Hard work in progress

  • 'WIDE-OPEN ARIZONA': Bicycling the Arizona Trail

    Arizona Trail Association photo
  When Dale Shewalter talks about hiking the Arizona Trail, he describes a "sense of elation with what it does for your life." In the next breath, though, he admits, "I kinda wore out my knees through the years."

Shewalter, who's long been a fan of long-distance backpacking, started looking for a north-south route across Arizona in the early 1980s. He was surprised to find an almost continuous corridor of federal and state land running straight up the middle of the state. "I had some friends drop me off in Nogales in 1985 and I started walking home (to Flagstaff)," he says. When he got to the Utah border 24 days and nearly 800 miles later, he knew the route would work.

Since 1988, over 5,000 volunteers with the Arizona Trail Association have constructed about 125 miles of new trail, connecting existing trails and four-wheel drive roads. Another 140 miles await completion, including a challenging section in southern Arizona between Oracle and the Gila River. "It's a tough piece of country," says operations director John Neeling: There's virtually no water in 40 miles. North of the Gila, the trail traverses the Superstition Mountains, the Mogollan Rim, the San Francisco Peaks, the Grand Canyon and the Kaibab Plateau.

Shewalter says he's not too worried that the trail will be overrun by hiking enthusiasts, partly because miles and miles of stark desert landscape can demand a special appreciation for beauty. One hiker sent him this description of the Babbitt Ranch section: "IT'S BORING."

"But to me," says Shewalter, "it's wide-open Arizona."

Contact the Arizona Trail Association at 602/252-4794 or www.aztrail.org.
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