Matthew Nelson was trekking along in the Santa Rita Mountains, just southeast of Tucson, when he came upon a little brown sign on the trail.
Little did he know back in 1994 the discovery of the sign would eventually lead to Nelson, 39, becoming the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association that oversees the Arizona National Scenic Trail two and a half years ago.
“I was just moving along, and there was a brown sign that said ‘Arizona National Trail.’ I thought it was so cool that there was this long-distance trail here in Arizona,” he said. “I started helping out with trail building and maintenance and just fell in love with it. It reminded of my hometown (Big Pine, Calif.) that was in the middle of the Pacific Crest Trail.
“It is this hidden little secret here in Arizona that is an incredible place for hikers to see the entire expanse of Arizona.”
The Arizona National Scenic Trail is more than 800 miles of recreation trails from Mexico to Utah that connects mountain ranges, canyons, deserts, forests, wilderness areas, historic sites, trail systems and points of interest.
It serves day hikers, backpackers, equestrians, mountain bicyclists, trail runners, nature enthusiasts, cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
The closest it gets to the East Valley is on the east side of the Superstition Mountains along the Two Bar Bridge through Roosevelt Lake.
There is no cost or permits needed for the most part to access the 43 segments, including some of the state’s top areas like the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon and Buckskin Mountain, which caps the trail on its northern end.
Some have hiked the entire 820 miles, like Tucson’s Sirena Dufault, who recently did it in order to raise awareness and raise money for the Arizona National Trail, but it is more practical, of course, to do it a segment or two at a time.
This time of the year, it is a perfect season to hit up the northern portions of the trail such as the San Francisco Peaks all the way through the Grand Canyon portions - the Kaibab National Forest on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
During the winter months, the best bet for Valley residents is to head toward Superior and take on the Gila River Canyons, Picketpost Trailhead and goes 38 miles to the Gila River.
“It’s an incredible area that wouldn’t otherwise be seen,” Nelson said. “Arizona is known for its beauty, but most of it isn’t even seen unless you take the trail. There are people from all over the world coming here just to see our beauty and yet there are people who have lived here all of their lives and don’t know anything about it.”
TThe mission of the Arizona Trail Association is to build, maintain, promote, protect and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land. They do that through individual donations, business partnership and fundraising events. It is how most nonprofit organizations get by, and the maintenance that comes with an 800-mile trail isn’t always covered by federal programs, as most expect.
The Arizona Trail Association also makes connections through its gateway communities like Flagstaff to the north, Pine in the central portion of the state and Patagonia in the south, while also organizing outdoor learning opportunities for youth throughout the state.
The trail is most known for, of course, the scenic views unique to Arizona.
Denis Ryan, a Phoenix resident and avid hiker, has taken in about eight of the 43 segments, and each time he seeks out a new one, he is just as impressed.
“Whenever people get out there, they fall in love with it,” Ryan said. “There are people who dedicate their lives to this project and it has taken 20 years (actually 300 to build this thing. It has been around for ages, but now it is being maintained and grown. It’s about getting people out there and supporting it.
“This should be about creating an awareness and a legacy so generations of families can step foot on areas that were first traveled by the explorers in Arizona.”
The trail, which was designated as a National Scenic Trail in 2009, is pretty amazing considering the different types of terrain and climates in Arizona.
It touches national forests, crosses ancient cliff dwellings and national monuments, enters one of the “Wonders of the World” and rises to as high as 9,000 feet and can be enjoyed by mountain bikers, horse riders and hikers.
“We live in one of the best and most diverse areas in the world for hiking,” Nelson said. “People tend to stick with what they already know, so they don’t always venture past it, but there are some new challenges and tons of beautiful areas of Arizona that would otherwise never be seen if it were not for the Arizona National Scenic Trail.”
For directions to trailheads, maps, and more information on the Arizona Trail, visit www.aztrail.org/.