Local couple spent 45 days hiking/backpacking the 800-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail … and they loved it

By Hilary Dartt | Courtesy Photos

When Prescott residents Cal Seabaugh and Kelly Williams say they’ve seen Arizona, they mean it: the duo spent 45 days this past fall hiking the entire Arizona National Scenic Trail—all its 800 miles and 110,000 feet of elevation gain.

Stretching the length of the state, from Utah to the Mexican border, the trail, also known as the Arizona Trail, showcases Arizona’s diverse landscape. And, Kelly, said, “It’s all spectacular.”

Both avid outdoorspeople and adventurers, Cal and Kelly started planning their backpacking trip last summer. Cal, who’d previously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (which runs about 2,650 miles) and the Appalachian Trail (which extends about 2,200 miles), had brought it up a few times, and finally, their schedules and work obligations aligned.

They’re both river guides on the Colorado River and Kelly suggested they head out on their latest adventure at the end of river season.

 “I wanted to get out from under a desk,” Kelly said, “and it really worked out to do something to rejuvenate my soul.”

As soon as she brought it up, Cal said, “My eyes got really wide. I said, ‘Really?! Done! We’re going.’ And I didn’t look back from there.”

The two of them began planning the trip, including minimal gear (they each carried about 15 pounds, before food and water), mail drops for food, and water acquisition (they got some water on the trail, and had a friend meet them with water in a couple different spots).

And in early October, off they went.

“It felt like a breakdown of myself and then a recharge of myself from the start to the end,” Kelly said. “Every day could be really hard and enjoyable at the same time. I think that was true for the whole trail. Break yourself down and build yourself up.”

“It was great to find our limits and push ourselves,” Cal said. “We both work in adventure scenarios, and have an expedition mentality. We had to find that and push ourselves past that.”

The Arizona National Scenic Trail winds through every type of landscape: pine forest, saguaro country, and mountain terrain. It takes hikers through the Grand Canyon, the Mazatzal Mountains and the Rincons, to name a few.

Because Kelly and Cal are both river guides, they’ve spent tons of time in the Grand Canyon, so that felt like home to them.

The Sky Islands in the Saguaro National Monument stood out for Kelly: “They’re phenomenal.”

For Cal, dropping down off the Mogollon Rim, hiking up along the bottom of a big cliff section in the Four Peaks wilderness, was “really a beautiful day.”

“I’d never experienced much of the southern part of the state,” he said, “so I was excited about that.”

The duo hiked the trail from north to south. Each day, they’d wake up around 5 a.m., have coffee and breakfast, and head out around 6:30. They hiked until 5 or 5:30 p.m., and then set up camp. Kelly said those early-evening hours, when they could relax before the sun went down, were some of her favorites.

“We got pretty efficient at camping,” Cal said. “We had our process down, and working together was exciting for me; for us to reach that routine and be in that zone of helping each other and being supportive when we needed to.”

Some days they didn’t get many trail miles in because they were exploring, and other days, they got in nearly 30. In some places, the trail goes right through a town, and in others, it stretches through nature for miles.

Although they camped nearly every night, they did get hotels (or hostels) in a few spots (Oracle, Superior, and Payson). They hitchhiked from trailheads to town and said people who live in “trail towns” generally recognize backpackers and are willing to take them in for supplies.

They saw plenty of wildlife including deer and elk. But, Kelly said, “not one rattlesnake.” They didn’t see any actual bears, but saw lots of evidence of them. One night, after a night hike, they returned to their campsite at the base of Mount Lemmon and heard two mountain lions snarling at each other nearby. Skunks were plentiful, and Cal saw his first American dipper, or ouzel bird. At one point, a dog befriended them, and spent the night sleeping between them.

According to the Arizona Trail Finisher report, published in February 2019 and available on the Arizona National Scenic Trail website (aztrail.org), only about 100 people completed the entire trail in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Kelly and Cal did see some fellow hikers and backpackers along the way; they were concentrated around places where the trail went near or through a town. They’d joined an “Arizona Trail Class of ‘22” Facebook group, where hikers posted about their progress, and also could “keep up” with other hikers through the hiker registers at various trailheads.

They used apps and guidebooks to track their miles and find water sources. Cal joked that these apps were helpful, for example, if they planned to get water from a cow tank. Hikers who’d used it recently would answer questions like, “Can you see things swimming around in it? Do you have to chew your water?”

Of course, a 45-day hiking and backpacking trip wasn’t without its lessons.

Their light base weight was helpful during the long hike, Kelly said, but also hurt them at higher altitudes, where they got a little chilly (some mornings, they woke up to their water completely frozen).

Finding water was the biggest stressor, and their filter was useless because it kept getting clogged. They ended up treating their water with chlorine-based Aquamira instead of filtering it.

Toward the end of the trip, after about 35 days on the trail, they made a plan to meet a friend just before Thanksgiving. They figured out that if they averaged 25 miles per day for the last 250 miles, their friend could take them home … and they’d be home for Thanksgiving.

“That was the most challenging for us mentally,” Cal said. “We were pretty worn down by that point.”

If they did it again, they said, they wouldn’t push themselves that hard at the end.

And yes, they are already planning to hike the trail again.

“We’ve been talking about it,” Cal said, and Kelly added, “I think we’d enjoy it even more if we did it another time. We could soak it in a lot more.”

Would they recommend it to others?

“Hell, yeah,” Kelly said. “It’s a great way to see Arizona in all its glory.”

Congress designated the Arizona Trail a National Scenic Trail in 2009. The U.S. Forest Service administers the trail, and other partners in management include the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, Arizona State Parks, the Arizona Trail Association, and other local counties and municipalities.

 Learn more about the Arizona National Scenic Trail at https://www.fs.usda.gov/azt.