Shawn Redfield at a super gate on AZT Passage 28

At a recent Arizona Trail Association (ATA) volunteer vacation
work event on the Happy Jack segment of the trail on the Mogollon Rim, a reoccurring mantra drove the mission. “The trail doesn’t build
itself.” Although the goal of constructing the 800-mile Arizona National Scenic
Trail that runs from Mexico to Utah has been achieved, the route will never
really be “finished”. Now, efforts have shifted from bridging the holes in the
contiguous route to improving and maintaining trail conditions and enhancing
user experience.

AZT steward Tasha Pontifex works on reroute of AZT

“When the Arizona Trail was originally planned, early
trail advocates and land management agencies identified existing trails that
could be designated as the Arizona Trail,” said Matt Nelson, Executive Director
of the Arizona Trail Association.

Wendy Lotze demonstrates tool safety protocols
AZT volunteers hike to the construction site

“Connecting the gaps between existing trails was done by
utilizing existing dirt roads. Then, the gaps that still existed necessitated
trail construction,” Nelson explained. “The approximately 20 miles on the
Coconino National Forest south of Mormon Lake (Happy Jack Passage #28) is a
prime example. Since the forest contains hundreds of miles of dirt roads, it
was easier to use existing roadways and build trail where there wasn’t already
a “path.” However, the National Scenic Trail Act requires National Scenic
Trails be non-motorized pathways, and a “desired condition” is to minimize
motorized interface between non-motorized trail users and motorists. The Happy
Jack Passage has consistently been commented on as the least desirable for AZT
users, and receives no day use hikers, runners or mountain bikers because it’s
not a pleasant trail experience.”

The new and improved trail takes shape
Project leads: Shawn, Wendy (AZT) & Brady Vandragt (FS)

Thru-hikers (trekkers who hike the entire trail) have
long maligned the 29.4-mile passage as “a boring road hike” (or as Nelson
described it; “a numb experience”) and scratched it off as a means-to-an-end.
Even with its scenic pine woodlands and many stock tanks that serve as water
sources and wildlife magnets, the passage has wallowed in its “middle child”
status. The Happy Jack Singletrack Project seeks to bring the woodsy segment on
the Mogollon Rim up to par. The three-year project, now in its second season, will
result in a major reboot.

“The ATA has long desired a better alignment for this
section, acknowledging that forest roads—badly eroded ones at that—are not
ideal for a National Scenic Trail,” said Shawn Redfield, Trail Director,
Arizona Trail Association. “The new
alignment was devised by U.S. Forest Service staff, based on topography, water
sources and scenic features, and avoiding endangered species habitat.”

Volunteers rallied during a trail-building event held
from May 26 – 30, 2019, one of several efforts that will augment the heavy-lifting
done by American Conservation Corps workers and hired heavy equipment.

AZT Volunteer Coordinator Wendy Lotze
Volunteer Vacation base camp on the Mogollon Rim

“The volunteer vacation is part of a much larger, 3-year
project to reroute the AZT off of 18 miles of old forest roads and on to
newly-built singletrack trail,” Redfield said.

“The project is funded by a Recreation Trails
Project grant from Arizona State Parks, Forest Service contributions,
significant donations from REI, and funds from the ATA.

Wendy Lotze guides a volunteer trail builder

American Conservation Experience youth corps from
Flagstaff is doing a lot of work with hand crews and machines. ATA will hire
additional machine work later this year.

In addition to the 18 miles of new trail, the project
includes several kiosks at trailheads, 15 AZT super gates, 5 bike rollovers, a
horse hitching rail, and numerous signs and markers placed along the new route.”

Volunteers are always needed for construction and
maintenance projects and no special skills are required.

AZT workers plan the new route

“Can we say it again? The trail doesn’t build itself,”
said Wendy Lotze, Arizona Trail Volunteer Coordinator and Happy Jack project lead
at the May event. During her on-site
training demonstrations, Lotze explained safety protocols and proper use of
tools while repeating the project goals and acknowledging that ongoing volunteer
contributions are crucial to the trail’s future. “Our priorities are safety,
fun and productivity. In that order. It’s more important that you stay safe and
enjoy your experience here rather than burn out trying to build a lot of trail,” she said to project
participants. “We want you to come back.” Even those who are not able or
willing to get their hands dirty can still help out.

Orange flags denote the reroute location

“If swinging a pick isn’t possible for an interested
volunteer, there are numerous other opportunities to help. We always need help
with preparing lunches and shuttling volunteers. The ATA is continually raising
funds to offset our share of the considerable project costs, so if you can’t
make it into the field and still want to support the Happy Jack Singletrack
Project, consider writing a check”, said Matt Nelson.

Volunteers got some nice swag
The reroute will improve user experience
Volunteers prepare to hike out to the construction site

So far, several miles of the reroute have been completed
and updated maps are posted on the AZT website. No longer a soul-deadening
trudge, the new route is now located away from roads. “The improvement
in the scenic nature of the trail and the user-experience is dramatic,”
Redfield said. Day hikers will now find that
the passage is an approachable way to step out into the forest without having
to dodge motorized traffic.

“The best
thing that could happen to this trail is to get a bunch of [foot] traffic over
it as soon as possible to pack it down and harden the surface. If this thru-hiker
season and social media “buzz” is any indication, getting traffic over the new
trail is not going to be an issue,” Redfield added.


LENGTH: 29.4 miles

RATING: moderate

ELEVATION: 6733 – 7618 feet