The terrain was about as expected: easier in the north, more challenging in the south. Some portions are a little harder than the PCT but some are easier, I would say that in my experience, the overall difficulty is probably on par with the terrain of the PCT.
The highest points on the AZT are over 9,000 feet. The lowest point around 1,700 feet. The Arizona Trail is divided into 43 passages (which can be somewhat confusing as they seem to be a tool designed for day and section hikers) which are numbered from low to high, south to north – or backwards if you’re SOBO. Southbound, the elevation gain is 110,683 feet and the elevation loss is 111,597 feet (total 222,000+ feet). A few overview maps can be found through the aztrail.org website. A profile can be found on the Guthook AZT app. I used the Guthook AZT app and carried the paper maps as a backup, but never once used them. If I did it again, instead of the paper maps, I would download the GPS track to my Garmin InReach as a backup to save weight.
Most trail descriptions are oriented for those hiking south to north, or NOBO. I’ll break down the trail for you north to south, or SOBO.
North to south, the AZT starts at the Utah-Arizona border on the edge of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. You traverse across the Kaibab Plateau and reach a high point over 9000 feet on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Down and then up, you climb into and out of the giant gash in the earth that is the Grand Canyon. From the south rim of the Grand Canyon you traverse across the Coconino Plateau. North of Flagstaff you climb up onto and then down off of the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks then south across the San Francisco Plateau. South of Mormon Lake you will “come down off the rim”, the Mogollon Rim, and begin the transition from high desert to low desert. South of Pine, you alternate descents to rivers or low spots and climbs into mountains. Down to the East Verde River, up into the Mazatzal Wilderness, down again, then up into the Four Peaks Wilderness, down to Roosevelt Lake, up into the Superstitions, then down into Superior. South of Superior you will briefly climb near Picket Post, then descend to the low point of the AZT – around 1700 feet – at the Gila River. Continue across the Sonoran Desert from here and into the “sky island” terrain. First you’ll go up into the Santa Catalinas, northeast of Tucson. The next sky island is the Rincons, southeast of Tucson, where you will enter into Saguaro National Park. Then down into Rincon Valley near Colossal Cave Park. Up into the Santa Ritas and onto the flanks of Mount Wrightson. Then traverse south and east into and out of the Huachuca Mountains, then at last you’ll find yourself at the US-Mexico border! You did it!
The easiest parts of the trail tended to be in northern AZ, where the trail is flat. There were several harder parts of the trail. The Grand Canyon was challenging, especially since I did it in a quick 2 days. It would have been easier if I had camped first at Cottonwood Camp and then a second night at Bright Angel campground. Although either way, the uphill has to be tackled in one go so be prepared. The stretch south of Pine, getting into the Mazatzals and before the East Verde River was more difficult than expected, mostly because the footing was rocky, largely volcanic, and unstable. Hiking through the Four Peaks Wilderness was also hard because the trail is a lot of up and down as it hugs the steep mountainsides. I also found hiking up into the Rincons difficult as portions were very steep. The trail is quite steep on the stretch into the Huachucas, too. Some portions of trail are a bit overgrown with cats claw and other rough vegetation, but not totally impassable.
I’m happy I hiked the AZT SOBO because my body was able to get used to the miles on my feet before having to push my endurance levels up and down mountains. It’s also nice to be able to hike on the north side of mountains, often in shadow on the uphill – definitely a SOBO advantage. I felt that mostly the downside to SOBO was the decreasing light levels every day.
PS for pics see my Instagram