Tuesday, January 14, 2020

FT Part 1: Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee


Well, that was jarring.

In early January, I boarded an airplane in the frozen upper Midwest and three hours later, landed in southern Florida. Since then, the temperature has never dropped below 70F, even in the middle of the night. I've only been on trail for a week, and I already feel grosser than ever before in my life. The tropics of South Florida are sticky, slimy, almost saccharine. What a wonderful climate to be a bacterium!


Calf-sucking Mud: On January 8, my good buddy Blue Moon dropped my off at a visitor center in Big Cypress National Preserve that marks the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. The FT doesn't go quite to the southern tip of mainland Florida, but only because that's all Everglades country, which definitely blurs the line between "land" and "water. And after all, who in their right mind would hike through a swamp?

You. You would. At least if you were hiking the Florida Trail. While Big Cypress may not be named "Everglades", it's very much still the same ecosystem. As such, there's a ten-mile stretch within the first couple days that is described (with more than a twinge of exaggeration) as "the toughest stretch of wilderness hiking anywhere in the United States". While I tend to think that whoever penned that statement needs to get out and do a lot more hiking, there's no doubt that it's difficult travel.


The entire stretch is underwater. I found the areas of deepest water to make for the easiest travel. While splashing through knee-deep water around trees and logs and roots isn't exactly quick, it's definitely preferable to the thick, gloppy, shoe-sucking mud that the shallower water is paired with. Extracting my foot after each step became a chore. Imagine hiking with 30-pound weights strapped to each foot. Yeah, good times.

But while it's easy to complain about swamp-sloshing, it was a really unique experience and one that I'll remember for a long time. Florida doesn't have any mountains - or even major hills, really - but the swamps make for a roughly equivalent obstacle. Big Cypress is reputedly the longest and toughest swamp section, but it sounds like there's a few more along the way to contend with.

Canals: After leaving Big Cypress behind, I traveled across a vast area of mostly farmland. That farmland is still in the swampy everglades ecosystem though, and stays dry enough to cultivate only through a massive waterworks project involving dozens (hundreds?) of canals and pumping stations. I walked for days atop dikes bordering canals. At one point, I walked due north for twenty miles, perfectly flat, perfectly straight. Progress is quick when everything you encounter is 3 mph terrain!

That easy walking atop the dikes does come with a couple downsides though. First, there's not a lick of shade to be found. As mentioned, South Florida has seen record high temperatures (85-90F) for much of the past week, and combined with lower-latitude sun intensity and 100% humidity, the result has been sweltering. Second, there's water everywhere, but it's all agricultural runoff - full of pesticides and who-knows-what. While it's certainly not the worst water I've ever drunk, it's certainly to be avoided if possible.


Caches: Thankfully, it's been pretty easy to avoid canal water thus far. There have been somewhat frequent outposts of civilization (towns, country stores, freeway rest areas) along the way where I can water up. In addition, the Florida Trail has a robust network of trail angels and supporters who have helpfully cached water at convenient spots along the way. Water caches as a rule cannot be considered reliable (and indeed, one of them was dry and another had only one gallon left), but it's always nice to draw nice clear water from a jug rather than ginger ale from alligator-laden ditches.

Oh, speaking of gators, I've probably seen at least a hundred, mostly laying in wait in canals or along the banks. As long as you stay comfortably above/away from them, up on the dikes, they're really no concern at all. But wow, have I seen some whoppers!

A friend remarked a while back that if we want to see the CDT completed, we should really rename it the "New Mexico Trail". All the state-specific trails that I've hiked thus far (Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, Florida Trail, the exception being the mostly-imaginary Idaho Centennial Trail) have excellent networks of volunteers and a lot of civic pride behind the trail-building and maintenance efforts. It's really cool to see locals throwing themselves into a project and obviously taking a lot of pride in it. Go Floridians!


What's Next: Walking around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee at the moment (which claims to be the second largest lake entirely within the United States - which okay, whatever. You're still not a Great Lake). That's all on pavement, which is unfortunate as my shoes are pretty close to dead and offer no cushion anymore. Then things get a little more remote for a while.


Sunday, December 29, 2019

2020: It's Always Adventure Time

 
"When are you going to do the PCT?"

As I neared the end of my CDT hike, I started to get the question. Friends, family members, and fellow hikers inquired,. They were curious. I've now completed two of the three legs of long-distance hiking's rarefied "Triple Crown". The Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail are done. The Pacific Crest Trail is next, right?

******************************************************************************************************

If you read this blog carefully (hi Mom!), you'll recognize the preceding paragraphs as coming from my 2019 look-ahead - in which I pulled a bait-and-switch and concluded that no, I wasn't doing the PCT but instead the Route In Between. In fact, I've teased the PCT a couple times on this blog, and as of yet, haven't actually done it.

