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Desert Ignored

By neglecting more than half the state, 'Backpacking Arizona' is a disappointment.

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Forget Arizona Highways magazine--backpacking is the best way to see Arizona. While the newspapers moan about our well-larded and still-growing asses, backpacking can burn off that fat and strip away the stress of those long hours spent pushing paper or tapping on a keyboard in these sedentary days of our Information Economy.

Flagstaff writer Bruce Grubbs has written a new backpacking guide for those of us who, now and again, actually throw on a pack and go outside to see what's happening in the world. It's written for folks wanting more than your standard guide to day hikes; there are too many of those already on the shelves.

You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I admit I had a hard time getting past this one's jaundiced-looking cover photo. It's a view of the Superstitions, rendered in colors not found in nature--scary.

Nevertheless, I dove in, full of expectations after reading on the back cover that Backpacking Arizona's select menu of trips supposedly details the finest backpacking in the state. I was immediately troubled though, when I observed that the book blithely ignores the entire western half of the state, and the coverage of the southern third is painfully thin. There's a lot of beautiful country in our area with easy walking, expansive vistas and fabulous backpacking opportunities. OK, so summers can be a little harsh for backpacking, but the rest of the desert year is frequently glorious.

The author lives in Flagstaff, so maybe he can be forgiven for giving us Desert People short shrift.

There was scant, and I do mean scant, mention of the Arizona Trail. How could you write about backpacking in Arizona without discussing this mammoth across-the-state beauty? A title like Backpacking Arizona, while presumptuously optimistic anyway, evokes the idea of at least some minimal level of coverage. My opinion of this thing was beginning to fray. A little more truth in advertising, please.

Grubbs does provide some helpful information about needed maps, best seasons to go, necessary permits, water availability, trip highlights, potential problems and distances for the trails he has chosen. He admits that he took mileage figure measurements directly from U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps instead of walking them out with a distance wheel. Unfortunately, these topo maps are frequently years out-of-date, and actual on-the-ground distance often varies greatly from what's on the map. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, along with his time estimates.

There is the briefest of introductions to backpacking in Arizona. People get into trouble when they don't have enough information--witness the out-of-state couple who died just a few dozen feet from their car at Picacho Peak State Park a summer or two ago, because they didn't carry enough water. You should find out about the place you're going and seek local expertise from someone who knows the area. You should also let someone know where you're going and when. This book fails to mention any of these things or to give a proper introduction for people not from here.

Most pages have some little factoid-filled sidebar paragraph, which is nice. But there are no further references, so if you want to know more, you'll have to do some homework.

This is not a book for beginners. Virtually all of the described trips are in mountains or canyons, which make for dramatic scenery but also make for challenging packing if you're not in good shape. Elevation gain on many of these trips is several thousand feet, so be warned.

Forget the guidebook; read something by Colin Fletcher instead, like an early edition of The Complete Walker. There's more beauty outdoors in Arizona than you can shake a stick at.

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