The Great Western Loop – Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) Trip Report by Crystal Gail Welcome

The Great Western Loop – Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) Trip Report by Crystal Gail Welcome

The Great Western Loop

The Great Western Loop (GWL) is a 6,875-mile hike through five National Scenic Trails in the Western United States, 12 National Parks, and over 75 wilderness areas. Because it’s a loop, the direction of travel is a hiker’s choice. I intend to complete the Great Western Loop in its entirety in the late fall of 2023. One of those trails is the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT). The AZT is a total of 800 miles, but only 320 miles of those miles are part of the GWL. Despite that, I decided to complete the entire AZT.

Map of the great western loop

The Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT)

The Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) is a non-motorized trail in its entirety, traversing 800 miles across Arizona from the Arizona-Utah border

in Kaibab Plateau in Utah southbound thru Arizona to Monument 102 on the U.S./Mexico border. The AZT connects three national parks, two national monuments, five national forests and Oracle Arizona State Park encapsulating Arizona’s varied beauty. According to the Arizona Trail Association, over a hundred hikers each season set out to complete an end-to-end hike.

The author at a sign about the AZT

The author standing in front of the border monument which is the terminus of the AZT

Section One: The First 400 miles

In September of 2021, I completed the first 400 miles of the AZT (southbound). I enjoyed the AZT in the fall, and became the first neuromodulator recipient to complete the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim with an overnight at Phantom Ranch (the bottom of the Grand Canyon). Due to medical reasons combined with an ill-fitting non-Six Moon Design backpack (brand name withheld) that caused cuts and abrasions on-top of my neurological implant batteries, I ended the trip shy of 400 miles.

A river running through a desert canyon

The author standing by an AZT metal trail marker

A wilderness boundary sign in the high desert of AZ

Section Two: The Last 400 miles

Fun fact, upon completion of the AZT, finishers are awarded with a copper plated, handmade belt buckle. In the spring of 2022, I set out to complete the remaining miles of the AZT. No lie, though I completed the miles of the GWL on the AZT I wanted to finish for the belt buckle. Finishers also become the proud holders of a completion sticker. I have completed various races. including four half-marathons, for medals. But in all seriousness, when I set out to complete something I do it! Even though it makes me a long-ass section hiker versus a thru hiker. I want to go on record here: completing a hiking/backpacking goal that you set out for yourself over time does not make you any less of a hiker. In the case of the AZT, I hiked the same 800 miles that a thru-hiker would. In the running world a 40 minute mile is still a mile. On April 1, 2022 (not an April’s Fool joke) I completed the AZT.

The author at the southern terminus of the AZT

Speaking My Truth

I wasn’t as impressed during my second season on the AZT as I was the previous season. I found myself in snowy weather conditions right off the bat. From mile to mile, there were huge fluctuations between snow and heat. Though prepared, as a native Floridian I found the cold extremes off putting in the otherwise hot and dry climate. Within the first week I found myself bouncing through various weather extremes that made no sense to me. As I made my way southbound, I was often alone for days on end. I tend to enjoy solitude but quickly realized the importance of human connection, if only in brief greetings from strangers. For the first 4 days, I didn’t see another person. As someone who lives with a mental health condition, loneliness set in and my endurance wavered.

The author enjoy her hike under the protection of her umbrella

Midway into the second week, I began crossing paths with other people. I was happy for all brief connections and decided to make each encounter part of a Connection Collage, taking selfies with all consenting people that I encountered (the AZT selfie photos can be located on my Instagram account @footprintsforchange). Subscribe for future photo updates as I will continue this project for the duration of my GWL journey.

The author and a fellow hiker both wearing SMD packs

Hikers hanging out in town

Nearing the End

Loneliness aside, as I grew closer to the Mexican border, I began running into hikers whose complexion were similar hues of brown to mine. However, their end goal was anywhere in the United States. As I conversed with these travelers (Sí, yo hablo Español) I was engulfed in sadness and discontent. Here I was hiking leisurely, with the goal of receiving a copper plated belt buckle (smile). One encounter in particular left a disconsolate imprint on my spirit. I discovered a little girl amongst the backdrop of the Arizona landscape. Her stoic innocence masked the desperation and sallowness as I approached.

My first thought was that her traveling companion(s) were detained. My second thought was, what action should I take. I fed and hydrated the young girl, making the decision to connect with any other adult reflecting the hues of the young girl. I needed to refill my water containers, especially considering I was now carrying water for two. As luck would have it, we arrived at a water trough where there was a group of folks and the little girl ran up to one of the men, yelling “papa!” He explained that everyone dispersed when the border patrol came, but assured me that her safety was most important, which is why he didn’t chase after her.

A gate along the trail near the US Mexican Border

I learned later that expat children have the burden of proof. There’s no way to definitely determine if a non-American born child is not a citizen. I was set to finish the trail the following day and shared my lightweight food with the family. I realize the controversy around expats is a major issue in the U.S. and aiding these individuals in entering the country is a crime. But allowing folks to starve to death is a greater travesty. As we wished one another safe travels, the father of the young girl reached into his pocket and handed me 20 pesos. He said “eres un ángel”. He explained that it was all the money he had and would give me more if he were able. I was hesitant to take the pesos, but he insisted. I traded him a twenty dollar bill in exchange.

Lasting Impact

That pesos holds a scared spot in not only my heart – it is now as a travel bug of sorts tucked away in a safe place as I continue North on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) *side note: I am writing this post as a reflection piece and as of April 15, I have begun hiking the PCT as a part of the GWL. 

The author near the end of the AZT

The memories of that encounter stuck with me. Upon completion of the AZT, a couple of border patrol agents congratulated me on my trek. I thought about my 800 mile journey and how challenging it was at times, yet, those who travel just as far if not more aren’t celebrated upon reaching the same border. My sobering completion and immense sadness I felt followed me to the PCT. I am now nearing the halfway point. Consider this a cliffhanger, as my journey to connect continues.

The author holding a 20 pesos bank note