It's time for that to change. This year, I'm doing the PCT. The idea of the Triple Crown isn't a major motivator for me personally, but the PCT looks beautiful and wonderful. It passes through environments I've never been to or haven't explored in detail. And it represents a fitting coda to this chapter of my life as full-time adventurer. Beyond just the PCT though, I intend on doing a long-distance hike in each of the four time zones in the contiguous United States - Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.

Eastern: The Florida Trail (January-February)

The Florida Trail is 1100 miles long and runs nearly the length of Florida. It begins just north of the Everglades and terminates near Pensacola. I'll admit upfront that the FT is probably the hike I'm least excited about this year. And it's the one I'm most nervous about, because of my entirely irrational fear of crocodiliforms. And that's good. A big part of the reason I'm doing the Florida Trail is because it gets me out of my comfort zone - the arid west, with its deserts and mountains and elevation change and deep wilderness. The Florida Trail is not that. It's swampy in parts, sees abundant precipitation, often urban, and has alligators! Give me grizzly bears over gators any day. Are they actually a significant danger? Of course not. Are they big and scary in my mind? You bet. 

Speaking more positively though, I expect to spend time in subtropical environments that are new to me. I'm eager to see different kinds of vegetation and yes, even an alligator or two. Combine that with some beach miles (a particular favorite of mine), and I anticipate a trail that's a change of pace, but rewarding nonetheless. Will that be the case? Only one way to find out.

Central: Ouachita Trail (March)

I intended on doing the Ouachita Trail in 2019, but simply ran out of time. The Ouachita Mountains (pronounced WASH-i-tah) parallel the Ozarks to the south, running east-west for a couple hundred miles in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. It follows long ridgelines for most of its length (220 miles). 

I'm eager to compare the OT with the Ozark Highlands Trail that I hiked in 2019. Research leads me to believe that the OT is probably a "better" trail, with more views, better trail tread, and infrastructure along the way (e.g. AT-style shelters). Shelters are an absolute godsend when the weather turns bad. There's no guarantee that the weather will be bad, but given my previous experiences hiking Arkansas in March, to expect otherwise at this point would be the height of folly.

Ouachitas, viewed from the Ozarks

Mountain: Grand Enchantment Trail (April-May) 

The Grand Enchantment Trail runs 800 miles from Phoenix, AZ to Albuquerque, NM. Along the way it passes through low desert, riparian, and alpine ecosystems. The GET is another hiking "route", rather than a trail. Like the Hayduke Trail, Lowest to Highest Route, or the Route In Between, it doesn't exist except in the minds of the hikers who walk it. The GET crosses deserts and passes through wonderful riparian areas. It crosses a dozen mountain ranges over its length. The GET also links two trails that I've done previously, the Arizona Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. The GET is a natural capstone to my long-distance hiking in the Southwest, and represents for me a completion of a sort of "desert triple crown" - the Arizona Trail, Hayduke Trail, and Grand Enchantment.


Pacific: Pacific Crest Trail (July-November) 

I've met a lot of long-distance hikers over the years. They're highly accomplished folks, often with at least enough miles under their belts to circle half the globe. Everyone has their story. Everyone has a unique set of experiences. Some of them have walked the Camino de Santiago - a mixture of religious pilgrimage and roll-through-town party train. Others have braved the jungles of New Zealand and trod down muddy trails, walking the country from north to south on the Te Araroa. Others wander oft-hostile desert environs remote canyons. But whatever their other experiences, one common thread ties many of these accomplished individuals together: when they speak about their experiences on the 2600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, they get all starry-eyed.


The PCT is unique among long-distance hiking trails. I can't think of a single other trail that everybody loves. Plenty of people didn't enjoy the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail. Plenty of people grew tired of dull roadwalks and cow poop water on the Continental Divide Trail. And a few crazy souls just didn't appreciate the arid environment of the Arizona Trail. But I've never met a single person - not one - who didn't love the PCT. A friend once commented that of the major long-distance trails, the PCT is the only one he's hiked twice - and it's the only one he'd consider hiking thrice. That alone speaks volumes. Despite different motivations, experience levels, physical capabilities, and preferred aesthetics, everybody loves the PCT - even the crusty old-timers who don't find much joy in anything anymore. How is that possible?

I obviously don't have a good answer to that question, because I haven't hiked the PCT. But I want to know. I want to be in on the joke that everyone else keeps laughing at. More than that though, I want to see what I haven't yet seen. I want to experience the Cascades for the first time, and to finally, at long last, do justice to the Sierra Nevada. I want to hike past volcanoes and across jagged ridgelines. I want to enjoy well-built, modern trail. I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. So in 2020, I'm doing it.

