Arizona Hiking: Where, When and What to Wear

State of Arizona highlighted for hiking on United States map.

WILL BURKHART INTERVIEW – ARIZONA EXPERT WILDERNESS GUIDE

Where is the Best Hiking in Arizona?

One thing that makes Arizona unique is the variety and scope of the hiking – so it really depends on what you are looking for. Arizona has an awesome desert environment in the Sonoran Desert. Then there are the state’s incredible mountainous regions like Flagstaff’s Humphreys Peak, Tucson’s Mount Lemmon, the Superstition Mountains east and north of Phoenix, and the White Mountains in the southeastern part of the state. Then you’ve got the canyons. Obviously, the Grand Canyon is the most well-known but there are also beautiful red rock canyons in the Sedona area. The thing that makes Arizona hiking stand out is the massive amount of diversity in a relatively small area. Hikers in Arizona have access to all those different environments. Other than maybe California, Arizona offers, in my opinion, the greatest variety of ecosystems in the States.

Where are the Best Beginner-Friendly Hikes in Arizona?

There are plenty of beginner hikes in and around Phoenix, near Sedona, and there are even beginner hikes up in the Grand Canyon – just hiking along the rim. When looking for a beginner’s trail look at the elevation profile, the altitude, and the trail conditions. I tend to use an app like AllTrails because they are usually pretty accurate in reading the difficulty of the trails. So, it’s not necessarily a matter of location, because most locations in Arizona have a good broad mix of hiking trails. After all, that’s by design. The Park Service and the Forest Service want people to have access to all difficulties of trails.

See all Arizona maps below by downloading the free AllTrails app ↓
AllTrails for mobile phones
AllTrails for desktop/laptop 

If you are ever confused or unsure of the difficulty of a specific trail, check in with the folks at the ranger station and ask them about different trails. They are great resources. Guides would also know that information. It’s not so much a matter of location, it’s just a matter of research. There are easy trails all around Arizona just like there are really difficult ones across the state. So it’s just a matter of doing your homework.

A LIST of SOME of the BEST ARIZONA HIKES FOR BEGINNERS:

#1 Sabino Lake Loop, Tucson
Sabino Lake Loop AllTrails map

#2 Deadman’s Pass Trail, Sedona
Deadman’s Pass Trail AllTrails map

#3 Nature Trail, Piestewa Peak, Phoenix
Piestewa Nature Trail 304 Loop AllTrails trail map

 

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#4 Treasure Loop Trail, Superstition Mountains, Phoenix
Treasure Loop Trail AllTrails trail map

 

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#5 Aspen Nature Loop, Flagstaff
Aspen Nature Lollipop Trail AllTrails trail map

 

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#6 Rim Trail, Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon Rim Trail AllTrails map

Where is the Hardest hike in Arizona?

The hardest hike is the hike you’re not prepared for. I know that sounds a little bit cliche, but, even the easiest hike is going to turn into a nightmare if you don’t have enough water and food and/or you haven’t trained properly. Now, having said that, one of the factors that are going to make certain hikes harder than others is altitude. Whenever you’re up in Flagstaff, your base elevation is going to be north of 7000 ft and you can easily get up to over 12,000 ft. So, the altitude is definitely going to affect the difficulty of some of those hikes. So, when you are going to be hiking at the elevation you are going to want to spend a night or two acclimatizing to give your body time to prepare.

The Grand Canyon presents some challenges because it’s the reverse of how people normally hike. People normally hike uphill first and then go downhill and the Grand Canyon flips that. You feel great going down but then when you have to head back up it’s like, “Dang, I should have stopped sooner!” To make matters worse, the Grand Canyon is steep and the temperatures can get hot. All in all, I think the Grand Canyon probably presents some of the most difficult hikes in Arizona. It can be a challenge even for some of the most prepared folks.

There are some Arizona hikes that have some significant scrambles and some massive elevation gain over a very short period of time. Camelback Mountain, right in Central Phoenix is one such hike. It is rated extremely difficult, and for most of the average hikers, it is because it’s got some bouldering that you’ve got to contend with.

So, back to how I opened the question: The hardest hike is the one you’re not prepared for. An ounce of preparation/prevention is going to save people a lot of heartache.

