Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Passage 16 in a Superbloom

By Michael Lanza

We’re not even five minutes into our backpacking trip when a sound all too familiar startles us: a long, scratchy rattling noise. We stop abruptly and Pam says, “There it is,” pointing at the rattlesnake lying along the railroad tracks that our trail briefly follows before it moves away from the tracks to trace a winding route down the desert valley of the brown, silted Gila River in southern Arizona.

After admiring the snake’s noise-making prowess and size for a few moments—from a safe distance—we walk a wide berth around this fellow so as not to agitate him any further and continue on one of the most unexpectedly and consistently pretty multi-day hikes I’ve taken in recent memory, on a section of the Arizona Trail.

Just a few days ago, the idea of backpacking this AZT section had not even popped up on our radar.

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Backpackers hiking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.
Pam and Mark Solon backpacking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.

Forced to abandon plans to backpack in some canyons off southern Utah’s Cedar Mesa plateau by a succession of early spring storms that wracked all of Utah (and dropped many feet of snow upon the Wasatch ski resorts—so there was that redeeming value), my friends Mark and Pam Solon and I were driving south still in search of a Plan B when we walked into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in St. George, Utah, and found an employee there who had thru-hiked the Arizona Trail. He called the AZT’s passage 16 through the Gila River Canyons one of his favorite sections. And when we subsequently consulted the AZT website, we found it describes that section’s scenery as among the trail’s best outside the Grand Canyon.

Thanks to our decision to step into that BLM office and good fortune in finding that worker on that morning, we had our Plan B.

The Arizona Trail Passage 16

A day after that serendipitous encounter in St. George, we set out in mid-morning on a three-day, out-and-back hike along the AZT’s passage 16 in temps around 60 degrees Fahrenheit on April Fools’ Day, with a slight, cool breeze—conditions that wouldn’t be better if we had been able to custom order the weather. It feels like the perfect antidote to a particularly long and cold winter.

As it turns out, our arrival here proves serendipitously timed as well.

We follow the winding trail over rolling desert hills where saguaro rise to 20 feet or taller and inhabit the land like people in a semi-crowded park. The needle clusters of cholla cacti appear to glow in the almost blinding sunshine. Barrel cacti and other thorny plants share common ground space.

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Backpackers hiking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.
Pam and Mark Solon backpacking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.

But even amid those grandly conspicuous flora, the wildflowers dominate the landscape and command our attention, covering the ground in a profusion of colors. We’d been told that our arrival has coincided with a rare superbloom, a phenomenon somewhat unique to the deserts of Arizona and southern California that occurs when precipitation and temperatures in preceding months cause numerous species of wildflowers to germinate and blossom almost simultaneously in early spring. Bursting from the earth in unison like a flash mob, their vivid colors carpet the ground for miles in all directions. Prominent are Mexican gold poppies, bluedicks, and purple lupines.

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A backpacker hiking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.
Pam Solon backpacking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.

We walk through a dense garden of plant life that belies the aridity of this southern Arizona Sonoran Desert. Around every turn, another stunning scene unveils itself, with bigger, older saguaro reaching 30 to 40 feet tall and other cacti and grasses and flowers marching up hillsides to a sky bluer than a mountain lake, the blend of sharply contrasting colors almost hypnotizing (and delightful to avid photographers like Mark and me). Broken rocks formed eons before the continent’s last glacial period litter the trail. Lizards dash under and over rocks and the baked earth. In the distance, eroded rock formations with names like The Spine, Copper Butte, and The Rincon tower above the desert.

After almost six hours and nearly 11 miles of hiking under the sun’s steadily rising intensity—it feels quite hot even though the day’s high temp doesn’t push much past around 80° F, a strong signal that one does not want to hike here much later than early April—we turn down the dry wash of Walnut Canyon. Walking over and around large rocks and desiccated scrub brush, tree trunks, and other flash-flood debris that lies scattered wall-to-wall across the wash, we follow the dry wash to the banks of the Gila River.

Moments before reaching the river, we locate the essential element necessary for us to survive out here for two more days: water. Right where we expected to find it, a spring emerges from underground, forming a clear trickle about three inches deep in its biggest tiny pool—enough flow and depth to scoop water out using a hard-sided bottle, a task we execute slowly and carefully so as not to stir up sediment and cloud our drinking and cooking water. This trickle flows timidly toward the river but disappears again into the ground not more than 30 feet from where it breaks into the open, before reaching the Gila (although it almost certainly drains underground to the river).

This will be our lone water source through the next two days.

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Backpackers hiking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.
Pam and Mark Solon backpacking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.

We pitch our tents just a few minutes’ walk from the spring, in the partial shade of tall cottonwoods. But we only receive the salvation of complete shade when the blazing sun drops behind the desert hills in early evening; only then does the air feel suddenly less stifling and almost comfortable. The cloudless desert night will cool down enough to require very light down jackets by morning—but never drop to a temperature that anyone would call “chilly,” merely pleasantly cool.

Walking to the river’s edge to stand beside its brown, thickly silted flow—a clear visualization of the near impossibility of harvesting water that’s consumable for us from the Gila—I stand quietly, listening to the low, soft hissing as it swiftly passes by carrying untold tons of fine sand and grit.

That’s the soundtrack of a river of very watery mud.

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Dayhiking in the Sonoran Desert Mountains

The next morning, we depart camp before the sun has reached the valley bottom, hoping to walk for as long as possible in the cooler morning temperatures and shade giving way to lower-angle sunlight. Leaving most of our gear in camp, carrying only daypacks that contain mostly water (four liters each, plus some food and the only extra layer we might need, an ultralight wind shell), we continue following the AZT generally west (although we’re technically hiking the AZT northbound).

The trail remains mostly above the river and its corridor of cottonwoods and dense brush, rarely within sight or earshot of it. But where the trail reaches higher vantage points, we get expansive views of the Gila Valley, surprisingly green with cottonwoods and other hardy, desert-adapted trees crowding the river’s flood zone.

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Hikers on the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.
Pam and Mark Solon dayhiking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.

Where the AZT banks a 90-degree turn to the north, we begin a steady ascent, our vistas expanding as we climb higher. Stone spires rise out of desert mountains. Broken cliffs of multi-colored rock loom across a dry wash valley to one side of the trail. We again walk for miles through a shockingly colorful landscape vibrant with plant life, from giant saguaro to the tiny wildflowers silently screaming out their colors. The cholla cacti we pass by here grow taller than those we saw in the valley bottom, in clusters that spread over broader patches of hillside; again, the sun pierces their dense needles in a way that almost creates an illusion of burning bushes.

After perhaps a couple of hours climbing uphill, we turn around to start our long, hot return to camp. On the way back down, we come upon another serendipitous find: a desert tortoise, larger than a soccer ball, ambling tediously across the trail—living in terrain that’s miles from the nearest water that we know of. Although bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and Gila monsters dwell in this desert (and I’d love to see a Gila monster, but we won’t on this trip), besides the rattler, birds, and the ubiquitous lizards, this tortoise will be the only animal we see.

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Hikers on the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.
Pam and Mark Solon dayhiking the Arizona Trail Passage 16 in the Gila River Canyon.

The desert delivers one surprise after another.

By early afternoon, my photographer’s eye notices how the daylight this early in spring visibly transitions from the harsh, directly overhead sun of midday to a lower angle that lends the landscape more contrast and depth and softer, richer light—more confirmation, for me, of the accidentally propitious timing of our hike.

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