Grand Canyon/Photo Credit: Becca Bright

Backpacking the Arizona Trail with Jason Mark

Here at Island Press, I spend much of my time reading about our authors’ work in wild and remote places from the confines of a desk chair. So last May, I jumped at the chance to venture away from the office on a backpacking trip with Jason Mark, author of Satellites in the High Countryand the winners of our Keep It Wild sweepstakes contest. I’d never set foot in Arizona, but my colleagues armed me with a GoPro camera and helpful advice—shake out boots in case of scorpions—and I was ready to hike.

Before our group of seven hit the trail, we met leaders from Save the ConfluenceGrand Canyon Trust, and the Sierra Club in Flagstaff to learn more about some of the threats facing the Grand Canyon region. Although the Grand Canyon was one of the first places in America protected as a national monument, the park itself is relatively narrow around the canyon itself. Much of the larger area is open to uranium mining, old-growth logging, and invasive new tourism development. Our Arizona Trail hike would take us through the Kaibab National Forest, on land that would be fully protected t if the proposed Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument is established.

We began the next morning at the Moqui Stage Station trailhead, once a stop on the stagecoach route from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, where we divvied up gear and took group photos before heading off into the low scrub. For the first two days, we would hike on the Arizona Trail, which runs from Mexico to Utah across more than 800 miles—the Southwest’s under-the-radar answer to the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail. We were lucky enough to receive logistical support and deep Arizona Trail knowledge from seasoned hiker and naturalist Sirena and others at the Arizona Trail Association, including a drop-off at the start of our trek.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Bright

The terrain was not the saguaro catcti and plateaus of Western movies that I’d expected. Instead, the trail took us through low scrubland of pinyon-juniper, sage, and grasses, with relatively open views and a chance to greet grazing horses. As we continued north and began to climb, the landscape changed around us and we walked under looming ponderosa pine, which, as Jason demonstrated, smell like butterscotch or vanilla when shove your nose right up against the bark.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Bright

Friends at the Arizona Trail Association had left a cache of water at bone-dry Russel Tank, and we collected our bottles before hiking on a few miles to set up camp at the base of Coconino Rim. Leaving our packs behind, we walked on to catch our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon in the distance. Through gaps in the trees and a bit of haze, the canyon was alluring, but it was tough to get any real idea of its scale. I thought about something Sirena had said the day before—can you imagine stumbling upon the Canyon before the era of GPS or even basic maps, with no advance warning? At our campsite that night, we cooked up mac and cheese with kale and counted satellites, and went to bed knowing that every bend in the trail the next day would bring us closer to the Canyon.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Bright

The next morning, we continued on along the Coconino Rim, catching views of the Canyon that got better and better. The end goal of day two was Grandview Tower, a fire lookout built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936 that now includes a Forest Service campground. Sirena met us there with Arizona Trail beer—liquid courage for climbing 80 feet to the top of the tower, which creaked in the wind. We were rewarded by an overview the Canyon, a preview of the next day, when we would get in the van and drive across the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Bright

The next day, we took in the hustle and bustle of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, shifting from being some of the few humans on our stretch of the Arizona Trail to joining throngs of visitors from around the world. Leaving the crowds behind, Sirena took us to a few of her favorite spots, and we enjoyed incredible views and stories of the canyon from the afternoon through sunset and well after the stars came out. There’s nothing like visiting a new place with someone who knows it intimately.


Photo Credit: Rebecca Bright

It’s easy to imagine spending a lifetime exploring the Grand Canyon area—every new vantage point or shift in the light seems to bring out a new feature or personality in the land. We celebrated our last night at Mather Campground with a bonfire and s’mores, and I found myself wishing I had a warm enough sleeping bag to sleep under the stars like Jason and Sirena. Maybe I’ll invest in some new gear, and if I’m lucky, Island Press will send me out on another adventure.