Ever feel like you are getting nowhere, like you are going in circles? It's not as bad as you might suppose, at least when you are hiking a significant loop trail such as the Prescott Circle Trail, Cabin Loop Trail, or the Rainbow Rim Trail - each longer than 25 miles and each distinctly different.
All three are part of the Grand Circle, a vast region that encompasses portions of five states - Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. Hiking these three loop trails is like going in circles inside an even larger circle.
The Grand Circle Association's website states that the area contains America's largest concentration of national parks and monuments, woven together by extraordinary scenic byways in which diverse scenery can be found, including the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell and Arches National Park.
"Bold splashes of color, fascinating geologic shapes, and the mysterious remnants of cultures await you at every turn." (http://www.grandcircle.org/)
The Rainbow Rim Trail skirts the very edge of the Grand Canyon's North Rim in the Kiabab National Forest. I biked it with my son and nephew, taking all day to cover the 25+ miles. There is not much elevation change associated with this circle, but the views of the Canyon, the refreshing coolness of the highest plateau in Arizona, and the surprise of seeing woodland buffalo mark this trail as a true treasure.
It's a long drive to the North Rim, but if the Rainbow Rim Trail is on your itinerary, it is well worth the time it takes to get there. Well-traveled dirt roads provide access to the free, dispersed campsites.
The Cabin Loop Trail also caught me by surprise. Hiking throughout the Southwest since the late '60s, I started concentrating on federally protected wilderness areas in 1975. Consequently, I ignored much of the Mogollon Rim, which is where the Cabin Loop Trail is found not far from Payson.
I was actually hiking a section of the Arizona Trail when I happened upon the Cabin Loop Trail, a historically rich part of the Southwest. Like the Rainbow Rim Trail, the Cabin Loop Trail does not involve much elevation change, though a few small canyons are crossed via a sometimes confusing network of trails.
The Forest Service has posted a number of informational signs acknowledging the work of the Nation's first professional forester and Head of the Department of Agriculture, Gifford Pinchot, as well as efforts to control wildfires in this region. I was able to hike and bike this 25-mile trail in one day.
Finally, we come to my favorite circle trail, the Prescott Circle Trail (PCT), which I have hiked/biked in its entirety 10 times. "How is that possible," you ask, "since this trail is not yet completed?"
I have expanded this Circle trail to run east of Glassford Hill into Prescott Valley, incorporating the Iron King and Peavine trails to complete the loop. I have hiked/biked the trail in pieces, but also in one continuous ride of 55 miles in 12-13 hours.
My most memorable hike/ride followed my first midlife crisis, the week before I turned 50 in January 2009. I had recently read two Holocaust books where Jews were marched 20 miles through the night, starved and ill-treated. I wondered if I could walk 20 miles in one night, knowing that my trip would in no way compare to theirs, but a midlife crisis is a midlife crisis after all and it was the best I could come up with under the circumstances.
I began biking at 7 p.m. and made it around Glassford Hill and along Pioneer Parkway to the east side of Granite Mountain at midnight, where I parked my bike. The full moon lit up the snow-packed trail well until I reached the chimney north of Thumb Butte where the shadows were making it difficult to follow the trail. I made a couple of fires, sleeping on one I covered with dirt until sunrise. It was the warmest snow camping I ever experienced, though I had no sleeping bag.
I walked throughout the day, south past Thumb Butte to Copper Basin Road, then east past White Spar and Goldwater Lake. From there I continued east over the Watershed Divide to Lynx Lake when it got dark again. I started hallucinating at this point but continued home near Stoneridge.
I finished the whole trip in 24 hours and 15 minutes. I'd like to say that cured me of midlife crises, but there were more to come.
The Prescott Circle Trail is twice as long as these other loops and nearer to civilization, making it more feasible to piece it together as you find the opportunity. Either way, the PCT is both challenging and enjoyable.
I hope that the next time you feel like you are going in circles, it's a significant circle within the grandest circle of them all.