days, smells really bad and is covered in dust.
A few last Arizona Trail tips:
- Put your phone on airplane mode, that saves a lot of battery and it can last much longer.
- If you’re from Europe, purchase a SIM card when you arrive in the US. AT&T and T-Mobile also work on European phones. There’s cell service in many places, although it can be very slow. I used AT&T and had service almost every day.
- The temperature can fluctuate a lot. During my hike, I experienced temperatures of 10 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 to 35 degrees Celsius). Keep this in mind when you’re packing for the hike. You really need that warm sleeping bag at night. And on hot days you want to cover yourself as much as possible (it also saves on sunscreen).
- Are there scary animals on the trail? Yes, you will probably see a few (rattle) snakes. And maybe a coyote, mountain lion, or bear (the latter two are rare), but the thing you really have to watch out for is the cacti.
These were all my Arizona Trail Tips! Do you still have questions and can’t find the answer in this article? You can always leave a message below.
Helpful resources for the Arizona Trail
What resources are useful to check before hiking the Arizona Trail?
- Arizona Trail Association website – here you can find a lot of information about every passage of the trail and there’s a list of trail angels.
- Facebook groups – these are gold! There is a general Facebook group, but also one per year, such as this one from 2022. In this group, you can ask questions about hiking the trail. Make sure to use the search function first, sometimes questions are asked several times.
- My AZT journals – it is always nice and useful to read experiences from other hikers.
Want to read more about long-distance hikes?
Would you like to know what it’s like to hike a long-distance trail in the USA? There haven’t been many books published about the Arizona Trail (yet), but there are a number of people who have described their hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in a beautiful way:
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed
Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home – Heather Anderson
In addition, on this website, you can find a lot of information about beautiful long-distance trails from all over the world. For example, also read these articles:
- Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Mexico to Canada
- Fishermen’s Trail: the most beautiful coastal hike in Europe
- Pieterpad: the most famous long-distance trail in The Netherlands.
In addition, I regularly share fun travel stories and tips for the most beautiful destinations in my monthly newsletter. Subscribe here.
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