AZT gate at sunrise

Five Questions with Guidebook Author Sirena Rana

While being outdoors and hiking down a trail is always rewarding, sometimes we’re looking for more—something a little more memorable. The Arizona National Scenic Trail delivers those extra-special characteristics in grand fashion. The AZT is one of those trails that people hike and call “a hidden gem” or “most unique experience.” It’s a wonderful trail with a vibrant and beautiful community supporting it. No one knows more about this than guidebook author Sirena Rana. Her book Best Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail focuses on some of the most interesting and accessible sections of the AZT. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about hiking in general and traversing the AZT in particular.

Q1 : What is one thing that most people get wrong about hiking in Arizona? And specifically about the AZT?

A1: The most common misconception about hiking in Arizona is that it’s all hot, dry, flat desert. When in reality the state contains an incredible diversity of ecosystems: high-elevation plateaus covered in aspen, expansive grasslands, pinyon-juniper habitat, and Sky Island mountain ranges that have cactus to aspen all in one. The state also has the largest Ponderosa pine forest in the world, plus classic Sonoran Desert landscapes with towering Saguaro cacti. 

Misconceptions about the AZT are similar, but they also include the idea that you have to do the whole trail to appreciate it or be a part of it. You are a part of the culture and the experience, whether you do 0.8 mile, 8 miles, or the whole 800.

Picture Canyon along the Arizona National Scenic Trail

Q2: How do you help folks overcome the sense of “it’s too big” or “it’s too hot” or “I don’t know where to begin” when you are helping folks discover the AZT?

A2: This book is the answer to those questions, which I have been getting for years when I tell people about the trail. While researching and writing this book, I thought back to when I started hiking, unfamiliar with the desert. It was helpful to have the beginner’s mind framework. I would ask myself, “What would I have wanted to know when I was just starting out?” I used my knowledge of the trail to pick out 30 of the most scenic and interesting pieces to highlight. 

The detailed hiking and driving directions, suggested hikes lists, and desert hiking tips and tricks help folks choose the best spot for the kind of experience they are looking for. I also included a short hike option for each hike to make the Arizona Trail accessible to beginners, families, or anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time but still wants to experience the AZT.

Q3: When is your favorite season to hike the AZT?

A3: My favorite season to hike the AZT is wildflower season, with fall colors as my second favorite. The wonderful thing about the wide variety of elevations covered by the Arizona Trail is that the blooms start in February in the lowest parts of the trail, and the higher elevations bloom later. Which means that you can hike through wildflowers from February to June, depending on what part of the trail you are on. That’s also why I’ve listed the best month for the hike on the Wildflower Hikes list.

Walnut Canyon along the Arizona National Scenic Trail

Q4: The notion of Gateway Communities is somewhat unique to the AZT. What’s the benefit?

A4: The Gateway Communities are a vital part of the Arizona Trail experience. I developed the Gateway Community program when I worked for the Arizona Trail Association, which connects trail users and the nearby towns. Each community has a unique character and history with suggested places to eat, stay, and sightsee listed at the end of each hike. Trail users benefit from the Gateway Communities, and the travel and tourism dollars provide economic development for the towns. I also share tips for tasty treats, such as the legendary pie at the Oracle Patio Café or the cookies at the Jacob Lake Lodge.

Q5: In 2021, coming out of a pandemic, lots of people are looking to get out and stay safe. What benefits have you experienced from hiking and being on the AZT that beat what a gym or just sitting on a beach can do this summer?

A5: There are many benefits to hiking that go far beyond just getting some exercise: smelling the fresh air; moving through nature; hearing the sounds of birds, wind, water, and rustling leaves. For me it is the ultimate moving meditation and where I feel most alive. I didn’t grow up going hiking, and it’s something I learned about when I moved to Arizona to attend college. It’s my greatest joy to inspire others and give them the tools they need to get out there safely and empower them to feel that they, too, belong in nature.

Sirena Rana’s Best Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail is available now through the author’s website or wherever books are sold in your area.

Travis Bryant
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