Top 10 Arizona hikes
These are 10 of his favorites, but really, who can narrow a "best" list to just 10?
Top 10 lists are all the rage, so I might as well get in on the act. Let’s talk hiking trails. Here are 10 of my absolute favorites. I hesitate to call them the best in all of Arizona, but they certainly could be. Of course, I could easily come up with a half-dozen more lists of hikes that would be equally spectacular.
Yet if you only hike these 10 trails, you’ll experience vivid scenery, a diverse landscape, plenty of wildlife and seasonal beauty. And you’ll fall passionately in love with Arizona. Just like me.
West Fork, Sedona
This creekside walk into a high-walled, forested gorge is one of the most beautiful trails in Arizona. And in the Grand Canyon State, that says plenty. The path traces a gentle stream into a narrow defile framed by soaring cliffs. It’s a mesmerizing combination of soft forest and sheer stone, intimacy and dizzying drama. The maintained trail runs 3 miles and includes a dozen creek crossings, so wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Echoes of birdsong and the splashy stream fill the canyon. The trail passes ledges and overhangs, ending at a pool lapping at brutish cliffs. Gorgeous all year long, West Fork is especially gorgeous when clad in autumn colors.
Details: 928-203-2900, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.
South Kaibab, Grand Canyon
Screamingly steep, shadeless and sun-beaten may not sound like an endorsement, but those are what make the South Kaibab astounding. Most Grand Canyon trails follow a fault line that limits range of vision. But Kaibab is a torpedo, launching from the rim and chasing a ridgeline down and out across the Canyon. At 1.5 miles, you reach the comfy plateau called Cedar Ridge. The trail curves past O’Neill Butte and approaches Skeleton Point, offering your first glimpse of the Colorado River. From here, the trail drops through a natural break in the Redwall Limestone in steep switchbacks that deposit you on the scrubby Tonto Plateau. And when you think the Kaibab can’t get steeper, it plunges steeply for the final 2 gorgeous, colorful miles until it reaches the Kaibab Suspension Bridge crossing to Phantom Ranch.
Details: 928-638-7888, www.nps.gov/grca.
Wildcat, Monument Valley
There are many ways to explore the radiant desolation of Monument Valley. But to have a piece of it all to yourself, hike the Wildcat — the only trail in the tribal park visitors can experience without a Navajo guide. It brushes so close to the iconic Mittens formations that you can almost feel them holding you. Starting from the campground, the trail drops to the valley floor, where blocky towers vault from sand and sagebrush and pierce a tall sky. Curving through gnarled scrub and wind-bent junipers, Wildcat loops around West Mitten. For a hike through such a broad sweep of land, it feels surprisingly intimate. The easy walking gives you a chance to consume every detail.
Details: 435-727-5874, www.navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm.
Hugh Norris, Tucson
Unlike most summit hikes, which are cruel slogs, the Hugh Norris Trail is an airy jaunt that keeps your noggin on a swivel while you gawk at one sweeping view after another. There are a few moderately steep pitches, but that only sweetens the deal. It makes you feel as if you earn the expansive vistas that are among the best in Tucson. Set in Saguaro National Park west of downtown, the trail carves a route through classic Sonoran landscape to the top of 4,687-foot-high Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains. The trail starts out on a cactus-studded bajada and switchbacks up to snag a rocky ridgeline. From there, the trail angles towards Wasson, hugging first one side of the high shoulder and then the other.
Details: 520-733-5158, www.nps.gov/sagu.
Horton Creek, Mogollon Rim
Being a waterway in Arizona often is a seasonal job. Many flow as feisty as an overcaffeinated terrier during rainy times and then lie around in sandy pajamas the rest of the year. Horton Creek is no part-timer. Horton goes non-stop, rumbling in a furious rush through rich forest at the base of the Mogollon Rim. That combo makes a spectacular day of hiking. The trail follows an old wagon road paralleling the creek. Several paths lead to the water, guarded by cottonwood, Arizona sycamore and bigtooth maple. Spend time enjoying the splashy music of cascades and mini-falls and the wet sigh of widening pools. The last section of the trail steepens as it climbs to Horton Spring, a frothy geyser spilling over moss-covered boulders.
Details: 928-474-7900, www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Heart of Rocks, Chiricahua National Monument
Hidden in the southeastern corner of the state, Chiricahua National Monument is the most unsung Arizona location. The park shelters an exotic array of stone sculpted by nature. Massive columns, slender spires and impossibly balanced boulders loom above the timber. The skyline seems built from the splintered remains of ancient castles. A network of trails provides hikers with several options. The short loop through Heart of Rocks is the craggy core of the park, where you’ll find the most spectacular formations. The easiest route is via a trio of trails: Ed Riggs, Mushroom Rock and Big Balanced Rock. The Heart of Rocks loops through a weird stone garden filled with such formations as Thor’s Hammer, Duck on a Rock, Punch and Judy, Camel’s Head and Totem Pole.
Details: 520-824-3560, www.nps.gov/chir.
Sycamore Rim, Williams
This trail delivers a lot of bang for the buck, making a long loop through rippling grass prairie, pine forests and copses of twisted oaks, past tumbledown cabins and multiple ponds and skirting the edge of sheer-walled Sycamore Canyon. The most accessible trailhead is Dow Spring. You’ll quickly spot the ruins of a century-old sawmill and the spring with several small pools that in summer are filled with water-lily blossoms. When was the last time you saw water lilies on an Arizona trail? Near the halfway point, you’ll glimpse Sycamore Falls. Very occasionally, water is tumbling, but normally it’s dry. You’ll see rock climbers making their ascents on perpendicular walls. Ideally, no tumbling is involved.
Details: 928-635-5600, www.fs.usda.gov/kaibab.
Monolith Garden, Kingman
Kingman keeps its hiking bounty on the down-low. The city has constructed a beautiful network of trails slashing across the Cerbat Foothills Recreation Area but doesn’t do much to promote them. The Monolith Garden Trail is the best of the bunch, a tangled route through dramatic boulder fields and crumbling ramparts of volcanic ash. Three trailheads and multiple forks make Monolith Garden a bit of a maze, so grab a map at Kingman Visitor Center before you start. Even through you’re right on the doorstep of town, this trail turns you loose for a fast spin through low, slanted hills and past stacked-rock towers and hunched ridgelines toothy with columns.
Details: 928-718-3700, www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/recreation/hiking/monolith.html.
West Baldy, Springerville-Eagar
When you envision the perfect mountain trail, you’re dreaming of West Baldy. You start out ambling across sun-smooched meadows near the banks of a clear-running river. The Little Colorado loops right to the edge of the trail in places. After 3 miles, you enter an ancient, cathedral-like forest with big downed logs, lichen-crusted boulders and a loamy perfume wafting through stands of pine, spruce and fir. The trail climbs at a steady pace. You'll rack up a lot of miles at high elevation. From the ridge just short of the summit, wide vistas are visible. The actual summit is on the Fort Apache Reservation, where access is restricted to tribal members. Please respect their laws and don’t trespass.
Details: 928-333-6200, www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf.
This high-country ramble delivers a big-mountain experience with no real climbing, bless its woodsy heart. And the when the aspens turn in autumn, the slopes are absolutely golden. It’s one of the best high-country shows. Kachina follows a gently rolling course across the midsection of the San Francisco Peaks, dipping in and out of shallow drainages and skirting small cliffs. It stays mostly level as it passes through conifer groves and huddled aspens flanked by slanted meadows filled with waist-high bracken ferns. On the second half of the hike, the pastures widen to expose lovely views of mountaintops above and towns, buttes and hills far below.