3 years ago I made my first trip to the Pinalenos and the Arcadia Trail. My wife and I loved the place, however, we got turned back about 1/2 mile from the peak of Heliograph due to monsoons. I promised to come back and complete my trip and today I did. The place has changed from the fires, to be sure. Now a different trail from my first visit, I still find it exceptional and so worthy of a visit.
The trail takes off from the back of the picnic area just above the Arcadia Campground. In typical sky island fashion it pulls no punches. You are climbing and soon enough switchbacking before you even know what hit you. Get used to it, because this trail climbs steadily the whole way. This is little to no flat sections on this trail. As you climb up the canyon, it falls away to your right. Water runs in a small stream down below. You cross over the head of the stream and really enter the canyon proper, with large views down the Pinalenos accompanying you much of the rest of the way. There is intermittent fire damage along the trail, at times heavy. The regrowth is considerable. Ferns, wildflowers galore and higher up aspens are making a strong push.
Some of the lower sections of the trail are slightly overgrown by ferns and other plants, but the path is so well worn, that route finding is never really difficult. So just climb away, enjoying the canyon views and flora as you go. There are deer, butterflies, lizzards and all sorts of birds everywhere.
After two miles and considerable elevation gain you reach a junction with Noon Creek Trail, which breaks off from to your right. You will continue straight for about 2 more miles of steady climbing. Periodically you will run up on the ridge cutting down the canyon and you can look down forever (and see the Swift Trail far, far below). In the upper reaches, the fire damage is at times more evident. So is the regrowth. There is a very healthy lot of aspens coming in, and as of now they are starting to turn. This upper stretch is pretty relentless climbing.
At about 4 miles you will reach a signed junction for the formal trail to Heliograph peak (328a). It is one mile to the peak. The trail breaks off to the left. This last stretch climbs just as steeply, if not more so. There are intermittent aspen stands and great views out towards Mt. Graham. There is some more burn evidence too. The trail occasionally gets a little thin here, but there are cairns and cutlines that are easy enough to follow. Near the top, you peak out in the most awesome little clearing where there is deep grass, treetrunks and heavy aspens. This is probably the best part of the hike, an excellent place to hang out. You can see the watchtower to your left. The trail deadends at a gravel road. Hang a left at the sign and walk a couple hundred feet to the summit. There is an active lookout here (which they ask you not to climb) and great views. Very, very nice. You can head back the way you came, follow the gravel road around to your right and loop back to trail 328a or take the gravel road all the way back to Shannon Campground and hike the Arcadia Trail back from there.
Enjoy this hike, though it has certainly changed it is still magnificent. I am thrilled that I kept my promise.
To Arcadia Trailhead From Safford, head south on U.S. highway 191. The trailhead is at the Upper Arcadia Campground and Picnic Area off Swift Trail (AZ 366) 11.5 miles from the AZ 366/US 191 intersection. The trailhead is at the rear of Upper Arcadia Campground, next to the group campsite, just past the signed main Campground. The small gravel road breaks off to your right at the curve in the Swift Trail (366) just above the campground. It is easy to miss.
From PHX (I-10 & AZ-51) 3 h 12 min without traffic From TUC (Jct 1-10 & Grant) 2 h 4 min without traffic From FLG (Jct I-17 & I-40) 4 h 54 min without traffic
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.