After deciding to section hike/run/bike the Arizona Trail in 2020, I decided that one of my first trips should be the passages closest to me, being the section between Picketpost Mountain and the trailhead nearest to Kearny. With relatively easy access at the start and finish of the hike and short travel to get to either end, it was perfect. There are a lot of passages of the trail where your access points are more remote and/or difficult to get to.
The trip would comprise AZT passages 16 & 17 – the passages are labeled in increasing number moving north, so in that order they would be: passage 16, Gila River Canyons; and passage 17, Alamo Canyon. I however would go from north to south. Going that direction, the trail starts at higher elevation and ends up lower, so you end up with a net loss of elevation. Going the opposite direction means a long and potentially hot climb from the Gila River up into the mountains. Going south makes it a nice(-ish) descent.
Saturday: Picketpost to the Gila River and a Bit More
Some friends dropped me off near the trailhead and I started my trip. I hadn’t originally planned this to be a solo trip, but if your options are either going solo or not going – you should go.
Full disclosure here: I did not expect much from this trip. My plan was ambitious; I would need to cover nearly 40 miles in two days over challenging terrain – mainly the first 20-ish miles. And I needed to be done by mid-afternoon on day two to rendezvous with a friend who was willing to go out there and pick me up. So I knew it would be work, but that was honestly about all I expected it to be. I was wanting to cover the roughly 100 miles between Picketpost and Oracle as soon as I could, which seemed like a good small goal as I worked toward the larger goal of the whole trail. Anyway, looking at the maps for those passages, I didn’t see anything that seemed particularly remarkable-looking and thought these would be passages I would be able to put a checkmark beside and be done with.
For the passages further south, that expectation ended up being true to some degree. For the passages in this trip, I could not have been more wrong.
So back to the trip. It was a cold start, but as is typical for the desert, it quickly warmed up once the sun rose. I made my way along the trail to and through the Picketpost trailhead parking lot, and out the other side along the AZT.
There was a race going on that day, Aravaipa Running’s inaugural year of their new Copper Corridor trail race. The course utilizes parts of the AZT for many of the race distances, but once you get a few miles down the trail the only racers sharing the trail with you are the ones running the 50k distance. I wanted to make some time so I’d already be through the busier parts before the race rush came through, and I managed to accomplish it.
As I made my way south along the trail, I was gobsmacked at the canyon walls and rock formations I was seeing. For miles and miles it felt like every time I got into a new area, I was surprised all over again by the striking canyon formations I was seeing.
Oh and did I mention that on top of the landscape being awesome on its own merits, we were also having a very good wildflower season? It was amazing.
Around the mile 12 mark and one of the highest elevation points of the trip, I laid eyes on the AZT Rainwater Collector for the first time. It is a unique wonder of engineering that collects rainwater when it falls and stores it for passing trail users, providing water in a stretch of trail that can be very long and dry. And as a side benefit, it also provides great shade and becomes a social spot as passing hikers stop to refill their water, get out of the sun, and eat some snacks.
From the Rainwater Collector, the trail continues south and traverses a sidewall of a stunning canyon that has to be seen to be believed. I’m not an expert on descriptive terminology for canyons, but I think you’d call this one a slot canyon. It was my first truly amazing surprise of the trip.
Leaving that canyon area, the trail begins its descent toward the Gila River and goes on that way for several miles. Reaching the bottom of one of the valleys along the way, my second truly amazing surprise of the trip came into view.
On my topographic map, this stunning rock formation has the unremarkable name of “peak 3105,” but I found out later that it is unofficially named “Dale’s Butte,” named for Dale Shewalter, the architect of the Arizona Trail and was reportedly one of his favorite places on it.
He and I share that feeling. I don’t know what he thought of when he looked at it, but as I approached it from the north, it looked to me like a titanic old god, rising above the valley floor, guarding the precious water of the Gila River from trespassers. Looking at it from the northeast as I followed the trail around it, it even had a face.
I was in awe of this place. I still am. I have been on a lot of nice parts of the AZT, but mile for mile I have yet to see anything as good as these miles from Picketpost to the Gila River.
Passing Dale’s Butte and approaching the Gila, I started debating how much farther I was going to keep going that evening. The sun would start setting soon, and in this very unfamiliar terrain, I didn’t really want to be looking for a place to make camp in the dark. But at the same time, the rough plan for the day was to get picked up by my ride in early afternoon, so the more miles I could get in before calling it a day, the more comfortable (and less stressful) my second day hiking would be.
Ultimately, I ended up doing about 24 miles on day one. I gave myself a small window of remaining light to find a good campsite, but not much. And based on how my night went later, I would say that I was not particularly successful at the “good” part either.
But we’ll get to that.
Wanting to travel as light as possible and knowing the weather forecast was clear, I had opted to bring a tarp to sleep under rather than a full tent, so after finding a site I deemed favorable, I set up the tarp and then my sleeping pad, quilt, etc., and then had dinner. Also in the interest of traveling light, I had brought an alcohol “cat can” stove to heat my water, and I found it very fussy compared to a canister stove. The fact that alcohol stoves are illegal during the burn bans we have here regularly combined with that fussiness made me decide that I was done with them and went back to the canister stove.