A LIST of CHALLENGING HIKES in ARIZONA:

#1 Camelback Mountain, Phoenix
Camelback Mountain via Echo Canyon Trail AllTrails map

 

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#2 Cathedral Rock Trail, Sedona
Cathedral Rock Trail AllTrails map

 

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#3 Humphreys Summit Trail, Flagstaff
Humphreys Peak AllTrails trail map

#4 South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon
South Kaibab, Phantom Ranch, and Bright Angel Trail AllTrails map

#5 Mount Wrightson, South of Tucson
Mount Wrightson via Old Baldy Trail AllTrails map

 

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Is hiking in Arizona dangerous?

Hiking anywhere is dangerous if you’re not prepared, haven’t done your homework, and your fitness level is not where it needs to be. Regarding Arizona: most people underestimate the heat. I think that’s what gets most people in this area. That said, I don’t think it’s any more or less dangerous than hiking anywhere else. Most places have wildlife or environmental hazards that can pose a threat. If you aren’t prepared, then yeah, it can be plenty dangerous. Have a good guide and you’re probably going to not get into trouble.

When is the Best time to Hike in Arizona?

The shoulder seasons are generally the best time: March, April, May, September, October, and November. Those tend to be the months where the climate tends to be the most moderate all over the state. I like checking the weather through NOAA.

You are going to want to come in December or January if you’re looking for an Alpine or winter mountaineering adventure on Humphreys, the White Mountains, or Mount Lemmon. However, typically the shoulder seasons are usually when the weather’s going to cooperate with you the best and it’s the most pretty time of year.

One other thing that most people don’t realize is that while it is hot in Phoenix during the summer up at the Grand Canyon the temperatures are usually 25-30 degrees cooler. So if you do come in July or August hiking up north in the high country can still be pleasant.

How do you stay safe hiking in Arizona?

You stay safe following the general rules that you’d follow anywhere. You prepare properly, make sure you have a mapping app, and that you have plenty of water and food. Tell someone where you are going and when you’re going to be there. In a perfect world, you’re going out with friends or a guide. Just follow all the guidelines that you normally adhere to when you’re out in the wilderness – you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If you’ve got the tools you need, it’s generally safe.

How should I dress for hiking in Arizona?

Clothing is very weather-dependent. One of the things that is unique to Arizona is the real need for sun protection. Most people use either sunscreen or long clothing to protect against the sun’s rays. However, I use a combination of both. Hats with brims are always a good thing in Arizona because it is sunnier than most regions of the county. The other thing that works well is having a cotton bandanna or something like that that you can dip in water and use for evaporative cooling. There are also more high-end products that you could buy. For example, neck wraps with special chemical gel in them that will keep you cooler longer. But all that is just a take on evaporative cooling.

If you want extra protection against cactus and potentially snakes – that are more prevalent out here – you’ll want to wear long pants and maybe some gaiters. Those are some things that can help protect against some of those elements if you’re going to be bushwhacking off-trail.

Would you throw Humphreys in there as one of the hardest?

Humphreys is going to be one of the hardest for sure because of its elevation. The Grand Canyon’s rim-to-rim hike is also a major challenge. Those are the two that are going to get the headlines and hopefully have people’s attention enough that they prepare well. Then it’s really a matter of conditioning–how committed have you been to your training?

Are There any Arizona Hikes that are Hard because of Distance?

The Grand Canyon can have a significant distance component. However, distance is relative. I tend to think in terms of time rather than distance. A marathon is 26.2 miles, but it takes some people two to three hours to finish. While others take more than six. So, it’s one of those things I tend to advise to people this way: figure out how long you want to be out, because the length of time is more indicative of, “Okay, when am I going to run out of water, food, daylight?” Those factors are going to get you in more trouble than tackling a certain distance. So, if you’ve got enough food and water, or access to water. for six hours then that’s a good length of time to hike. That said, maybe build a cushion in there and hike for five and half hours with water left over.

I think people, especially young runners or hikers who aren’t acclimated to Arizona, can get out here and realize “Wow, the conditions are markedly different,” so, maybe a five-mile hike at home might take them two hours, but in Arizona, maybe it takes them twice as long. So, it’s really being able to make those adjustments and realize that all five-mile hikes are not created equal.

The Arizona Trail is 800 miles long, so, yeah, there’s plenty of long hikes in Arizona. There are also hikes that are just over a mile long, like the one uphill on Camelback, that will kick most people’s butt.

* Contact Will Burkhart regarding his guide services for hiking and backpacking in Arizona.
* Contact Marcus Shapiro about getting fit for Arizona hiking and backpacking.

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