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.


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!? 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

RIB Part 6: Kooskia to Canada

When I began the Route In Between more than five months ago at the Arizona/Mexico border, I had my doubts. Even the easiest long-distance hike is still an immense challenge, and this hike was shaping up to be the polar opposite of an easy hike. Those doubts in the back of my mind only intensified as I moved farther north and snow kept piling up in Utah's high country After making ponderously slow progress over my first high (10,000') plateau in deep, soft snow, and studying the long-term weather forecast and snow depth data, I made a business decision to sit it out for five or six weeks, rather than taking a lower route that didn't fit with the route's alpine theme. 

Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Part 3: Kanab to Torrey
Part 4: Torrey to Grace
Part 5: Grace to Kooskia

At that point, in late May, I would have told you that the odds were against me completing the RIB this year. My resolve to try never wavered, but by time the snowpack consolidated to my satisfaction, it was already late June. Winter generally returns to the Northern Rockies not long after Labor Day. From here on out, I had little margin of error - no insignificant concern when hiking a completely untested route.

But for the grace of God go I. The route offered not only amazing scenery, but relatively quick progress over most of its length. My pace slowed somewhat when I got on the Idaho Centennial Trail, as bushwhacking and fewer hours of daylight took their toll. But I pushed a little harder, finding an extra gear for the final month or so.

And on a cold, rainy, miserable day in mid-September in north Idaho, I reached my destination - Upper Priest Falls, a stone's throw from the international border. No sign marked the end of the ICT, nothing commemorated the accomplishment. It was a dead-end trail to a waterfall. That's it. Almost a little anticlimactic, don't you think?

In a sense, though, it was a fitting end to the RIB. It's a nothing, a void, a mere suggestion. It's a theorized line through empty space. Nobody (except for you, dear reader) knows what it is, nobody cares that you've done it, nobody takes notice when you add "RIB 2019" to your ridiculous self-congratulatory Instagram bio. I aim to prioritize experiences over accomplishments. I think this route achieved that.

The ICT at its Best: As you'll recall, my previous post was largely a laundry list of complaints about how unpleasant the ICT had been through the vast wilderness areas of central Idaho. I had heard from my friend POD (a recent ICT finisher) that things got much better after leaving those wilderness areas behind. To be honest, I had a little trouble believing her. After all, the story of the ICT thus far had been terrible trail conditions and merely adequate scenery. But she was right: north of Kooskia, the ICT really stepped up its game.

I hiked up a beautiful creek on clear trails and spent days on the crest of the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains with my right foot in Montana and my left in Idaho. I cruised along more well-maintained trail, interspersed with some dirt roads, and looked down on dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes nestled against the flanks of the main ridge. I saw almost nobody, the weather was clear, and for a few glorious days, things just fell into place.

Fall has Arrived: All good things must eventually end though, and when I crossed Interstate 90, I got off trail for a few days for a family event. When I got back on, fall had most definitely arrived. After one last beautiful sunny day, a cold rain began to fall. All told, I got rained on for eleven straight days. I spent a three day stretch on the crest of the Cabinet Range entirely in the clouds, with a maximum visibility of about 30 yards. I imagine it's quite beautiful, though I never could see far enough to judge for myself. I did however have acceptable weather for the one stretch of trail that I really needed good visibility for - an off-trail pass that separated two alpine lakes. For that, I am very grateful.

The clouds broke for about 20 minutes one evening. I could kinda see a little bit!
Rain Forest Surprise: Judging from the vegetation in north Idaho, I'm certainly not the only person to get rained on up there. In particular, I hiked my last few days through incredibly lush forests. Everything was covered in moss. Even under cloudy skies, the greens were so vibrant they almost seemed artificial. And of course, the trees were huge and majestic. Huge hemlocks and red cedars dominated, some of them hundreds or even thousands of years old. Just four thousand feet below the alpine zone, this environment proved wet, boggy, and uniquely beautiful - not what I was expecting from Idaho, but a great treat!

A Word of Gratitude: Over the past few months, I've run into a few people who asked about/checked out this here blog. Some of you gave me rides (even driving out of your way to do so). Some of you tracked me down and fed me breakfast. Some put up with my endless rambling (sorry about that - you were probably the first human I saw in close to a week!). Some of you provided helpful route tips. And, most significantly, some of you prayed. A hearty THANK YOU to everyone contributed along the way.


Changing subjects a bit, I'd like to give some overall thoughts, impressions, and themes of the route. I can say with some confidence that the RIB is the best long-distance route I've ever hiked. Of course, as its creator, I'm undoubtedly biased. What parent doesn't hold an unjustifiably high opinion of their child?  Take everything I say, therefore, with a grain of salt.

Diversity: One of the main selling points of the RIB is the unparalleled diversity of biomes and landscapes. In the same hike, I hike through remarkable sky islands, desert scrub, majestic ponderosa forests, red rock canyons, and snowbound plateaus. And that's just in Arizona. In Utah, I hiked through incredibly colorful geologic layers, including the Pink Cliffs that form Bryce Canyon, many alpine and subalpine sections of high plateaus, and traversed the length of the Wasatch Range. In Idaho, I hiked through sagebrush and areas of lava flow, past beautiful mountain lakes, and through mid-elevation forests and river canyons. I cruised through the alpine zone for a while and ended in deep, dark, wet, lucious forests. Such astounding diversity is almost hard to comprehend.

