If I were to design the perfect backpacking and gear-testing trail, it would look a lot like the Prescott Circle Trail–breathtakingly beautiful and challenging, yet always within an hour’s walk of help should you need it.
Not to be confused with the 2659 mile Pacific Crest Trail made (more) famous by Reese Witherspoon in Wild, the other PCT is a 54 mile loop around the friendly mountain city of Prescott, AZ, aka the other Mile High City, 1.5 hours northwest of Phoenix.
my mother among the folks wondering why anyone would choose to carry a big backpack, walk all day, and sleep on the ground on purpose, read on to find out how you can modify this hike for any level of luxury and why this is the perfect adventure for you.
Let The Circle Trail Be Unbroken
The Prescott Circle Trail is a hodge podge of existing and new trails traversing the Prescott National Forest, City of Prescott, State Trust Land, Federal Land (BLM), and private land. The cooperation required to bring the loop into existence is a miracle, and it’s almost complete. A 1.5 mile stretch requires walking through a neighborhood, and the rest is an extremely well-maintained and excellently marked trail.
Due to the numerous jurisdictions, finding information about the entire loop was daunting until Nigel Reynolds published his trail guide and saved the rest of us a lot of work. Thanks, Nigel!
Stop by the Chamber of Commerce, the Highlands Center for Natural History, or the Hike Shack* to purchase a $10 guide–it’s worth its weight in gold. While you’re there, pick up the City of Prescott Trails and Outdoor Recreation Map for an overview in addition to the trail guide’s nitty-gritty details.
To Camp Or Not To Camp, Is It Really A Question?
It depends, of course.
First, it depends on your endurance. There are only three public campgrounds along the trail, listed at their positions on the circle:
- Watson Lake Park Campground, 2 o’clock
- $15/night, showers and restrooms
- White Spar Campground, 6 o’clock
- $14/night, restrooms and drinking water
- Javelina sometimes visit, so hang your food
- Yavapai Campground, 11 o’clock (see photo)
- $18/night, restrooms and drinking water
- Reservations available soon–check the website for details
This means that at some point you’ll be walking 18-20 miles in a day. Or, you could stay in a charming hotel downtown and Uber 10-15 minutes to a trailhead, then Uber back to your hotel when you get tired of hiking.
Second, it depends on your gear and time. If you don’t have a tent, a backpack, a camp stove, and time to dehydrate food, that’s an excellent excuse to stay in a hotel. The campers will be envious of your hot shower, hot meal, and soft bed.
Third, it depends on your desire for comfort. This isn’t a hike into an isolated canyon–even if you have all the gear, why not take advantage of being so close to a lovely city and enjoy its amenities?
We opted to test our gear and ourselves, so we parked at Wal-Mart at 3 o’clock, hiked 21 miles** counterclockwise (the easier way) to Yavapai the first day, 19 miles to White Spar the second day, and 18 miles back to our car the third day.
A LOT Of Steps
Yes, this trail is long. There’s no denying it. But it is so worth it. And, you don’t have to hike it all at once.
If you lack the time or inclination for the whole enchilada, choose a day hike around Goldwater Lakes. Enjoy a breathtaking sunrise over the lake and feel spiderweb strands across the trail congratulate you for being the first person to pass through that day.
For forest hiking, stick with the western half of the PCT. The eastern half is still neat but more sun-exposed and urban.
Trail markers are easy to follow, though in two places we were very happy to have the guide. The PCT also has three unique logos depending on jurisdiction, so look closely.
Food and Water
Dehydrating food dramatically lightens your pack, so see this post on how to DIY your outdoor meals.
Our MSR Windburner was a champ, boiling water nearly instantly for our breakfasts of oatmeal, chia seeds, cinnamon, and dried fruit and dinners of dehydrated rice or pasta with veggies and salsa. We learned from our Havasupai hike failure and ‘cooked’ in Ziploc bags this time.
Lunches and snacks consisted of homemade jerky and a luscious mix of dehydrated apricots, pineapple, apples, and raisins mixed with salted nuts.
And peanut butter goop… you have to try this!
