Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am a big-time hiker and I am an Arizona local. So, it might come as some surprise, that I have never hiked a bit of the Arizona Trail (AZT) until this year! Due to my job, I will likely never be able to thru-hike the AZT, but I am determined to work on section hiking it. In fact, I’ve made it a travel goal of mine to complete the AZT via section hiking! This post represents my first step towards that goal, as Passage 07 Las Cienegas was the first section that I have been able to complete.
This part of the AZT is the perfect place to get started, for both intermediate and expert hikers. That’s because Las Cienegas is a fairly level hike, if long. And it’s length won’t require you to backpack as long as you can arrange for a shuttle and you start early enough. It is also a wonderful introduction to the shrublands of the Sonoran Desert, which need a lot more love than they get.
TL;DR If you want to start section hiking the AZT, consider Las Cienegas as a starting place.
Need to Know
Trail Length: 13 miles one way (we clocked 13.5 miles)
Difficulty: Moderate- 13 miles is a long distance, but this trail doesn’t have a lot of elevation change making it fairly flat.
Facilities: Yes at the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, but not at the southern access point. No facilities along the trail.
On the Trail
We started to the south of the Las Cienegas Passage, and since the second part of our shuttle was my little car, we decided that the best thing to do would be to hike up the dirt road to the trailhead. This wasn’t a huge addition to our hike (about 0.6 miles), and it wasn’t difficult, so if you don’t have the kind of car that can manage the road, no worries.
Once we got started, the first part of Passage 07 curved its way through the hills. This was also where we got our glimpse of the pools of water for which this part of the AZT is named. After the major drought that we had this year, they were unsurprisingly low on water. But these are still essential oases for the plants and animals of the desert.
Eventually, about half way through your trek, you will cross Sahuarita Road and after a short trek through the shrubbery, you will cross under the 83 freeway. After that the trail will begin crossing a different landscape. Here, the ground will become more level, although you will still go up and down into some shallow washes. You can track your progress as this point as you approach the I-10.
When you do hit the bigger freeway, you will cross underneath via a long tunnel. At the end, we found a wonderful surprise! A painted rattler face. Then you will follow the trail along the top of a shallow canyon. There are amazing views here of the mountainous Sky Islands in the distance, and the lush bosques growing in the canyon where water is more readily available (at least underground).
Finally, with tired feet and likely some blisters, you will come back to the established parking lot and your shuttle! I’d suggest congratulating yourself with some good food in Tucson! We went for Sonoran Dogs at my hiking partner’s favorite spot. You can learn more about Sonoran Dogs at the Tucson Foodie.
How to Get There and Setting Up Your Shuttle
A car shuttle from the one of Las Cienegas trailheads to the other is key. Meet your shuttle buddy at the trailhead that you are planning on exiting at, and then drive together to the spot you’d like to start from. That way, when both of you get to the end of the passage, you can hop in the car you left behind and drive back to pick up your second vehicle.
The northern Las Cienegas trailhead is the easier of the two to find. Simply put, if you have Google working on your phone, you can just map out the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead. It will take you right there, and you will know that you are at the right spot due to good street signage and a very nice trailhead with a monument to Gabe Zimmerman himself.
If you need directions, take the I-10, from either the north or south, to Marsh Station road and drive north. Follow signage to the trailhead, which will be on your right if you are traveling north.
The southern Las Cienegas trailhead is a bit hard to find, and when you do, you might be a little scared off by the State Land signage. The only way to find this trailhead using Google will be to put in the GPS coordinates: 31.90910° N, 110.67151° W.
To get here, you will need to take the 83; most likely you will head south from the I-10, but if you are coming from southern Arizona, you can also take the 83 north. If you are coming from the I-10, you will travel 7.2 miles and keep your eyes peeled for milepost 51.4. You will hang a right when you see a gated, unmarked road.
The gate will have some no trespassing signs, but make sure that they come from AZ State Land. Many local people in this area also have no trespassing signs, and you should never bother local people except in emergency situations. Also, please make sure to keep the gate closed!