I intend on hiking it southbound, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. And while it's arguably a little more challenging than a traditional northbound hike, it promises to be far less crowded, and allows me to have my other "time zone" adventures before starting the PCT. 

Adventure Time

There you have it. Four time zones, four long hikes, in a multitude of different environments. I'm excited about this upcoming year. At the end of the year, I anticipate a return to a more conventional lifestyle. Between now and then? It's adventure time. 

 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

2019 - In Review

 
I've been writing these year-end recaps for several years now. In them, I try to come up with a word or idea to contextualize that year's adventures. It's a mere device, an ex-post-facto imposition, to somehow tell a story about the year.

This year, that's a real challenge. It was such a good year - such a diverse year. I walked on well-maintained trails in hardwood forest and picked my way through barren badlands, walked through rain forests and deserts, down road shoulders and trail-less ridgelines. I hiked trails that don't exist, trails that really don't exist, and full-blown National Scenic Trails. Yep, that's it. 2019 was the year of diverse experiences. 

Whew, now that we got that out of the way, let's hit the stats:

Gear:
  • Pairs of shoes: 6
  • Zippers split: 3
  • Tents purchased: 1
  • Tents destroyed: 1
  • Sleeping pads popped: 1
  • Sleeping pads repaired: 1
  • Platypus bottles used: 8
  • Pieces of gear mailed: infinite
  • Dollars spent on "building out" my crappy, beat-up Subaru: 30
  • Interest I have in discussing complicated hipster #vanlife projects: zero

Trips:
  • Long-distance hikes: 2 (Route In Between, Oregon Coast Trail)
  • Medium-length backpacking trips: 2 (Sand Diego Trans-county Trail, Ozark Highlands Trail) 
  • Short backpacking trips: 6
  • Miles hiked: 3,600+
  • States visited: 19
  • National Parks visited:7
  • National Park units visited: at least 19 (though I'm almost certainly forgetting a few)
  • State parks visited: dozens
  • Solo trips:7
  • Trips with friends: 3

Highest/Lowest/Fastest/Slowest
  • Highest elevation: 11,014' (Manti Skyline)
  • Lowest elevation: -236' (Salton Sea)
  • Highest point (metaphorical): Cruising the crest of the Bitterroot Range (Idaho Centennial Trail)
  • Lowest point (metaphorical): Thrashing up almost impassible trail, in the rain, with giardia (Idaho Centennial Trail)
  • Longest full day, in miles: 33 (Arizona Trail)
  • Shortest full day, in miles: 14 (Deseret Hiking Route)
  • Most consecutive days without seeing a human: 6 (Idaho Centennial Trail)
  • Longest waterless stretch: 25 miles (Deseret Hiking Route across the Snake River Plain)
  • Lightest packweight: 7 lbs (Golden Cathedral Loop)
  • Heaviest packweight: 35 lbs (Frank Church Wilderness, Idaho Centennial Trail)
 
Transportation:
  • Hassled by cops: 3
  • Given rides by cops: 2
  • Rode in the back seat of a cop car, screaming down a 2-lane highway at 90 mph with lights and sirens blaring: 1
  • Hitchhiked: 15
  • Hitchhiked with people who drove many miles out of their way to help me: 5
  • Randomly picked up by friends while hitchhiking: 2
  • Rode Greyhound: 2
  • Regretted Greyhound: 2
  • Rode Amtrak: 2

Animal Encounters:
  • Reprimanded strangers about their unleashed and aggressive dogs: 3
  • Pulled bear spray on an unleashed and aggressive dog: 1
  • Jumped into the bed of a passing pickup truck to avoid a confrontation with an unleashed and aggressive dog: 1
  • Perfectly fine encounters with well-behaved dogs: dozens 
  • Gila monsters: 3
  • Rattlesnakes: 13
  • Cows: infinite
  • Cows I thought were bears: 1
  • Actual bears: 3!!!!!! (including one grizzly)
  • Wolves: 1
  • Wolverines: 1
  • Overprotective coyote mommas: 1
  • Wild pigs: 10

Human Encounters:
  • Showed up on a relative's doorstep with a backpack: 2
  • Showed up on a friend's doorstep with a backpack: 5
  • Trail angels stayed with: 3
  • Invited home to share a meal: 2
  • Offered money by strangers who thought I was homeless: 3
  • Helped stack firewood into somebody's pickup: 2
  • 2018 CDT friends randomly bumped into on trail: 3

Camping:
  • Sleeping bag nights: 206
  • Sprinklers turned on inside my tent in the middle of the night: 1
  • Bathrooms slept in:7
  • Favorite campsite: high in the Wasatch Mountains watching the sun set over Mt. Timpanogos
  • Least favorite campsite: waterlogged marshy area in a pouring rainstorm in north Idaho
  • Camped on the beach: 5
  • Cowboy camped: dozens
  • Rained on while cowboy camping: 1


Anyway, onto the trips!

