To know Arizona, you need to experience the Arizona Trail, a 720-mile scribble that bisects the state from Utah to Mexico.
It meanders through ponderosa and aspen forests, plunges into the Grand Canyon and lesser-known chasms, lurches over mountains, and droops across the arroyo-crinkled Sonoran Desert. Ten percent of the trail remains to be built, but hikers and mountain bikers can sample the Arizona Trail through daylong excursions.
This isn't just about the views. To really know Arizona, you need to let her rough you up some. Not to the point of serious hurt, but enough to feel her in your muscles and lungs and heart and to experience the beauty in the soft inner lining of the landscape's outward ferocity. Arizona resists armchair contemplation; she is so tactile, so unlike anyplace else, that she demands active participation.
We booted parts of it for 30 days and found six segments that make great outings. Arizona Trail Lite, some might scoff. But it never felt like a diluted version of the AZT. There's much pleasure in realizing that the same quality that carved the Grand Canyon will also get a hiker into and out of the Superstitions in a day: perseverance.
Planning for the Arizona Trail
Even day-hikes on the AZT require planning: Check the road and trail conditions (snow is possible at higher elevations in December), weather forecasts, and availability of water; obtain maps.
The Arizona Trail Association's website ( www.aztrail.org) offers an overview and news about the trail. Association member Dave Hicks ( www.arizonatrail.net) maintains excellent online descriptions of each of the trail's 43 segments.
The Arizona Public Lands Information Center provides up-to-date topographical maps of all completed segments ($10 each; 602/417-9300).
Road and hiking conditions
Contact the ranger station or park or forest service center nearest your planned hike. The Arizona Trail Association's volunteer segment stewards also know their designated trails very well. For info on stewards, as well as rangers and park and forest centers, visit the ATA's website (see above).
Water is your prime concern―most creeks and springs are seasonal. The standard hiker's ration is 1 gallon per person per day; consult rangers or trail stewards. Hike with a partner. Always let family or friends know exactly where you will be hiking.