Saturday 28 April 2012

Arizona Trail 2010 - Part 1, US Border to Patagonia

Back in 2010 I hiked the Arizona Trail. This was an incredible experience and my favourite thru-hike to date. On a long hike it can be tough to keep motivated and you can find yourself becoming numb to all the surrounding beauty. Variety keeps you stimulated and the Arizona Trail certainly has plenty of that.

The Arizona Trail (AZT) starts at the US/Mexico border and ends 1300 km later on the Utah border. It passes through some of the best of what Arizona has to offer, and deserts, snow covered mountains, forests and the mother of all canyons, the Grand Canyon, will be climbed or crossed. Add to this the heat, snakes, plant life that eats kit and lack of water, then you have a challenging trail. The AZT is normally  thru-hiked in spring or autumn because of the scarcity of water and the intense summer heat. In winter you would be faced with deep snow on the mountains and around the Grand Canyon making hiking difficult or impossible. Out of the two spring is the most popular and generally has more reliable water from the winter snow melt and also the desert will be in full bloom. My hike started 4th April and finished 6 weeks later on the 20th May. More details of the trail can be found on the AZT website. I would also throughly recommend reading Chris Townsend's book on hiking the AZT which I found accurate and inspirational.

Part 1

The trail starts at the US/Mexico boarder and climbs steeply and relentlessly into the Huachuca mountains. The desert is hot and dusty and I was soon tired and running low on water. I found my body took a couple of weeks to adjust to the heat. In those early days I needed to carry around twice as much water as I did once acclimatised. Take it easy for the first week and enjoy the trail! 

Not far from the border I came across this abandoned rucksack loaded with fruit and a few drinks. This was almost certainly dumped by an illegal crossing into the US from Mexico. Signs of illegals were frequent over those first 7 days of hiking. I soon found that most hikers carried guns in this area and they were surprised that I didn't. 

With warning signs not to hike alone, then rounding a corner and finding a heavily armed US border patrol on the trail I continued to be a little uneasy during the first part of this hike. This is something we are not used to in Scotland!

After a long hot climb up Millar Peak (2885m) the shade and cool snow was very welcome. Mountains in Arizona are a little different to most I've climbed before. Normally mountains are forested at lower elevations and as you get higher they gradually become bare with the tops often tree free. In Arizona the opposite happens with the summits having the thickest tree cover and the lower slops tree free, Arizona forests don't normally begin until a minimum of 2000m. 

First camp was just over Millar Peak.  It was exposed to a strengthening wind blowing up and over the ridge which rattled the tarp all night. Altitude and dehydration were making me feel slightly sick and I struggled to eat my dinner. Water was also a problem and would be for the rest of the hike, I ended up melting some snow to get me to the next water source the following morning. In Arizona you must plan your water resupply REALLY well. In the night I woke to find, what I assumed, was an illegal creeping around the front of my tarp to where my food bag had been left. I shouted "hello" to him but he quickly turned and ran. Can't say I blame him, with all the guns round here...

Still feeling a bit rough in the morning I set off looking for water. A good water guide is available from the AZT website and is essential if you want to hike this trail safely. Not only does it tell you where the water is but it also gives you an idea of how reliable the source is. I should not have been surprised to see this bathtub on the mountain as it was called bathtub spring on the map! In Arizona water is precious and anything and everything is used to preserve it. Very welcome it was too. 

The trail soon drops back into the hot desert after Sunnyside Canyon. Even though it's early April temperatures down here are in the low 30's Celsius. 

The desert is far from boring and filled with interesting plants and wildlife. Unfortunately, everything is spiky and wanting to put a hole in you or your equipment. The Arizona Trail eats kit for breakfast.

You find lots of old water pumps like this in the desert. Some still work, most don't and have been replaced by solar and battery powered pumps. This tank was empty.

Don't expect perfectly clean filter water. You drink with the animals on the AZT. This was one of the better sources. I purified using Chlorine tablets whenever the quality was suspect, which was most of the time, when out of the mountains but wished I'd brought something more powerful. Bring a piece of silk or similar to remove the floaters. 

After another 2 days hiking in the desert, which crosses the Canelo Hills, you arrive at the first trail town on the route. 

Patagonia is a lovely tourist town which has excellent facilities and a basic but adequate hotel. I retrieved my bounce box from the post office and retired to my room for a snooze and shower. Took a day off to enjoy the town, do some washing and stock up on food for the next section.

Continue to part 2