In January, I began an extended road trip with interspersed backpacking trips, starting with a rainy hike of the San Diego Trans County Trail.


Later in the month, I did quick trips in Joshua Tree National Park....


...and Big Bend National Park.


February featured a lot of wet feet. I hiked chilly Aravaipa Canyon with my sister as part of our annual siblings trip....


...and visited the world-famous Havasu Falls with my friend Jamal.


March brought one last phase of my road trip: a hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail.


Overall, I enjoyed the "road trip" phase of 2019. I was able to experience a multitude of different environments and reunited with friends and relatives.

Near the end of March, I began the Route In Between at the US-Mexico border, following the Arizona Trail...


...continuing northward as the calendar turned to April.


On the first of May, I finished the Arizona Trail at the Utah/Arizona border, and began the next phase of the Route In Between: the Deseret Hiking Route.


I followed the DHR northward through deep snowpack in the upper elevations. Slow progress and constant snowstorms prompted me to take a break for several weeks and let the snow melt. Rather than sitting around, I headed out to Oregon to hike the Oregon Coast Trail.


In June, I finished up the Oregon Coast Trail...


...and returned to central Utah where I had left off, resuming my journey northward on the DHR.


As June turned into July, things finally started to melt out as I continued north through the Wasatch Range into southern Idaho.


In August, I completed the DHR and moved onto the final phase of the RIB, the Idaho Centennial Trail.


In September, after almost six months of hiking, I completed the RIB in the panhandle of Idaho, a stone's throw from the Canadian border. The Route In Between really exceeded even my high expectations. What a wonderful hike!


In October, I took a quick trip with my buddy Justin into the drainage of the Escalante River....


...and in November I hiked from Moab to Canyonlands via a Hayduke Trail alternate.


Grateful to God for a safe and rewarding year in the outdoors. I look forward to 2020 with excitement!

Previous years in review: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Leaving No Trace: Ignorance and Recklessness

I've been thinking a lot about outdoor ethics recently. And a couple of specific incidents have brought the topic to front of mind. 

The Uninformed:

I camped in the NPS campground a few nights ago. The campground host on duty gave me a sweetheart deal, even though the facility was fully booked. He jammed me and a few other late arrivals on a larger group site. A young couple from Las Vegas showed up well after dark. After unsealing the box their tent came in (clearly using it for the first time), and futzing around trying to set it up for about an hour, they finally got everything in order. And then proceeded to build a fire, not in the designated firepits (the site had two of them) but just on the ground in the middle of the campsite. I wandered over and, very nicely, asked them to let the fire die and not add more wood - campfire ash is a terrible polluter, is highly acidic, and kills grass. They replied that yes, of course, and sorry, they didn't think about that.

I don't fault them much. They were clearly new to the game and were trying to do the right thing (they saw ash in that spot on the ground already and figured it was ok). When confronted, they were agreeable. Not perfect, but nice and conscientious. I'll take that.

The Willfully Reckless:

When I got my permit for the Narrows, the ranger on duty was adamant - she would not issue me a permit unless I had a full drysuit (they can be rented at several places in town). The water was 46 degrees, and the river would include several sections where swimming was necessary. She furthermore stressed that Thou Shalt Not Walk On The Banks Of The River, or walk on existing social trails on said riverbanks. The only permitted place to hike was directly in the rivercourse. She went through all the regulations - use of wag bags was required, no campfires, etc.

Fast forward a couple days. I was packing up my stuff at my designated campsite, when three young men came crashing through my site. None of them were wearing dry suits - as a matter of fact, two of them were wearing sandals. They were weaving and bobbing from riverbank to riverbank, walking on all the social trails, creating trails where none existed, in an attempt to avoid the cold river water.

I saw them again, a few hours later, and they were continuing to erode the banks of the river with their path. I said something to them. One of them, the self-appointed spokesman, said that they weren't prepared, like I was, and didn't want to get their feet cold. They'd keep doing exactly what they were doing, thank you very much.

I've never been one to tattle. But their actions and attitudes incensed me enough that I filed a complaint with the Wilderness desk when I got back to the Visitors Center. The ranger on duty noted to me that they had claimed they planned to rent dry suits and all the rest.

