Arizona Trail Association Marks 50th Anniversary Of National Trail System Act

Sep 7, 2018


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Trail System Act. The legislation cleared the way for a series of national trails, aimed at presevering “the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the nation.” The Arizona Trail is part of that system. It stretches more than 800 miles from the US-Mexico Border to Utah, and includes Buffalo Park in Flagstaff. That’s where the Arizona Trail Association will celebrate tomorrow with a day of special events. KNAU’s Aaron Granillo met Matt Nelson, executive director of the association, on the trail to talk about its history.

Aaron Granillo: So, the story of the National Trail System Act goes back to the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, and his speech on the “Conservation and Preservation of Natural Beauty.” What happened from there after he spoke?

Sign for the Arizona Trail as it passes near Picketpost Mountain (background) in Superior, Arizona.
Credit Wikipedia/Sonoradocent

Matt Nelson: So the idea of setting aside these long-distance trails was something that at the time was really kind of unheard of. So, this set the path forward for trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Arizona trail, which are the only three of the 11 that have been designated that are complete. And, this is just a way to preserve some of our greatest natural resources that if left unprotected could be subject to devastation.

When people hike the Arizona Trail beginning to end, what are they seeing? What makes it stand out?

The overwhelming comments that we hear from people is that it's the most bio-diverse trail they've ever been on. And, this is coming from people that have hiked most of the other eleven National Scenic Trails. But the impression that this trail leaves on people aside from it being incredibly difficult is the fact that it's wild and that the bio-diversity is incredible. I mean, you go from almost every bio-region imaginable within the state of Arizona, and sometimes just within a single day or two.

Matt Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, at the Dale Shewalter memorial at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.
Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU

We cannot talk about the Arizona trail without mentioning Dale Shewalter, known as the “Father of the Arizona Trail.” Where we're sitting right now, we are at a memorial honoring Dale, who passed away in 2010. How did he come up with the idea for the Arizona trail?

That's a great story. So, Dale had the opportunity to work in the Sky Island mountain ranges of Southern Arizona as a geologist. He'd been through places like the Santa Rita Mountains and The Catalinas, and the Rincons. And if you've ever been in this part of Arizona, when you're on top of one of these Sky Island mountain ranges, you can see the next range and the next range and the next range. But there's nothing to really connect them. So, him having lived in Flagstaff and then worked in Southern Arizona, there was one morning when he was down by the US-Mexico border on Coronado Peak, which is the highest point right before he get the Mexico border. And he looked north, and he saw all these different mountain ranges, and in his mind saw Flagstaff and saw Grand Canyon in the distance and thought, “what if some day there was a trail that connected all of these incredible mountains and canyons and forests and communities?” And at that moment, the idea of the Arizona trail was born.


So, trailblazing 800 plus miles. That is no small task. What were some of the challenges he faced geographically, and also just dealing with all the different public land agencies?

Yeah, I think one of the biggest challenges is the fact that the trail crosses about every land management boundary imaginable. So, forest and state parks and national parks and private land and state lands. The list kind of goes on and on. But, the good news is everybody jumped on board at this idea. So when he talked to state parks, they said this is brilliant. Count us in. And he talked to the Forest Service and they said this is wonderful. This fits with our mission and vision. So the idea of having a trail through the entire state of Arizona was something that Arizonans could really kind of get behind.

Matt Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, stands next "A Tribute to Dale Shewalter," known as the father of the Arizona Trail.
Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU

I read that in the 80s, when he was lobbying for the trail, he put something like 60,000 miles on his car lobbying to get things started.

I believe it. He knew having been a US Forest Service employee that the only way to get this done was at the grass roots level. So, he talked to absolutely everybody he could possibly talk to to get them excited about it. And so, in addition to really kind of build that support, he was also trying to scout the route in every spare moment that he had. So when people said, "well where is it going to go through here?” He can say, "well I’ve been on the ground and we wat to his this point to see this canyon and this beautiful part of the forest.” But, it was very well-designed and the fact that it's on public land already really helps with its preservation into the future.

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