Tips for hiking the Arizona National Scenic Trail from Sirena Rana Dufault

At 800 miles in total length, the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) is considered one of the most challenging trails in the United States due to extreme heat and lack of water. It also passes through some of the most beautiful terrain in the U.S., including desert, forest and mountain landscapes – plus the Grand Canyon. If you decide to go for a hike on the AZT, it’s wise to get tips from somebody who has spent some time out there on it.

Trail marker that reads Arizona Trail
Arizona Trail marker along Passage 28. Photo by Paul Fiarkoski
Sirena Rana Dufault passing under the Arizona Trail sign with arms raised high
Sirena Rana Dufault finishing the Arizona Trail on May 12, 2009 to coincide with Fibromyalgia Awareness Day. Photo by Terri Gay

Sirena Rana Dufault knows it well. In 2008, she hiked the entire thing, section by section. Then for good measures, she covered the whole thing again in 2014. I started following her after stumbling onto her YouTube videos in 2012.

Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail is the title of the guidebook Sirena’s on track to publish in Spring 2020 with Wilderness Press. It’ll present the best day hikes on the AZT, combined with lots of interpretive information about the views, history, plants, and more. Each day hike is connected to one of the Gateway Communities for post-hike eats, lodging and other fun things to do in the area.

I was fortunate to catch Sirena’s slideshow presentation to the Arizona Mountaineering Club on May 22, 2019 in Scottsdale. For 90 minutes, she entertained and inspired a diverse audience with beautiful photos from her travels on the AZT. Each image was wonderfully woven into her inspiring story of perseverance and grit.

Paul Fiarkoski with Sirena Rana Dufault
What an honor it was to meet the unofficial queen of the Arizona Trail: Sirena Rana Dufault.

Long story short on how Sirena became one of the most recognizable faces on the Arizona Trail

Sirena moved from Chicago to Tucson in 1994 to study Archaeology at the University of Arizona. In 1997, Sirena was hit by a small pickup truck while crossing the street. She flew up in the air and landed hard on the pavement. Although no bones were broken, she developed
Fibromyalgia and was in serious pain at age 23. She started going to Catalina State Park for short walks with her dog and noticed she wasn’t in pain when she was hiking.

In 2007, she was hiking at American Flag Trailhead in Oracle and saw a sign for the Arizona Trail and started researching it. She figured out how to hike the trail in sections by strategically stashing water on the trail ahead of her and using shuttles so the passages don’t have to be hiked out and back. She also devoted time on Thursdays near Tucson to help build the Arizona Trail, which was not connected from Mexico to Utah until December 2011.

In 2008, Sirena hiked the first passage from the Arizona-Mexico border northward. She chipped away at the trail a little bit at a time, and completed the final piece of it on May 12, 2009 to coincide with Fibromyalgia Awareness Day.


Sidenote: Sirena doesn’t just inspire AZT hikers and Fibromyalgia sufferers. One of the pics she took in the Grand Canyon inspired this painting.


In 2011, Sirena took a job with the Arizona Trail Association as the Gateway Community Liaison, with the task of promoting the AZT and showing towns along the trail how they can help create win-win relationships with hikers passing through.

In 2014, she hiked the entire AZT again to raise awareness about the trail, the guidebook and the Gateway Communities.

Outcomes of Sirena’s 2014 awareness campaign for the Arizona Trail

  • Took over 100 people on the trail on day hikes and backpacking trips where they could join her hike
  • Held 12 fundraisers in the Gateway Communities
  • Raised almost $18,000 for the Arizona Trail Association

Sirena had no fibromyalgia flares from 2006 to 2016, but the condition returned and she now has periods of remission and flares. She still enjoys the outdoors even when in a flare, just modifies her activities based on her energy levels.

Now she designs trails as part of her consulting company, Trails Inspire, and serves as a volunteer Trail Steward for the Arizona Trail Association. Because I know of nobody else more deserving of the title, I’ve dubbed her the unoffical queen of the Arizona Trail.

“I haven’t seen a mountain lion yet but I’m sure plenty have seen me.”

~ Sirena Rana Dufault

Some of Sirena’s memorable moments on the Arizona Trail:

  • To reach the starting point, you have to hike 1.9 miles from a parking lot to the Mexico Arizona border, then do a 180 and head back in the direction you came from.
  • The first water source is a bathtub fed by a spring. The tub surface was covered with moss, but that didn’t stop her from drinking it with the help of her backpacker’s water filter.
  • On one of her early passage crossings, she came across a group of cowboys who issued this caution: “We just tied up a cow; don’t touch it”. She obliged.
  • She met a man named Terry who’s plan was to cover the entire trail with 2 horses and 2 dogs. He made it as far as Mogollon Rim, then one horse got pregnant and had to return home.
  • Rain was never an issue for Sirena, but wind was. It made everything more difficult.
  • Hiking north from the Mexico border, she didn’t see the first Saguaro (tall cactus with arms) until she was north of Interstate 10.
  • After hiking every day for a full month, she came across a sign that read “Utah 499 miles”.
  • This was unexpected: a flock of peacocks were scurrying around near a working cattle ranch along the East Verde River.
  • Mazatzal Wilderness Area is the largest wilderness area on the AZT – and it’s beautiful!
  • The Mogollon Rim is like the promised land – many miles of flat wooded terrain with lots of water sources. It’s a stark contrast to the mountainous terrain of Southern Arizona.
  • The bridges over East Verde river were fun to cross.
  • Jasmine the mini donkey was a fun hiking partner.
  • There’s a lookout tower near Tusayan that offers a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon from a distance.
  • Two of the highest points are practically at opposite ends of the trail.  Miller Peak – 8 miles north of Mexico border – and a point just up trail from Grand Canyon North Rim are both around 9,000 feet in elevation.
  • Scariest animal Sirena encountered on the AZT: Bees. Bears generally turn and go away. Ants sleep when we do. Scorpions? She just relocates them.
Peacock with Arizona Trail sign
Of all the unexpected things Sirena saw on her hikes on the 800-mile Arizona Trail, the peacocks on a ranch along the East Verde River were one of the most memorable. Photo by Sirena Rana Dufault