In summary:
  • The were warned by the ranger about the conditions they'd face in the hike and the necessary equipment
  • They lied to the ranger about their level of preparation and their willingness to comply with regulations
  • When confronted by one of their peers, me, they were brazen and unapologetic
These kind of people are who ruin it for the rest of us.



What can we take away from this?

The ignorant need to be educated, and the informed need to be held accountable. Ignorance isn't a problem - we can change that with a little education. But those who know better and simply don't care? It only takes a few of those to undo the good done by hundreds of other people following the rules. That's why I took a (nasty, grainy, zoomed-in) photo. And that's why I'm publishing it. The picture is poor enough that they can't reasonably be identified. There's no room for doxing or bullying here. But I do hope that if they ever visit this blog, they recognize themselves and realize their error.

Our words must be seasoned with salt. I used a couple of unkind words with addressing our three willfully reckless gentlemen. If I'm going to call other people to account, I need to first pry that speck out of my own eye. I should have communicated the same message, but using kinder language. That's a sin. I repent of that. 

There is no middle ground. Each of us, whenever we're in the outdoors, are either making things better, or worse. There's no neutral position. Either we avoid those social trails and let the land heal, or we use those social trails and damage the land. So with no middle ground, every day we have a decision to make - am I going to make things better, or worse?

These lands belong to all of us. These are public lands. All taxpayers and citizens own these lands. When we abuse these lands, we aren't harming The Government, we're harming our neighbors. And for those of us who spend a lot of time on public lands, who care deeply for creation - those lands are home for us. Gentlemen, you're trampling our home. My home.



Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Complete Guide to the Deseret Hiking Route


The Deseret Hiking Route (DHR) is a roughly 1,000-mile route through the heart of the American West. It begins on the Utah/Arizona border and runs north through Utah and southern Idaho before terminating in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. The DHR is a route chock-full of world-class beauty and offers the prospective hiker the opportunity to explore amazing and oft-overlooked landscapes. The DHR is designed to be hiked as either a standalone route, or in conjunction with the Arizona Trail and Idaho Centennial Trail from Mexico to Canada. The DHR is completely unmarked and undesignated by any state or federal agency. For the experienced long-distance hiker, one who takes responsibility for their own route choices, personal safety, and happiness, I can think of few extant routes that can deliver the kind of satisfaction that the DHR offers.

After many months of work, I'm pleased to make available a complete guide for the DHR, including maps, GPS files, descriptions, resupply tips, and more. This is all available free of charge at the link below. 


Fast Facts:

  • Southern Terminus: Stateline Trailhead, Arizona
  • Northern Terminus: Alturas Lake Creek, Idaho
  • Length: 1,000 miles (approximate)
  • Hiking surface: 
    • 50% singletrack trail
    • 40% dirt road (ranging from faint jeep tracks to well-graded roads)
    • 5% cross-country
    • 5% paved roads
  • Highlights:
    • Paria Canyon
    • Bryce Canyon National Park
    • Wasatch Mountains
    • Pioneer Mountains
History of the Route:

As of this writing in 2019, three hikers have hiked the length of Utah, all as part of larger treks through the intermountain west: Pepperflake (2016) , Dirtmonger (2019), and me (2019). All of us planned our routes independently and ended up taking different routes through the state.

My goal with the DHR was not only to piece together a beautiful route, but one that I could responsibly share with others. This means paying special attention to walking on sustainable surfaces, respecting property rights, and a whole host of other considerations. The result is something so beautiful, so special, and so captivating that I can't help but share it. The Deseret Hiking Route is a true gem, by far the most rewarding route I've ever walked.


Extending the Route:

The DHR was consciously designed to tie into other established long-distance hiking trails on either end: the Arizona Trail (AZT) in the south and the Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT) in the north. The combined AZT-DHR-ICT (collectively, the Route In Between, or RIB) offers hikers the opportunity to walk from Mexico to Canada through oft-overlooked terrain. In my opinion, it's a route that's just as spectacular as any of the "big three" triple crown trails, albeit a little rougher around the edges. You can read more about my personal journey on the RIB here.

So where's the Guide?

Click here. The guide is currently about 20 pages long, so grab a cup of coffee and get ready to dig in. The guide contains instructions for downloading all the planning materials you will need for your own hike of the DHR, including a resupply planner, custom maps, a data book, and GPX file. And yes, it's all 100% free. This project is my way of giving back to the hiking community. Enjoy!


Questions? Happy to answer them. You can leave a comment here or email me (contact information is listed in the Guide). 



