A well-known but little-used trail is the Arizona Trail, stretching from the Buckskin Mountains on the Utah border to the Chihuahuan Desert on the Mexico border. Within Grand Canyon National Park, the Arizona Trail uses the North and South Kaibab trails to cross the Canyon. Once up on the South Rim, the trail traverses the Coconino Rim just outside the park in the Kaibab National Forest before heading south towards the San Francisco Peaks, Walnut Canyon and points south to its terminus.
A 14.6-mile loop, beginning at the Grandview Fire Tower, makes for a pleasant morning mountain bike ride, an all-day hike or a leisurely overnight trip with an awesome campsite overlooking incredible views. The Coconino Rim section of the Arizona Trail is suitable for hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.
For bikers, the trail is 8.3 miles of single-track trail, mostly level, somewhat steep in a couple places, and requiring some experience in single track riding. The remaining 6.3 miles of the loop trail is on Forest Road 310. For backpackers and day hikers, the trip can be shortened by leaving a car at the trailhead, and another at the trail’s turnoff onto Forest Road 310, thus reducing the 6.3-mile walk on the road to return to the fire tower.
Remember to come very prepared. You are in a remote section of the National Forest, and cell phones don’t do a thing out here. Although there are forest roads nearby, they are seldom traveled. There is no water on the trail, so fill up your hydration pack and bring extra water. For a recent afternoon bike ride on the trail, I used up almost all the three liters of water in my hydration pack. If you’re hiking, bring high-energy snacks, a map (get a Kaibab National Forest map at the Tusayan, Williams or Flagstaff ranger stations), a windbreaker, flashlight, sunscreen, first aid supplies, a hat and a signal mirror. If you’re biking, bring all of the above, plus a patch kit and an extra tube, and wear a helmet. Riding gloves are very helpful to reduce the pounding your palms receive.
OK, on to the trailhead. To reach the Grandview Fire Tower from the park, take Highway 64 east towards Desert View. About two miles east of the Grandview Point turnoff, look for the Arizona Trail signs on your right. Turn right, and continue about a mile and a half to the fire tower. There is parking on both sides of the road. If you’re coming from Williams or Flagstaff, take Highway 64 to Tusayan and turn right on Forest Road 302 just before the Grand Hotel. Follow the signs to the Grandview Fire Tower. This 16-mile dirt road is well graded and suitable for all vehicles. After you park, take the graveled trail to the right of the fire tower describing the mistletoe infestation in the pinion juniper forest, and follow the signs that say “Arizona Trail” or show the AzT shield.
The single-track trail stays fairly level, winding through Gambel oak, wildflowers and tall grasses, containing an occasional jumble of limestone rocks requiring some negotiating. The total elevation gain and loss is only 250 feet, but some drainages require a short, steep drop and a short, steep climb up the opposite side. At some points, the seldom-traveled trail becomes difficult to discern through tall grasses and pine duff. Posts with the Arizona Trail shield remind you that you’re on the right course, and northward-facing signs indicate the mileage back to the Grandview Fire Tower.
The first three miles pass quickly, through a ponderosa pine forest that opens on a ridge to expansive views of the Painted Desert to the east. On a clear day, Navajo Mountain is visible to the east, almost 100 miles away. If you’re planning to spend the night, here is an awesome campsite with morning sun and an incredible view.
Another couple of miles and the trail travels through a burned out section of forest. Keep an eye out for the sign that says “Bike Route, G.V. Return” to take you back to Forest Road 310. Bear to the right at that sign, follow the old two-track, then bear left at a faint “Y” to bring you to the dirt road. From there, unless you have an extra car parked at the road, it’s a pretty flat, six mile trek back to the trailhead.
You’ll pass through three gates on your travels. Be sure to close them firmly behind you. Be aware of wildlife – elk, deer and wild turkeys are common in the area, drawn to the Arizona Game and Fish tank set back a ways from the trail. In the sky, hawks take to the updrafts blowing up the Coconino Rim.
If you’re camping, respect the area’s beauty and leave the least amount of impact. Check with rangers for the most recent forest regulations and closures. Camp away from the main trail so passersby won’t see your site. Currently, campfires aren’t permitted, but resist the urge to build one even when it’s allowed. Use a backpacking stove and enjoy the starlight in the evening, rather than creating a fire ring. Enjoy the solitude of the forest; remembering that, only a few miles away, thousands of people are vying for a parking space at one of the Grand Canyon’s overlooks. On my recent biking trek on the Coconino Rim trail, we started on the trail at noon, returned to our truck about four hours later, and didn’t see a soul all day. Now that’s solitude.