Fewer than 20 people have ever ridden the entire National Arizona Scenic Trail, known as the Arizona Trail, which winds 820 miles from the Mexican border to Utah.
Those who have managed to ride the trail’s entire length had different strategies. Some have done the whole trail at once. In 2013, four young Texans rode once-wild Mustangs they trained themselves. Their epic journey was captured by the film Unbranded (www.unbrandedthefilm.com).
A few Arizona horse owners accomplished the feat by riding sections of the trail at various interludes over several years.
Limited to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians, the Arizona Trail contains some of the wildest, most rugged country in the United States. Don’t underestimate its remoteness, heat, lack of water, and difficult desert, canyon, and mountain terrain.
Consider undertaking this journey only if you’re an experienced backcountry trail rider on a trail-savvy mount — and even then, you’ll need to carefully plan and prepare before you go.
However, most any seasoned trail rider can tackle the Arizona Trail’s more benign stretches to enjoy an afternoon or overnight ride in breathtaking scenery.
Planning Your Trek
When planning your trek, the best resource is the Arizona Trail Association (www.aztrail.org). This nonprofit organization is responsible for building, maintaining, promoting, protecting, and sustaining the trail.
Also, invest in the book, Your Complete Guide to the Arizona National Scenic Trail, by Matthew Nelson, executive director of the ATA. This book contains gorgeous photos and all the trail particulars.
You might also consider contacting the Copper State Trail Riders, a club formed in 2012. Members camp and ride a section of the Arizona Trail monthly.
Member Jodie Franklin says the group combines the fun of trail riding with fund- raising for the ATA to help create places on the Arizona Trail to accommodate horse trailers and tow vehicles.
To find the Copper State club’s schedule of activities, click the horseback-rider icon on the ATA’s website.
Lynn Maring took six years to ride from the Mexican border to the Utah border on the Arizona Trail, aboard her Tennessee Walking Horse, Dreamer. She offers sage advice to trail riders, based on her experiences.
“The rider and horse must be in excellent shape, be able to problem-solve quickly, and be self-sufficient,” Lynn says. “Do not attempt to do the whole trail or a rugged section by yourself.
“Keep in mind that cellphones don’t work in the wilderness, so you’ll need a personal emergency locator. Trailheads and campsites are strictly primitive. Water availability can be a huge issue.”
Lynn also notes the trail’s potential challenges that can cause a rider to turn back: “Flash floods, forest fires, bears, mountain lions, cactus, and stinging insects.”
As you plan your trip, be sure to consider the segment of the trail that runs through the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is closed from late fall to early spring, as it’s at a high elevation, is remote, and gets very cold. On the other hand, temperatures at the bottom of the Grand Canyon soar to 110 degrees and higher in the summer.
The trick is to time your ride through the Grand Canyon when the North Rim is open, but temperatures at the bottom are manageable for both your horse and you. Late summer or early fall is often the best time to complete this segment.
Obtain permits in advance of your trip if you’ll be camping overnight in Saguaro or Grand Canyon National Parks.
Diane Wertz has ridden the Arizona Trail in sections, with her husband, Dick, serving as crew support. She says the most difficult passages are through the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains, in part because the areas are so rocky, steep, and remote that they’re seldom groomed by volunteer Trail Stewards.
Diane also notes that you and your horse will need to feel comfortable crossing through tunnels under major highways.
On Lynn Maring’s first attempt, she found some sections so difficult, she swore she’d never ride them again. But she’s returning to the trail to honor her commitment to accompany her riding friend, Bonnie, who wants to replicate Lynn’s accomplishment.
Last April, the duo rode over the Four Peaks passage, which can be impassable, due to an overgrowth of manzanita. They made it through, but only because the trail had recently received maintenance.
But, Lynn says, it was the scariest ride of her life! The trail was just two feet wide in places, with soft edges.
Lynn had to dismount in a fierce wind to cut a dead tree lying across their path. There was only enough room for her to plant one boot on the trail, while the other gripped the cliff edge.
After clearing the tree, Lynn remounted and suddenly heard a rattler. Lynn’s mare tensed up and tilted her head at the green-tinted rattlesnake underfoot.
Horse and rider both in a panic, with no room to maneuver, Lynn frantically tried to decide whether she should spur her mare on in a burst of speed or jump off to save herself from going over the side of the canyon.
In a split second, Dreamer sped up, and the rattlesnake dove into its burrow directly below Lynn’s right stirrup.
“I love this trail!” Lynn exclaims, despite the death-defying challenges she’s faced. “It allows you to ride into the history of Arizona. It makes you gnash your teeth with fear when you come across a hazardous spot, then, moments later, takes your breath away with the beauty.”
Longtime horse owner Jule Drown is a Tucson, health-care manager. Reach her at