Sunday, November 10, 2019

Change on the Hayduke Trail: Six Trends to Note


In 2005, Mike Cornella and Joe Mitchell published a guidebook for the Hayduke Trail, a rugged and stunning 800-mile backcountry hiking route across the Colorado Plateau. The guidebook was a result of a pair of 3-month exploratory journeys they undertook around the year 2000. Their original dream of turning it into a designated National Scenic Trail never came to fruition due to lack of support and funding. Undeterred, they branded the route the Hayduke Trail - a rebellion against the inertia of the establishment who torpedoed the possibility of a formal trail - and published their excellent and detailed guidebook anyway.

The Hayduke is a trail that's not a trail. It's nothing. It doesn't exist, except in the minds of hikers, and in the pages of the guidebook. It doesn't follow any real "trail" aside from the few existing trails that it piggybacks on. It follows ridgelines and canyon bottoms, rivers and dirt roads, and sometimes just wanders cross-country. The name "Hayduke" itself is a nod to the protagonist of The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel by famed desert southwest author Edward Abbey. Abbey spins a yarn about George Hayduke who, along with a few friends, forms a radical eco-terrorist cell. Given the name, Hayduke hikers can't really expect any accommodation from land management agencies.

The only trail signs out here are the ones you make yourself using desiccated cattle bones.

The Hayduke has a well-deserved reputation as an expert-level trail. Its difficulty is matched by its remoteness. Hikers are truly and fully "on their own" in a hot, dry, demanding environment. Margins of error approach zero. For years, the Hayduke has served as a test piece for hikers looking to challenge themselves and see some amazing scenery along the way. For the first decade or so of its existence, the annual number of Hayduke Trail thru-hikers hovered in the single digits.

Recently though, the Hayduke's popularity has begun to explode. There are many reasons for this. A full list is beyond the scope of this article, but let's briefly name a few:
  • The popularity of thru-hiking has surged in recent years. Many trails are seeing five times as many hikers as they did a decade ago. A rising tide lifts all boats and the Hayduke is no exception. 
  • The population of the Intermountain West is increasing rapidly. More people near the trail means more hikers on the trail.
  • Social media has a contagious effect. For many years, the bizarre, jaw-dropping beauty of the Colorado Plateau flew largely under the radar. Not anymore. Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River is an Instagram-famous madhouse. Antelope Canyon was probably your Windows 7 background at some point. 
  • Navigation is less of a bugaboo than it used to be. The Hayduke is a true challenge to navigate with map and compass. Improvements in GPS technology and more ample information eases many fears about this important issue.
Admitted, nobody keeps statistics, official or otherwise, on the number of Hayduke attempts and completions each year. But everybody agrees - the Hayduke is growing much more popular by the year. 

At this point, I'm going to go out on a limb and make what I think is a reasonable guesstimate as to current numbers. These are based on my own experience, conversations with other tuned-in observers of the Hayduke, and extrapolations from social media. It's certainly more art than science, and I welcome feedback. That said, I believe that several dozen long-distance hikers complete the Hayduke each year. Ten? That's certainly too low. A hundred? Too high. The true number is definitely somewhere in between.

This estimated number may appear paltry - and in the grand scheme of things, it is. Nevertheless, it represents a several hundred percent increase from where we were even five years ago. 



I've been hiking on the Hayduke Trail since 2014. This includes a complete section hike (2015-2018) of the Hayduke, plus countless random weekend trips that happen to overlap with the Hayduke's route. I've done many sections multiple times, in different years and different seasons. So, while I'm certainly no expert and far from the most tenured observer of recreation on the Colorado Plateau, I do know it fairly well and have seen it change over time. I've noticed six Hayduke trends worth highlighting:


1. More public awareness. 

In the past few years, the Hayduke has been featured in niche publications like Backpacker and Trailgroove. That's no surprise. What is a little more noteworthy is its increasing visibility in the mainstream. National Geographic published a Hayduke feature. A recent documentary is available for viewing on Amazon

This public consciousness has real-world implications. Early Hayduke veterans generally recommended "poaching" most of the six National Parks that the Hayduke passes through. Backcountry permits were required in each park, sure, but those parks' policies made it prohibitively difficult for Hayduke hikers, who enter in some obscure corner of the park, exit in another, and never go near a visitors center. But over the last few years Hayduke numbers have increased and the parks have become aware of the trickle of permit-less hikers leaking through. I know of several hikers who have been ticketed. Capitol Reef, in fact, makes specific reference to Hayduke Trail users on its backcountry permits site. The upshot? If poaching the parks was a good idea (doubtful!) when the Hayduke was underground, it's certainly not a good idea now that it's more mainstream.

