Explore Some Of Arizona's Most Breathtaking Scenery On This Tough, Hidden Gem Hike

If you're tired of the crowds on some of the U.S.'s more popular hikes, Passage 16 in Arizona is waiting for you. Known as the Gila River Canyons Trail, the 26-mile route passes through some of Arizona's most breathtaking scenery. And you might be lucky enough to have it all to yourself.

Passage 16 is a short but spectacular section of the 800-mile-long Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT), which runs from the U.S.-Mexico border to Utah. Divided into 43 passages, the route traverses dramatic and varied landscapes, including the Grand Canyon and the volcanic peaks of the Superstition Wilderness. The Gila River Canyons Passage is right up there with the best of them and is a great challenge for avid hikers.

The Gila River Canyons Trail follows the cottonwood-tree-lined Gila River through dramatic canyons and past colorful spring wildflowers. The area is home to bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and Gila monsters, which are just as likely to be your companions as humans are. This hike is one of many in Arizona made for thrill-seekers. If you're looking for picturesque gorges, forests of waving saguaros, impressive rock formations, and a (literally) breathtaking climb, Passage 16 is for you.

Hiking the Gila River Canyons Trail

Passage 16 takes you from the Gila River to the Tonto National Forest Boundary. This section of the AZT is considered difficult, not least because it has over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Along the way, you also have to contend with few water sources and little shade. Note the Gila River is generally a muddy brown color and is not a reliable water source.

The rewards for hiking this section are the solitude and magnificent panoramas. The trail follows the Gila River for a while, sometimes running alongside and other times rising to give you a bird's eye view of the landscape.  After swinging away from the river, the trail climbs steeply, but the views of striking canyons and gorges more than make up for the challenge. Toward the end of the hike, the trail crosses a ridgeline, bringing hikers to the Tonto National Forest. (You'll want to be cautious at this popular hiking spot, though, as there has been a chilling number of disappearances.)

Hikers love this section of the AZT. In Reddit's r/arizonatrail forum, u/Dan_85 writes that the Gila River Canyon was their favorite section outside of the Grand Canyon thanks to the scenery, wildflowers, and cactuses. Several other users in the same forum rate the longer section covering Passages 14 to 17 from Oracle to Superior as their top area of the AZT.

The logistics of hiking Passage 16 of the AZT

The fact that Passage 17 of the AZT is rated highly is a good thing for anyone looking to hike the Gila River Canyons Trail because the fun doesn't end at the Tonto National Forest Boundary. Passage 16 finishes at an abandoned road. To reach an actual road, one of the options is to hike the Alamo Canyon, aka Passage 17. This gorgeous 11.7-mile section winds downhill through a landscape dominated by dramatic mountains and slicing canyons.

To hike Passages 16 and 17, we suggest doing a two-night backpacking trip. On these sections of the trail, you don't need a permit to walk or camp, and you can pitch your tent anywhere that looks safe. Shuttles are available, so you can leave your car at the end and get driven to the trailhead — check the Arizona Trail Association site for recommendations.

Passages 16 and 17 are best hiked in fall, winter, or spring to avoid the worst of the summer heat. Go in spring to enjoy the blooms of wildflowers that rival the beauty of any of the world's wildflowers. As with many hikes in this part of the U.S., dehydration and heat-related illnesses are some of the greatest dangers. The Arizona Trail Association recommends carrying a gallon of water per person per day unless there are guaranteed water sources along the trail. They have a ton of helpful information for safely enjoying the glorious Arizona wilderness on their site.