- 1 cup peanut butter
- 1 cup powdered milk
- 1/2 cup oats
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut
- 1/2 cup raisins or chocolate chips
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp vanilla
Adjust ratios as needed for taste and texture, put the whole mess in a Ziploc bag, and bring a spoon! Everything tastes better on the trail, but this was so yummy it was almost gone before we even left home.
For water, we started with 2.5 liters each and refilled at drinking fountains and campground pumps (Watson Lake, Pioneer Park/Kuebler Field, Yavapai Campground, White Spar Campground, Goldwater Lakes). We did have to filter water on the second day, which we should have done at Fireplace Spring (9 o’clock) that was flowing well.
But… we walked right by, certain we would find another creek later.
Did I mention it’s the dry season? Luckily, we eventually found this
gross refreshing pool. The filtered water tasted fine, powdered drink mix helped with the mental yuck factor, and we’re still healthy. Score!
We learned our lesson and filled an extra 2 liter bag the third day, which brought us safely back to our car, civilization, and our favorite Mexican restaurant. The only thing better than a successful hike is spicy, cheesy, gooeyness wrapped in a tortilla.
No one’s perfect. We knew some of these things before, yet we still made mistakes. Here’s what we’ll do differently next time:
- Bring more sunscreen. On the bright side, we have killer and super-sexy tan lines from our hiking pole wrist straps.
- Buy bigger shoes. Feet swell when you’re active and spread when you’re carrying pack weight, so size up.
- Take it easy. Maybe not easy, but easier. 20 miles a day is a bit much with a pack. Next time we’ll aim for 12-15.
- Fill up on water. Even if you think you don’t need it.
- Stay skeptical. Fitbits and other pedometers can be 10-15% inaccurate depending where they’re worn. Mine counts properly on the side of my waistband but undercounts in the center or on my pocket.
What To Bring
We ditched the gear we didn’t use Hiking Havasupai and weighed in at 16 lbs each without water.
- Lightweight backpack– doubles as a day pack.
- Tent– consider a 2-person tent for solo hiking or a 3-person tent for a couple. You’ll appreciate the extra space.
- Sleeping bag– this one’s awesome for stomach or side sleepers.
- Thermarest– I slept like a baby on this and couldn’t feel a single rock.
- Camp stove– and 1-1.5 lbs/person/day of dehydrated food.
- Hiking Poles– with quick-lock adjustment and cork handles.
- Camera- for short trips use your phone on airplane mode.
- Headlamp– with rechargeable batteries and a red light for night vision.
- Notepad- or other entertainment, optional.
- Water Bottles and filter– these are lightweight and durable.
- First aid kit- small bags of naproxen and antihistamine tablets, antibacterial gel, bacitracin, band-aids, moleskin, and hydrocortisone cream.
- Repair kit- safety pins or small sewing kit, string or fishing line, and duct tape.
- Glasses- or extra pair of extended-wear contacts.
- Earplugs– block out snoring tentmates or campground partiers.
- Comb- and hair ties if needed.
- Quick-dry towel– the true multitasker.
- Toothbrush and toothpaste dots– just chew for a few seconds and brush.
- Toilet paper and trowel– bury your poop and pack out your paper.
- Sun protection- hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and lip balm with SPF.
- Bug spray- in rainy seasons. DEET can melt plastic or nylon gear, so try this instead.
- Shirts– 1 short-sleeved and 1 long-sleeved quick-dry synthetic shirt.
- Jacket- lightweight fleece or Ghost Whisperer down jacket depending on the season.
- Pants– these are super-comfortable, quick-dry, and roll to become capris. Bring quick-dry shorts in summer.
- Underwear– these are amazing, comfortable, and dry in no time.
- Sports bra– try several to find what works best for your body.
- Socks– Darn Toughs are life-changing and just as comfortable wet as dry–like a hug for your feet.
- Shoes– think trail runners, not heavy boots. This pair is awesome but runs really small.
*Shout out to Amanda at the Hike Shack, a phenomenal source of encouragement and information. You rock!
**More than 54 miles because the campgrounds and parking lot were each a short walk from the trail.
You’ve got this! Hike a section or the whole trail and let me know what you think. Tell me your favorite hikes in the comments below.
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