More generally, Hayduke Trail users form a "group" that is simply more recognizable than it was in the past. This comes with benefits and drawbacks - and many simply depend on your perspective! At least one land management agency (that will go unnamed here) makes special allowances for Hayduke hikers, and it's probably just a matter of time until a "super" trail angel - a la the Saufleys or Bob Peoples - sets up shop helping Haydukers along the way. At the same time, hikers have an increased obligation to be good ambassadors for the community and not ruin it for others. Hikers may get more side-eye from crusty locals when word gets around that they're hiking a trail named after a fictional eco-terrorist. 

2. Lower barriers to entry.  

When Mike and Joe published their guidebook, they included a map section at the end of each chapter. These maps were grainy, black-and-white scans of the USGS quads. They were wholly inadequate for navigation out in the field. Any hiker planning to do the Hayduke had to first print or purchase full-resolution maps and then transfer the route details onto the maps using pen and paper. There was no water chart, supplemental route notes, or GPX file.

Over time, this has changed. Li Brannfors made a terrific map set. Andrew Skurka compiled a water chart. Each successive wave of new information has made it easier to complete the Hayduke and hopefully stay alive in the process. In recent years, the water chart torch has been passed to others and it's actually been updated (for the better part of a decade, the only compiled water information was the original, outdated chart). Nic Barth has published a bunch of GPS tracks, and if that's still too much work, the Hikerbot app has made electronic navigation as simple as download-and-go.

I would argue that none of this is a bad thing - indeed, many of the aforementioned individuals (and many others) have been responsible in some way or another for dozens, perhaps hundred people having amazing experiences on the Colorado Plateau. Just the other day, I hiked an alternate route that a local with the "inside scoop" put together, and I was not disappointed. I was able to do all the research I needed in the matter of about ten minutes - something that would have been time-consuming or impossible a decade ago.

However, there is one significant unintended consequence to all this convenience and the abundance of information: it allows hikers to potentially underprepare. The Hayduke isn't quite at print-and-go level for most folks just yet, but it's certainly trending in that direction. And with stakes as high as they are on the Hayduke - potentially deadly environment, little chance of rescue, slim margin of error - underpreparedness can quickly become a serious problem. To date, there have not been any truly negative outcomes on the Hayduke, and Lord willing, it stays that way. However, some folks find themselves in a bit over their heads if they're not familiar with the environment or with off-trail travel.

3. Falling completion rates. 

We've seen this pattern play out on many long-distance hiking trails: as a trail becomes more popular, the percentage of hikers that actually complete the trail drops. Again, this is highly anecdotal, as no stats exist to prove or disprove the assertion in the Hayduke's case. But I can tell you that I did a long-distance hike in 2019 that overlapped with the Hayduke for about one hundred miles. In those hundred miles, I ran into about a dozen hikers attempting a thru-hike, and all but two of them quit the trail. That's certainly not a problem - whether or not a hiker completes the route, he or she is likely to have an incredible experience on the Hayduke, regardless of length of journey. But it does seem to indicate that things are changing. 

Why are fewer people (percentage-wise) completing their thru-hikes? There's almost certainly not one clean answer to this question, but I see a couple possible partial explanations:
  • The earliest pioneers on any trail self-select for a few key traits that come in handy on the Hayduke: dialed-in lightweight style, resilience in the face of adversity, tolerance of uncertainty, ability to improvise, etc. Any list of early Haydukers is a grab-bag of highly respected names within long-distance hiking circles: Li Brannfors, Ryan Choi, Andrew Skurka, and Brian Frankle are just a few. 
  • Those lower barriers to entry allow more hikers (though certainly not all, or even most) to show up in Arches without the right frame of mind, experience level, gear, or skillset. This is not to say that today's hikers are somehow lazier or less competent than those of a decade ago - it's simply a product of what's available. Years ago, the only possible way to stay alive out there was to do hundreds of hours of independent research. You can be sure that someone in that position would be well-prepared, mentally speaking, for the rigors of a difficult trail-less route through the desert.
Despite the foregoing, the Hayduke is still largely the domain of the experienced long-distance hiker, most often with desert experience. Yes, there's boatloads of information out there, but it's still off-trail, it still has infrequent and low-quality water, and has tough logistics. It certainly makes no attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, so to speak.


4. More section hikers. 

To be clear, I don't necessarily mean the classic section-hiker model we're accustomed to on the AT or PCT, where a hiker manages to get out for a week or two every year for several years and, at the end of a decade, has completed the entire trail. That's the way I personally did the Hayduke, but that was unusual, in that I live in Utah and thus have easier access and logistics than most folks. 

