Top 8 Backpacking Trips in Arizona

Top 8 Backpacking Trips in Arizona

Deserts are probably one of the first things that come to mind when you think of Arizona. After all, it's home to the Sonoran Desert, the only place towering saguaro cactus grows. You'll also find the iconic Monument Valley. You have likely seen this featured in western desert scenes in movies. And, while a large part of the state is covered in arid biomes, it's also geologically interesting. Many unique rock features can be found across the state. The slot canyons are arguably one of the most interesting. And, of course, there's the infamous Grand Canyon.

Arizona is also known for its mountains, plateaus, basins, and buttes. You'll also find a surprising amount of water features. Two of the most popular are the Colorado River and Havasu Falls. Finally, you can't beat the star gazing due to the lack of light pollution.

So, what are you waiting for? Read on to discover the Grand Canyon State's best backpacking trails!

Featured Photo: Sunset at Superstition Mountain (photo by Geoff Livingston)

White Rock Springs

Do you enjoy weird or spooky stories? You might want to read up on why this area is called the Superstition Mountains beforehand! Strange sounds and disappearances aside, this trail has a lot to offer desert-goers.

At 23 miles, you'll want to plan for a 3-day trip. The route itself is a figure 8. This is nice so you don't have to worry about a shuttle. It also means you can leave your camp set up, leaving you with a much lighter load for hiking the second day. There are lots of opportunities to explore the area. Keep in mind the trails aren't very well-marked. Make sure your navigational skills are up to snuff!

On your hike, you'll find lots of neat rock formations, plant life, and several streams. But, be sure to check in with the ranger district for a water report before you head out. For more details, read our full write-up.

Bright Angel Trail

As you can imagine, there is no shortage of trails and route combinations at Grand Canyon National Park. The Bright Angel Trail is perhaps the most well-known and connects to many others. Alone, it is about 15 miles out and back. You'll welcome the sight of the Colorado River at the turning-around point. Another nice thing about this trail is that there are several “rest houses” and campgrounds along the way. It is worth noting that this trail is narrow and you may come across those traveling by mule.

Have some time and want an extra challenge? You can hike from rim to rim by connecting to the North Kaibab Trail. This route is about 25 miles in total and is arguably one of the best ways to experience the Grand Canyon.

Cochise Stronghold Trail

This 9-mile out-and-back trail is short, but well worth a visit. The Cochise Stronghold Trail is named after an Apache leader. Claiming this area of the Dragoon Mountains for his people, he is also said to be buried here. You'll also find a campground of the same name at the trailhead.

The vegetation along the way is surprisingly thick. It includes prickly pear, juniper, manzanita, and yucca. The landscape is also filled with boulders and other large rock formations. You can stock up on water at Half Moon Tank (a pond). The views get better the farther you ascend. The climb isn't too bad and somewhat gradual. The elevation gain isn't as monumental as some of the other trails on our list, making it a good option for those not used to steep climbs.

Fossil Creek Falls

Waterfalls probably aren't the first things that come to mind when you think of Arizona. But, there are actually quite a few. One is even taller than Niagra Falls!

This short 8.5-mile out-and-back via the Bob Bear Trail will take you to a nice one located in the Tonto National Forest. The spring-fed Fossil Creek is a designated Wild and Scenic River. The falls will feel like an oasis in an otherwise scrubby, rocky land. And, as hot as it can get in the warm months, it will be a welcome place to cool off! You'll also find amazing views of the surrounding mountains and plateaus. And, if you're into wildlife, javelinas are said to be abundant in the area. You might also see aquatic creatures, like beavers and otters.

Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon

Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch is one of the quintessential desert southwest treks. It's definitely not for beginners, though. This 38-mile point-to-point journey is best for experienced hikers due to its remote nature.

There are slot canyons. And then there are these two combined, forming the world's longest slot canyon. Besides the amazing colors and patterns in the rock faces, you'll also find footprints, fossils, and petroglyphs. Then there is the river, which you'll be hiking through much of the way. So, come equipped with extra footwear and check weather reports. Flash flooding is a very real concern.

One of the nice things about this route, besides being full of color and intrigue with its caves, is that there are only so many permits given out per day. This allows you a lot more isolation than some other popular trails. For more logistics, head over to our blog article.

Paria Canyon

Passage 34: San Francisco Peaks

Select few have the time, or will, to do the 800-mile Arizona Trail. Luckily, it can be broken into sections like many other long-distance trails. The San Francisco Peaks one is an especially well-liked area.

This portion traverses 35 miles between Schultz Pass and Cedar Ranch. It's well-maintained with lots of greenery in the form of spruce, pine, and aspen forests along the way. Not surprisingly, you'll also find phenomenal mountain views. Humphrey’s Peak is one of these highlights, being Arizona's tallest at 12,600ft.

There are several water resources (tanks) along the way. Do yourself a favor and take the half-mile trail to Bismarck Lake too. It's an excellent meadow area to spot wildlife and enjoy the mountain views.

Humphreys Peak

Hells Gate Trail

Don't let the relatively short distance (14 miles out and back) of this trail fool you. The very challenging route is aptly named. You can expect extremely rough terrain with rocky, steep slopes. The first few miles aren't too bad. Once things start getting more difficult, you'll know you're getting closer to the stream. Again, it's very rocky, including loose rocks. Watch your footing and take your time where needed.

The trouble is worth it, though, with several waterfalls along the route. There are some excellent swimming holes to cool off in too after a rigorous hike. Keep your eyes open for foxes, black bears, and javelinas. Take that backcountry fishing gear too!

If you're looking for something less rugged with a similar distance, try out the West Baldy Trail in the Mount Baldy Wilderness. Or, extend your 14 miles and make it a loop by connecting with the East Baldy Trail. It's worth noting that the peak of Mount Baldy is part of an Apache Reservation, so you must ask permission to visit first.

Keet Seel Trail

You'll have to jump through hoops to even be able to get on this 17-mile trail. But, we think you'll agree it's well worth it. First, you'll have to acquire 1 of only 20 permits that are granted each day. Then, you'll have to take an orientation class the day before you set out. This is because of the ancient ruins, the highlight of the Keet Seel Trail. Plus, it's also good to know what you're getting into as far as hazards, such as rattlesnakes and quicksand. And last, but not least, the trail is only open for a few months each year to preserve the area.

Don't let all of that put you off, though. You'll find breathtaking views from Tsegi Point. Feel like a true adventurer as you rock hop across Laguna Creek and avoid quicksand. Several waterfalls make nice rest stops further on. The main attraction is the remains of the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings. When you first arrive, you may not even notice the ruins at first as they're so well camouflaged with their surroundings.

Location Map

The following map shows the location of each trailhead for your reference. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate to each trailhead and see the various trails.

For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.


Have you been on any of these trails? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below. Or, let us know about other great trails in Arizona!

Read Next

If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our “Best Backpacking Trips in the Desert Southwest” round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.

Hike of the Week: Halls Creek Narrows
Hike of the Week: Canyonlands-Needles District
Hike of the Week: Trans-Zion Trek

For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.

The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

Hike Roundup USA Southwest

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