I had set up the tarp facing south toward the Gila, where I could hear cattle mooing regularly and sometimes excitedly. It sounded like there were kind of a lot of them, but they also sounded far away, and given that I wasn’t far from the river, I figured that meant they were on the other side of the river from me. With the tarp open to the south, I had a pretty good light show from the moon as it rose and crossed the sky. It was a beautiful night, if a little humid (I was getting condensation on the foot of my quilt and it was making my feet cold), but more energizing than restful. At one point a train came through along the tracks that were just on the other side of the Gila, and it thundered and shook the place for some time.
Eventually, I did fall asleep.
Saturday Night: Night of the Cows
I woke up with a start at about 4:30 AM to very agitated and loud cattle noises. They were close, and they were now coming from behind me. Either I was wrong earlier about them being on the other side of the river, or the river wasn’t a barrier to them after all. Not good.
I slapped my tarp to give them a start, and it worked. They got quiet as I scrambled out of my quilt and turned to face them. I turned my headlamp up to its brightest setting and saw five or six pairs of bovine eyes reflecting back at me from the other side of some brush between us. Some of them were tossing their heads, such huge heads. Because of the brush, I never got a good look at them, just their eyes reflecting my headlamp’s light back to me. I yelled at them and waved the light around, and the cumulative effect of everything I had done convinced them that – for now – I was an uncertain enough prospect they slowly wandered off.
I was cold by that point, having been standing in the open in just my sleep clothes for around 10 minutes, so I got back into my quilt and considered my options. I felt like the best move would probably be just packing up and leaving right then. But like I said, I had gotten cold and wanted to warm up. So I laid there for another 20-30 minutes, listening for anything that sounded like their return, and then got up, got dressed, and warmed some water for my breakfast. I ate, cleaned up, and started packing.
I was about 80% done when (I assume) one of the bulls from the earlier crew meandered back to take another look at me, and it was light by then. I no longer had the advantage of hiding behind a bright headlamp and was fully visible now as a not-very-large human, and this guy was not intimated by me in the least. He made like he was just out brushing bushes with his face, but he kept looking at me, and kept moving toward me in spite of my yells in his direction. So… now it was my turn to exit.
Fortunately, I had already gathered my gear in a pile and I was in the last steps of packing it up. I threw on my pack, grabbed everything that hadn’t made it into the pack yet in a bundle in my arms, and I made my way back to the trail in the opposite direction of the approaching bull. I didn’t run, but I moved briskly. After I was back on trail and had made my way along it for a few minutes, I saw no sign of the bull and set my gear down to finish loading the pack.
And almost immediately heard brush and branches snapping as my escort pushed through a nearby wash to continue following me.
Having really had enough with all of this by then, I scooped up my loose gear again and continued down the trail for somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 mile before stopped again, when I was really, really sure that I had left him behind. That time I was right and I was able to finish packing up… finally.
Sunday: On to Kearny
So. In the moment, I just got busy with my hiking day. I had roughly 16 miles to cover by 2:00 PM and getting moving early would help get that done. But man – not a great “first solo trip” experience. Especially considering how omnipresent cattle are throughout the entire state, much less along the AZT, and today in particular. I continued to encounter them along the trail for the next several miles and had a lot of trepidation about them. In what turned out to be my final encounter with them on this trip, I lucked out as two hikers were approaching from the opposite direction, heading toward me. Apparently that was just too much for the cattle between us, and they fled away off the side of the trail, toward the river.
From there and for a while, the trail cruises on for several miles of relatively flat hiking. Some of the various access trails to the Gila are easy to navigate, and some involve a bit of bushwhacking. Eventually the trail starts climbing again, and you do some climbing to get up out of the Gila River basin. Once you make it through the climb, the trail stays high for a while more, and that was when I started counting down the miles left to finish the trip.
I did a check-in with the friend picking me up to give him my ETA, and I even jogged a few times in this stretch. My pack was not at all optimized for running – it was big and stiff – but it worked okay, and it helped me make it to the rendezvous on time.
One awesome thing about this section of the trail is that it’s where you pass the small completion memorial marker for the place where the trail construction and work on the northern and southern passages of the trail finally met up and completed the continuous trail from Mexico to Utah. It’s small and unassuming, but I tell you I am so profoundly grateful to Dale Shewalter and the vision and commitment he had for making his dream of the AZT come true.
Ultimately, as mid afternoon approached, I made my way out to the gravel access road and met up with my ride. With some truly marvelous timing on both of our parts, we arrived at almost exactly the same time – I saw him pull up and park just a little ahead of me as I was walking that way.
We had lunch at Old Time Pizza in Kearny, which is famous for taking care of AZT through hikers. You can actually call ahead and have them deliver pizza to the trailhead, which is a roughly 30 minute drive from the restaurant. I signed my name on the enormous banner they have in there, and as we talked with our server and I told her about my encounter with the cattle, she said “oh yeah, those cows out there can be pretty ornery.”
So at least it wasn’t just me.