Best Historic Trails in Arizona
Arizona’s trails have a fascinating story to tell: The native hunters and gatherers who found their feet in the canyon walls came first. Then come the explorers who forged paths between the first missions and the forts. And later came the railway workers who blew up roads through rocky terrain.
There is no doubt that history runs deep in the scenic trails that take hikers and cyclists to the backcountry of Grand Canyon State.
I have hiked many famous Arizona historic trails over the years and am always delighted to find a trail that combines beauty and history. Here are seven historic Arizona trails you shouldn’t miss.
1. Bright Angel Trail
Centuries before tourists flocked to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for its spectacular views and varied recreation options, the vast sinkhole was home to Indigenous peoples.
the Grand canyon national park The website says people have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for 12,000 years. In the early days, the Havasupai and other native tribes are said to have followed the animal paths in the canyon on hunting and food-gathering tours.
Over the years, foot traffic has traced a 4.5 mile path from the South Rim to the perennial waters of Indian Garden along a road that the natives called Gthatv He’e (“Coyote tail”).
Many of the native names of the canyon’s peaks and streams have been lost over time, and records trace the name Bright Angel Trail to John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Geographic Expedition to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon website says, “An anthem song came to [Powell’s] spirit: ‘Shall we meet at the river, where the shining angel’s feet have trodden.’
Today, the Bright Angel Trail is one of the best recreational routes in the Grand Canyon. It is known for its panoramic views of the canyon walls and the Colorado River, as well as its connection to the beautiful shaded area of Indian Garden. The trailhead is located just west of Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. The trail is described in this PDF.
Pro tip: The 15 mile round trip hike to Indian Garden and back to the South Rim involves over 3,000 feet of drop and gain. It is considered tiring and should not be attempted during the midday summer heat. More tips for hiking under the rim of the Grand Canyon can be found in my story 10 Tips for Hiking in the Grand Canyon.
2. Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail
It’s almost impossible to imagine today, but in 1775 an expedition of 240 men, women, and children set out on the 1,200-mile trek from Nogales, Arizona, to San Francisco.
The trip was led by Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish military leader whose rallying cry was Vayan Subiendo! (“Everyone is going up!”) The purpose of the trip: to establish the first non-native colony in San Francisco Bay.
Today the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail offers history, culture and outdoor recreation along the route. In Arizona, the trail traverses the rugged terrain of the Sonoran Desert, connecting the historic mission of Tumacacori National Historical Park with the neighbor Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The trail is accessible to the ruins of the Tumacacori mission.
Pro tip: The Juan Bautista de Anza Trail passes through a number of southern Arizona communities, including Nogales. For ideas on things to do in the area, check out my article The Best Things to Do in Historic Nogales, Arizona.
3. Peavine National Recreation Trail
One of the few Rails-to-Trails projects in Arizona, the Peavine National Recreation Trail follows the route of the railroad that was originally built by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1893.
The road was abandoned decades later, and today a 6-mile stretch of the old railway line is preserved as an exceptionally scenic recreational trail that passes by the shores of Watson Lake, one of many lakes. gorgeous to explore in Arizona, and through the Granite Dells, an expanse of pink-hued granite rock formations.
A hallmark feature of the route is the Point of Rocks, a dramatic finger-shaped rock formation about halfway through. Directions to the trailhead are available here.
Pro tip: The Peavine Trail is among the best outdoor activities on offer in the mid-sized town of Prescott. For more ideas, see 7 Fantastic Things to Do in Prescott, Arizona.
4. Black Canyon Trail
Following a route that was once used by prehistoric Native American travelers and traders, the Black Canyon Trail stretches north to south for 80 miles through the great outdoors of the Sonoran Desert.
Along with its fascinating history as a travel corridor – first for Native Americans, then for stagecoaches and later for cattle – the Black Canyon Trail features a range of desert cactus species including saguaros, ocotillos and chollas. It also offers a magnificent view of the Agua Fria River.
The Black Canyon Trail is accessible from several locations, and maps and driving directions are available here.
Pro tip: After a wet winter, the Black Canyon Trail is a great place to view spring wildflowers and blooming cacti. For more wildflower hikes, check out 5 Perfect Wildflower Hikes in Arizona.
5. Peralta trail
With its incredibly beautiful setting, the Peralta trail in the Superstition Mountains is steeped in Arizona mining folklore.
Named after the cattle baron and landowner of the 1700s Don Miguel de Peralta, the trail passes Weavers Needle, the Superstitions’ most distinctive monument and a central part of the Lost Dutchman Mine legend.
The land of Peralta would have been the site of a rich gold mine not far from Weavers Needle. The location of the mine was eventually lost, and it would later become known as the Lost Dutchman Mine after Jacob Waltz, who died before proving his claim. Lost Dutchman State Park commemorates the mystery of the mine.
Today, the Peralta Trail is among the Superstitions’ most popular hikes for its up-close views of the Weavers Needle, as well as its iconic desert terrain. Directions to the trailhead are available here.
Pro tip: The Peralta Trail is not far from the Phoenix area community of Apache Junction. For other things to do there, see Best Things to Do in Apache Junction, AZ During Winter.
6. Island trail
It would be hard to find a closer encounter with the ancient cultures of Arizona than the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon National Monument. The mile-long trail passes 25 cliff dwellings left behind by the Sinagua, who thrived in the area from around 600 to 1,400.
“Along the trails, you can imagine life in Walnut Canyon, while visiting real pueblos and walking in the footsteps of those who came before it,” says the national monument’s website.
Pro tip: Walnut Canyon is located on steep terrain approximately 12 miles east of Flagstaff. The mountain town makes an ideal base for exploring the national monument. For other activities in the area, check out 9 Ways to Spend a Beautiful Fall Weekend in Flagstaff.
7. Hotshots Trail
A grim throwback to a more recent era in Arizona history is available at Hotshots Trail, an 11 km round-trip hike that follows the route taken by an elite Hotshot fire team to fight a wildfire that raged near the town of Yarnell on June 30, 2013.
Nineteen of the young men died that day fighting the Yarnell Hill fire. Two years later, the state consecrated the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. The Hotshots Trail features interpretive signs, as well as 19 plaques telling each man’s story. It also offers stunning views of the surrounding valley and classic high desert terrain.
With an elevation gain of 1,200 feet, little shade, and no water sources along the route, the hike is strenuous and should not be attempted during the warmer months. But if you can, the hike is a memorable endeavor and a traditional way of honoring fallen Hotshots.
Pro tips: Parking is limited in the state park and a Shuttle bus is available at the trailhead from Yarnell. The Hotshots Trail makes an interesting detour by car from Phoenix to the Colorado River Corridor. For other ideas, see Phoenix To Lake Havasu City: A Road Trip To Arizona’s West Coast.