AZT - Day 52 - Stateline Campground at the Utah/Arizona Border - End of the Arizona Trail (Trail Mile 800.0)
I achieved a childhood dream. Ever since I was 7, I have wanted to do a thru-hike. Enraptured by sight of others doing it, inspired by the stories I heard, matched with own love for being in the outdoors. Today, I finished crossing the grand state of Arizona, my home this past decade, and completed a thru-hike.
The day began when we woke up in a dry tent and a warm morning. This was one of the few times of the entire trip. I went and took an excellent bowel movement in a grove of junipers scented of the high desert. After a lazy start, we began descending off this high Kaibab Plateau towards Utah. We met up with Tyson and Barrel, hiking with them both. The trail opened up with stunning view of the Vermillion Cliff plateau backside eroding to the equally glorious Coyote Buttes, the Paria Wilderness, and parts of the Cockscomb plus Navajo Mountain and the Grand Staircase. I could not think of a more epic set of beautiful views to finish a trail with.
The trail switchbacked back and forth slowly down the side of the a series of cliffs. Juniper gave way to sage and creosote until giant fields of high desert grass interspersed with radiant fireweed, mallows, poppies, and flowering cacti made up the surrounding ground. I walked slowly, drinking in the views, smelling every flower. I stopped to take photos, to revel in the fact that I could see House Rock Valley Road below where our pickup was and where I had been gravel grinding before. Everything needed savoring.
Nearing the end of the trail, we crossed a large field of sage and ascended a small hill where Darren suddenly was, riding his mountain bike up to us! It was completely surreal. He congratulated us, we hugged, told us how epic the mountain bike riding in the area was, and the three of continued down to the trailhead. Coming down from the hill was Stateline Campground and the well-maintained gentle path the AZT was here. A small gazebo with a group of finished thru-hikers greeted us, passing us the official finisher’s log of the Arizona Trail. We approached the terminus moment.
We took a series of photos, feeling in awe. The front of the moment commemorated its placement while the back was a poem from the David Shewalter, the teacher who dreamed up the Arizona Trail in the 80s and 90s. Darren hooked up his bike, we said goodbye to everyone, and we were whisked along. Being back in a motorized vehicle seemed surreal, as if making me question whether the trail had even happened. We passed by Wire Pass Trailhead where years ago Harrison and I had been dropped off to begin our pass of the Paria Canyon and the Buckskin Gulch slot canyon. We rejoined a highway in Utah and went to Kanab where I promptly bought Gatorade and numerous Drumstick ice cream cones to eat. From there, Darren drove us to our secret adventure cabin south on the Kaibab Plateau/North Rim back in Arizona where we took a day to absorb the surroundings, eat good cooked food, share stories, and appreciate the community.
Arizona is unique for being the only state having all four different desert ecoregions present in the United States. In the northwest is the Mohave, in the southeast is the Chihuahua, in the south central and western is the Sonoran, and now we were finally entering the fourth one in the north: the Great Basin. A land of the sagebrush sea, some of which we would begin moving through later this day.
We slept in the bed late and got to breakfast after watching a morning binge of a Harry Potter movie marathon. When we walked in Stubbs and Frisbee were there and amazed to see us! They had secured a permit to camp in the Canyon and has presumed we had also done the same. They were confused when we didn’t show up at camp that night (by the time they got to camp in the Grand Canyon, we were still hiking into that winter storm on top). They decided we must be behind them until they saw the Trail Register and our names. Frisbee was like, “How the heck did they pass us!?” We all laughed and caught up on events since we last hung out in Oracle, AZ. Another thru-hiker was sitting at the counter eating and joined in on the conversation.
His name was One Gallon and he was doing the Hayduke Trail. He acknowledged the snow but seemed seasoned and comfortable with it all. As we’re all talking, Frisbee leans over and asks me if I know who he is. I reply no and Frisbee starts swiping through his personal Instagram account until a photo comes up of three hikers. We look down at the phone and up. It turns out One Gallon is a legendary backpacker - one of only like 4 people who are Triple Triple Crowners, meaning he has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail three times EACH. We both were in awe. Amazed, we listened to his stories, his advice, and his wisdom. We all 5 take a photo together (I think I posted it yesterday instead) and each say our goodbyes. Frisbee and Stubbs are finishing today. One Gallon is heading out to Kanab Creek Wilderness and into the snow and desert. As I’m writing this, I happen upon this article about One Gallon: he is now the first hiker to finish the Triple Crown four times becoming the first ever Quadruple Triple Crowner. He went back out and did the PCT last summer as well.
