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Quick word association: “backpacking in Arizona.” Did you say “Grand Canyon” or “desert”? So did everyone else. Zig where others zag: canyons near peaks, hiking trails in paddling meccas, and thick for- ests in sand-and-saguaro territory are often deserted simply because nobody thought to look for them.
So it is with this lush oasis in the Grand Canyon state. The Blue River anchors a unique riparian zone in the dry country spanning the Arizona-New Mexico border, complete with swimming holes, aspens, and waterfalls and home to black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, and elk. And because it’s designated as a “primitive area” rather than the better-known wilderness title, the Blue Range is even further under the radar. “When you Google ‘wilderness,’ you don’t get the Primitive Area,” says ranger Myron Burnett. Savor the solitude on the 30.6-mile, four-day loop winding up, down, and through the forests and canyons of the remote eastern side of the reserve.
From the Blue Camp trailhead, head south on Lanphier Trail #52 along a brown trout-rich stream shaded by maple and walnut trees, climbing to views of 8,550-foot Bear Mountain to the west. Turn south to join the Cow Flat Trail #55 and follow it southwest to tiny Campbell Flat Lake and down into Bear Valley to camp near a historic cabin site. Trail #55 fades a bit as it crosses the wide scrubland of Government Mesa (keep an eye out for cairns and tree blazes), then drops into Ladrone Canyon, a leafy gorge where gushing Ladrone Spring feeds
a few small cascades. Swing north on the Blue River Trail #101 and prepare to get wet: Stream crossings and swimming holes await for the next 14 miles back to your car (after 6 miles, you’ll just be following the canyon, no trail). As for tent sites: “Any place named on the map is a good place to camp,” says Burnett. Think Cashier Spring (5 miles in), Campbell Flat (7.8), Bear Valley (8.9), Ladrone Canyon, and anywhere in the Blue River Canyon.
Season March to May or September to November Trailhead 33.595924, -109.129566; Blue Camp trailhead, 26 miles from Alpine on FR 281/Blue River Rd. Permit None Infofs.usda.gov/asnf