Instead, many hikers are going for a random two-week stretch, as much to explore the Colorado Plateau as to achieve any particular objective. Or they may, after having completed another long trail, head out to Utah in the fall and just hike for a few weeks without any real commitment to finishing the trail. Or they may use the Hayduke's route as a jumping-off point for their own long-distance hiking explorations. A few hikers have packrafted the Colorado, skipping several sections. Or they end their hikes at the Grand Canyon, rather than pulling a U-turn and continuing north to the terminus in Zion. I believe we're seeing a greater diversity in how long-distance hikers experience the wonder of the Hayduke's unique environment - something that's undeniably a good thing.


5. More alternate routes. 

Mike and Joe's guidebook was born out of the route that they took, and for the most part, that route is truly remarkable. Nevertheless, over the years, folks have mapped various alternates, some of which make more practical sense than the guidebook route, and some of which are just flat-out better, more scenic routes. Notable contributors in this space include Jamal Green, Andrew Skurka, Li Brannfors, and Nic Barth

Thus far, the Hayduke has been able to escape the vicious and pointless arguments about purity that plague discussions of other trails - even increasingly the CDT. The general consensus - driven by the renegade ethos of the route and an open-minded attitude on the part of the authors themselves - is that there is no official route, and the Hayduke is basically whatever you want it to be. The proliferation of alternate routes is so extensive that, when a friend decided to eschew the Hayduke and instead simply do a walk across southern Utah - nearly every step he took between Zion and Moab turned out to be on somebody's Hayduke alternate route! The Hayduke truly is a choose-your-own-adventure enterprise.

6. More environmental impact. 

This one's a big one, and the dark underside of  the Hayduke's increasing popularity. Deserts may look barren and hardy, but are in fact incredibly sensitive. Biological soil crusts (better known as cryptobiotic soil or simply crypto) plays a vital role in erosion control and provides the foundation for many communities of desert plant and animal life. Yet a single footstep is enough to destroy it - at least for several decades, if not permanently.

This trail did not exist at all in 2015. But it will definitely still exist in 2050, even if we stopped walking on it today. And it's 100% attributable to the Hayduke Trail.

The fact is, even the most fastidious practitioner of Leave No Trace ethics will step on a little bit of crypto on a Hayduke Trail hike. It's simply unavoidable sometimes. That may not be the end of the world if there's just a couple of people per year, all following their maps and terrain and taking slightly different routes. On the other hand, what happens when an increasingly large number of hikers all follow the same line on a GPS and walk in the same place? The result is smashed plant life, flattened crypto, and more. Sensitive conglomerate formations may be broken off by hikers pulling on them in the course of a scramble.

I recently did a hike of a section that I first walked in 2015. At that time, there were a couple isolated footprints, but otherwise no evidence that humans had ever been there. In 2019? A few dozen cairns have sprouted up along the way, and there is a well-beaten path through the crypto. It took fewer than 4 years to form, but it'll take more than ten times that to heal.

Cairns lessen the navigational challenge of key off-trail segments. This one is new in the past few years.

Frankly, though, I'm not sure if there's a solution to this conundrum. It's hard to blame hikers for following the footsteps of others through an already-impacted area - in fact, that's the exact right thing to do when travel across crypto is necessary. Other than simply avoiding those areas altogether and re-routing, not much can be done. I suppose that the guidebook authors would probably make a few different route choices if they were writing nowadays, in an age when thru-hiking has become trendy and GPS navigation is ubiquitous.

For our part, we can refrain from recommending alternate routes that do cross large areas of crypto or other environmentally sensitive areas, keep pristine archeological site finds to ourselves, and share alternates that spend more time on durable surfaces.

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Change is inevitable. It's easy to either wax nostalgic for the good old days on one hand, or regard the future with Panglossian optimism on the other. Either extreme is a mistake. I do hope though, that by taking seriously the trends we see today, prospective Hayduke Trail hikers will set themselves up for a fulfilling, sustainable, memorable journey across the Colorado Plateau. And frankly, even for those who will never set foot in red rock country, many of the observations and trends noted here can also apply to other trails and open spaces that we frequent. 

I do wonder about the future of the Hayduke Trail. It's now nearly two decades old. In another two decades, will public lands management plans still allow for off-trail travel? Will there be a Hayduke Trail Association to advocate for this incredible backcountry route*? Will a warming climate make the Hayduke unhikable as springs and creeks dry up? It's tough to tell. So don't wait. To quote Ed Abbey: 

It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

Get out there. Do some living.

 

*If there ever is a non-profit that advocates for the Hayduke Trail - I absolutely insist that it be called FROTH - Friends Of The Hayduke. How cool is that!?