Janna and I head back to the room where we pack up and head back out to the trail.
Tonight will be our last night on the Arizona Trail.
As we hike down to the highway and meet back up with the AZT, we run into Tyson and Barrel. We first and last met Tyson when he had dinner in the woods with Janna, Bilbo, and I just south of Tusayan. We join the two for a bit, hiking through the woods and just soaking it up. The AZT began descending over the miles. The dirt became drier, the heat hotter, and the vegetation became juniper and sage. We were leaving the extensive conifers behind for one last plunge into the desert.
Giant sagebrush meadows ringed with junipers became our day. At once, the expansive views of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument opened before us. The steps of Utah. Canyon country.
We finished up today’s 18 miles by camping in a vast sweep of junipers. We got our last water source from a manhole cover next to a wildlife tank. Tyson’s wife was driving their #vanlife vehicle to meet him and the whole group of a us made a giant campfire and ate tons of food under the stars. Only 10 miles left. A fitting community for this last night on the AZT.
After such a peaceful night’s sleep, I felt incredible. Now, we only had 12 miles to get to Jacob Lake with the promise of a hot meal and some small resupply options at the small store at the Inn. Our only problem now was that we were a day ahead of schedule as we had not taken a Zero Day at the Grand Canyon. Knowing that Jacob Lake Inn had cabins and rentals, we decided to secure a room for tonight. That way, we could recover this afternoon and leave by late day tomorrow to get to our last campsite before finishing.
The morning was equally sublime. We walked through beautiful ponderosa pine with no snow while green grass spread new growth on the forest floor. We passed several filled tanks and saw several Kaibab Squirrels, the iconic species of the northern Kaibab Plateau/Arizona Strip. By late morning, we hit the trailhead adjacent to Highway 89A and signed the trail register. Turning left, we walked up the highway for two miles to Jacob Lake where we promptly grabbed two seats at the restaurant and put back from burgers, fries, and some pastries. The room was available for a little bit still so we sat outside the Kaibab National Forest Ranger Station on picnic tables, soaking up the glorious warmth and blue sky while charging electronics and making phone calls.
Once our room was ready, we were stunned to find truly awesome lodging. For all our times being in this area, I had NO idea how nice the Inn rooms were. Immediately, we grabbed hot showers - our first since Flagstaff. It was fucking amazing to relax.
Plus, I knew we would finish. For all the uncertainties about my knee, we were a mere day’s hike (that we were going to break into 2 days to meet Darren on schedule) from the end. Now, we had time to digest where we had been, what we had seen, and what we had thought. By dinner, we headed back over to the restaurant and ate equally enormous meals, chatting with staff and talking to some local hunters. Back in the hotel room we got to work doing one more cleaning of gear and clothing, plus repackaging food from the store for one last time. Afterwards, we sprawled on the beds and enjoyed watching a few hours of movies.
I was totally relaxed.
A calm morning greeted us with the light of day. Outside, low hung snow clouds kissed the upper tips of the trees. The wind was calm, and we felt exhausted. The shadows of trees cast long across the frosted white blanket around us, the length of their umbras accentuating a silent buzz. I gathered a weather report from the Garmin InReach mini that said storms on the North Rim would dissipate early today and completely disappear, but there was still a chance of snow in our location. Regardless, we ate breakfast slowly wrapped in our quilts in the Triplex. As soon as it was done, Janna and I agreed to get the fuck out of there.
The field was easier to navigate and avoid ice water sinks than it had been in the dark. Around us, the world was silent, snow muffling sound. It was starkly beautiful. The spruce and firs stood sentinel on all horizon edges while the snow lay untarnished in all directions with the gray slag of clouds above. We climbed down the snow embankment and rejoined the road. Snowfields stretched for miles in front and behind us. We continued our road walk north.