Sirena carries a Garmin InReach satellite communicator that has an SOS button, tracking, and two-way texting for safety. On one hiking trip not on the AZT, she found out the hard way that the SOS button on her Garmin satellite transmitter device really works. Unfortunately, she had to be rescued by a helicopter crew from deep in the Grand Canyon after tearing a calf muscle. They arrived in less than an hour from the moment she requested help.

Sirena’s tips for anyone interested in leaving footprints on the Arizona Trail

Break it into manageable chunks

The Arizona Trail Association has already broken the 800-mile trail into 43 more manageable segments or “passages”. Passage 1 starts at the Mexico-Arizona border and proceed in a northwest direction for about 20 miles.

See all the passages and descriptions of each at aztrail.org>>

To make her presentation easier to digest, Sirena broke the trail up into the sections below.

Sections of the Arizona Trail you’ll encounter hiking from south to north

  • Sky Islands
  • Lowland Desert
  • Central Mountains
  • Mogollon Rim
  • Grand Canyon and Kaibab Plateau

Time your hike to make the most of it

  • If you thru-hike it in the Spring, head northbound to follow the bloom of wildflowers.
  • In the Fall, thru-hike southbound to follow the changing color of the trees.
  • Adopt a siesta schedule: hike early, wait out the hottest part of the day in the shade, then hike again until sundown.

Beat the heat

  • Plan your hike(s) in the low elevations during the coolest months of the year.
  • Use a reflective umbrella to give yourself personal shade.
  • Keep a wet bandanna around neck.

Travel light

The most important thing you’ll carry – water – is also the heaviest. Do whatever you can to lighten the rest of your load by not carrying anything you won’t need. For a few stretches, she carried as much as six liters of water at a time.

Initially Sirena slept in a lightweight tent, then opted to sleep under the stars (cowboy camping) on the ground instead to help lighten her pack and because she enjoys being able to see around her when camping.

Sleeping bag and hiking gear laid out in the desert
Cowboy camping above Ripsey Wash. Photo by Sirena Rana Dufault

Take good care of yourself

Hydration

Filter all of water you get from natural sources, no matter how clean it looks. The Platypus gravity filter is her favorite.

Nutrition

Think calorie and carb dense foods because you can easily burn 5,000 calories per day on the trail.

Sirena packs her own dehydrated and freeze-dried food. Indian food like curry and pre-boiled noodles are her go-tos. Other favorite foods for the trail include bacon bits and flavored olive oil.

“You become a walking stomach. You can’t eat enough out there.”

Foot care

At a minimum, you’ll want to have a few pairs of quality, moisture-wicking socks and good hiking boots or trail runners. Also get and read the book “Fixing Your Feet” by John Vonhof ahead of time.

Sirena swears by this tactic to prevent blisters:

“When I feel a hot spot on my feet, I stop immediately and put band aid blister tape over it.”

Use these resources to plan your AZT hike

Whether you’re thinking about a short day hike on the Arizona Trail, completing it passage by passage or take on the whole think in one swoop, it’s important to plan ahead.

The Arizona Trail Association website offers detailed maps, planning tips and updates from the trail, plus articles like “How Tech Has Changed Hiking.

Sirena recommends that through hikers download the AZT app by Guthook Guides for a detailed GPS-compatible map, real time info on water caches and a lot more.

There are also AZT-specific groups on Facebook you can join to learn from and share experiences with other hikers.

Did you know?

The Arizona Trail is one of only three National Scenic Trails that is completed from end to end. Eight others are in various stages of completion.

America’s National Scenic Trails

Completed end to end

  • Appalachian Trail
  • Pacific Crest Trail
  • Arizona Trail

Pending completion

  • Continental Divide Trail
  • Florida Trail
  • Ice Age Trail
  • Natchez Trace Trail
  • New England National Scenic Trail
  • North Country Trail
  • Pacific Northwest Trail
  • Potomac Heritage Trail

How to hike the Arizona National Scenic Trail

If you’re thinking about hiking the Arizona Trail, keep in mind you don’t have to do the whole thing at once. That’s called a through hike.

There are plenty of trail crossings that intersect with highways throughout the state. You can park near many of these trail junctions and hike in the desired direction for as far as you want. Maybe that’s just a mile for your first time out. After that, maybe you build in an overnight backpacking trip with a minimum of gear and food.

Sirena’s upcoming book will be a great resource for those wanting to experience day hikes on the Arizona Trail. It will contain hikes of varying skill levels, interpretive information on what you’re seeing on the trail and desert hiking tips so that you can have a safe and enjoyable trip on the AZT.

Who knows, you may end up doing the whole 800 miles someday, like Sirena and so many others. Regardless of your aspirations, you should make a commitment to yourself to get out and enjoy one of America’s truly spectacular gems.

How to follow or contact Sirena Rana Dufault

Check out the website for Sirena’s consulting company, Trails Inspire, which promotes the outdoors via writing, photography, public speaking and trail design at trailsinspire.com, her blog Sirena’s Wanderings or find her on social media.

Instagram, Twitter: @trailsinspire
Facebook: TrailsInspire

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