Despite the signs, we parked on the inside of the gate, but if you are worried and don’t have the 4WD vehicle it takes to go 0.6 miles down this road, carefully park your vehicle outside the gate. Make sure that you are not blocking any roads when you do this, however. If it looks like you will need to block to park outside the gate, park inside.
The road itself is not horribly difficult for a 4WD vehicle but impossible for a car. I’d suggest parking near the gate and just hiking in the 0.6 miles.
Alternatives to a Shuttle
If you can’t get a shuttle organized for your Las Cienegas adventure, or just don’t want to, there are a few different options.
(1) You can attempt to hike the entire passage in both directions. Of course, that means that you will be hiking about 28 miles, so you will need to plan accordingly. If you are a beginning hiker, do not attempt this.
(2) You can hike to the middle portion of the trail and then turn around. If this is your plan, starting from the northern trailhead will get you to the rattler painting on the freeway underpass, as well as give you some beautiful views of the dry canyon and bosques. If you start from the south, you will see the passage’s namesake and explore the hillsides.
The Arizona Trail
If you are a hiking fanatic, and definitely if you are a hiking fanatic in the US, you know about the Triple Crown. These are the three north to south long-distance trails that are most famous in the United States- the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. Less people know, however, that several of the states also have border-to-border trails. Arizona, my home state, is one of these.
The Arizona Trail is an 800 mile trek from the northern border of Arizona to the southern border.
My Thoughts on the Arizona Trail and A Very Brief History
And I would argue that the Arizona Trail is, in fact, one of the best state-spanning trails. Yes, I am biased, but did you know that Arizona is the third most biodiverse state in the United States? Many people think that my desert home is an empty place, perfect for parking lots, but that’s not the case at all. And there is SO much more to see than the Grand Canyon and Sedona. (Actually, the Arizona Trail doesn’t even go through Sedona… so, lol. (I love Sedona, but I don’t love the overtourism there.)) The Arizona Trail is the perfect gateway to my home’s biodiversity and many landscapes for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.
This trail started, like so many things, as a dream. The Arizona Trail Association attributes this vision to Dale Shewalter, and the story is that the trail became a twinkle in his eye in the 1970s. If that’s true, it took about 4 decades for the trail to become a reality. But considering the complexity of putting something like this together, particularly in a state as complicated culturally as Arizona, that’s really not too long. And heck, I’ve never dreamed an 800 mile trail into a real thing, so I am grateful to Dale and all the many many people that brought his idea to life.
(1) Remember that your safety is your responsibility.
This post is not guaranteeing your health or encouraging you to take any risk. Only attempt this hike if you are physically and mentally prepared and you have the equipment that you need to stay safe.
(2) Safer Together
This is a long hike, bring a friend! And both of you should let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. Always check in when you get home. I also carry an emergency beacon with me, and if you can afford to do the same, I think it is a great tool for staying safe when you don’t have a cell signal.
(3) Rations and Water
Las Cienegas trail is exposed; there is basically no shade along the way, and even in colder weather you will be exposed to the dry air of the desert. As always, water is a must! There is also no where to refill along the way, so you will need to carry enough on you for the whole 13+ miles.
Since you are hiking so far, you will also need to bring enough food to get you through the day and keep you going on the trail. That means at least a meal and snacks to keep your energy up as you trek.
(4) Good shoes and blister supplies
I got the worst blisters of my life on this trail! Which was really surprising because technically speaking, Las Cienegas is far from the hardest trail that I have ever done, either by length or elevation gain. That means, you will want to bring good, broken in hiking boots and good socks. I’ve recently purchased toe sock liners to prevent blistering between my toes, and wool hiking socks are always good. Then bring mole skin, medical tape, scissors, and any other band-aids you think you will need. A first aid kit in general will be a necessary safety tool to have on hand as well. REI sells great ones based on the length of your trip and how many people are in your group.
More Info on Arizona
Looking for more inspiration for exploring Arizona? Be sure to check out our growing Guide to Arizona. We are both locals to this beautiful state and we are constantly exploring.
You might also be interested in our last post, which focused on two day hikes for the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
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