It was easy going now that the day was new and the wind had died. For water, it was a simple matter of using snowmelt streams roadside. Due to the fact that little to no traffic was up here, road effluent contamination seemed little. The miles continued and the high point on the plateau finally began to slightly dip. The elevation gradually dropped and as it did, the snow levels began to decrease. The pack went from my eye level to only a few feet deep. The earth began to appear as dully green/brown patches. By the time we hit 8,500 feet in elevation, most of the meadows emerged, waterlogged with numerous alpine ponds and lakes. Truly gorgeous. We passed by lakes half frozen and half melted. Roads lay partially unburied and signs for the AZT plunged into the white.
The long road walk for 20 miles on a paved surface began to irritate Janna’s plantar fasciitis. By mid-morning, having easily logged 15 miles, the road bisected a particularly large alpine meadow and the absent wind returned. It blew hard and bitter against our faces. Upon reentry into the woods, a small hunter’s and cross country ski hut stood up an adjoining lane. We walked up to it and took a break from the cold wind and put our feet up. There were old tables, chairs, and a few rooms inside the public cabin. We sat down and took a long break, eating food, and dreaming of warmth. Back out on the road, we saw a thru-hiker approaching. It was Rambler, an old retiree who had stealth camped in lower elevations than us the night before. We walked and talked with him for a bit as the road definitively took a much steeper dive into lower elevations, leaving most of the snowpack behind. I checked Guthook and saw the road and AZT nearly reconvene, so we left the road and jumped back onto the gorgeous alpine singletrack.
The Arizona Trail wound its way through the thick woods, leaving the road behind. We hiked up and over large patches of snow and crisscrossed meadows of snowmelt and aspen stands. Rambler stopped to take a break and we bit him goodbye. Traces of snowshoes prints lay in front of us. We crossed out of spruce, pine, and firs into a large meadow where Janna got water from a small lake/tank. From there, the AZT ascended a neighboring hill. The cold had taken a back seat while the sun came out more forcefully. It was filling great. After a mile or two, the trail made a climb up onto a large plateau where a massive burn area lay. The burn was from years ago, but the totality of it made the next 10 miles exposed.
Small aspen, a fire-loving species, grew in tremendous numbers at shoulder height everywhere. I remarked how in 50 years this would be an amazing forest to come walk through in the autumn for fall colors. The sun arched the sky as we walked through the charred and fire-stunted landscape. Grasses and other pioneer species were growing rapidly everywhere, replenishing the vegetative spread. But man did that burn area feel like forever. Deer flitted in and out, browsing on the new buds of life. There were sections where large snow patches required careful navigation on steep slopes and fallen trees. We descended a large hill and found unburned section with beautiful massive ponderosa pines. The ponderosas became the dominant plant type again as the spruce and firs kept to the higher elevations.
Suddenly, the clearing of burned trees allowed a long-distance view into the Vermillion Cliffs. One of my favorite places on Earth, the Vermillion Cliffs are remote and STUNNING. They hold one of the longest and deepest slot canyons on Earth along with an excellent gravel grinding route along House Rock Valley Road. To see the red cliffs, the finale at the Utah border ahead of us, made the reality of the Arizona Trail ending more real.
As evening approached, we hit a cement wildlife tank where we refilled water. Pushing on in the slant of dark, we exited the burn area into a small wooded grove of trees untouched by fire. Excellent camping abounded and we setup the Triplex in the gathering dark. THIS felt protected from the wind. The temperatures were amiable and the wind was nearly absent. A spread of soft pine needles provided my ideal floor for camping. We ate dinner on old fallen logs and laughed about the insane past few days we have had. We had hiked 60 miles in two days, left rain on the South Rim, traversed the Grand Canyon, slept through a winter storm on the North Rim, and found ourselves in a gorgeous grove on a soft evening. As ate heartily, my appetite fully returned. Rambler camped across from us, echoing a “Hello!” in the dark. We climbed into the Triplex and slept fitfully and deeply.