Consistency: Overall, I found the RIB to be exceedingly beautiful, as you're probably sick of hearing by now. But what impressed me more was the consistency of that beauty. There were very few "filler" miles. There certainly were some, as there are on any long-distance route, but the length and frequency of those sections was small. The longest stretch, across the Snake River Plain in southeast Idaho, compared very favorably to its counterparts on other long trails that I've hiked - the Great Divide Basin on the CDT or, heck, most of the mid-Atlantic on the AT. In areas where the scenery and hiking experience promised to be subpar, I took a very direct route and minimized the amount of time and energy I'd have to expend hiking those not-so-great miles.

There are a few areas in the West that I consider to be more beautiful than anywhere else I've been - the Wind River Range, the Beartooth Range, or the Escalante area. The RIB doesn't go through many of those areas. Put another way, the RIB lacks the "perfect tens". But what it lacks in tens, it more than makes up for in eights and nines. This yielded, in my opinion, a hiking experience that was more rewarding on a day-to-day basis than, say, the CDT. The CDT goes through the Winds, goes through Glacier, and those are amazing, but it also has a lot more mediocre miles than the RIB does.

Ultimately though, aesthetics are a matter of opinion, so I'd encourage any prospective RIB hikers to look at my photos, mentally apply a filter to make them less crappy, and then decide for themselves whether the scenery is to their liking.

Adventure: I've always felt happiest on-trail when my mind is fully engaged. I enjoy navigating, problem-solving, extrapolating from what I know to make good decisions. I don't like everything laid out for me, as that inevitably leads to boredom and disengagement. The RIB offered a true challenge, one in which there's no answer key in the back of the book. I had great information on the Arizona Trail, of course, but after that little warm-up, I was on my own for the rest of the journey to Canada. I had done extensive research on the Deseret Hiking Route when I mapped it, and while I certainly changed some plans on the fly, I felt that overall, I had good information and a solid plan. I probably underprepared a bit for the Idaho Centennial Trail. Fortunately, the best way information circulates on the ICT is via the hiker grapevine, and I'm very grateful to POD for supplementing the beta I'd compiled with her first-hand observations. She even sent me an annotated map set, which was extremely useful.

Over the course of the RIB, I re-routed several times - sometimes you hit unexpected private land, steep snowpack, or need to bail off the ridge for water. Sometimes a ridgeline that looked impassable on the map ends up being perfectly fine. Each day, I was mentally engaged. I love that.

What's next: Over the next few weeks, I'll be working on some specific planning resources for other hikers looking to do the RIB (Specifically, the DHR, as the AZT and ICT obviously are existing trails with information available). I'm very happy with how the DHR turned out and hope to share it in a more specific format.

Monday, August 19, 2019

RIB Part 5: Grace to Kooskia

Note: This post is the fifth update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Part 3: Kanab to Torrey
Part 4: Torrey to Grace

Whew! So much has happened in the last month. Leaving Grace, I made the long, hot crossing of the Snake River Plain, climbed up into the Pioneer and Sawtooth ranges, and crossed the massive wilderness complex of central Idaho. Here are some of the highlights:

Second Stage Complete: As you may recall, the RIB consists of three distinct chunks: The Arizona Trail (AZT), my homemade route through Utah and southern Idaho called the Deseret Hiking Route (DHR), and the Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT). Really, the only "filler" section of the DHR is the lowlands that separate the Wasatch from the multitudinous mountain ranges of south-central Idaho. Of course, when I went through this hot and dry environment, temperatures reached triple digits and misery abounded. Water was scarce and my pack heavy, but I received some critical water information from the helpful local BLM office, which made my crossing possible. Although unpleasant, these sort of filler sections invariably pop up on any country-spanning hike - it's not dissimilar to, say, the Great Divide Basin on the CDT or the state of Pennsylvania on the AT. It's best to grit your teeth and make quick work of the crappy part, knowing that there's abundant beauty ahead.

Returning to the mountains, I traversed the underappreciated Pioneer range along with its more famous cousin, the Sawtooth Range. These ranges were a perfect finish to an amazing route - overall, the DHR is probably the best long route I've ever done. I'll have much more to say about it in some sort of wrapup after completing the whole RIB. In the Sawtooths, I joined the final stage of the RIB, the Idaho Centennial Trail.

An Orphan Trail: The Idaho Centennial Trail was designated by the state of Idaho in 1990, the year of, you guessed it, Idaho's statehood centennial celebration. Crucially though, it's only designated on a state level, and the state has little sway over the federal agencies that manage virtually all of the land the ICT passes through. Because the trail is unrecognized by its land managers, it has languished for years. Several sections of trail have been poorly maintained, abandoned entirely, or simply don't exist. The result is a hodgepodge of conditions - while a small minority is on good trail, most of the ICT is brushy, overgrown, covered in fallen trees, or an outright bushwhacky nightmare. This is particularly true in the wilderness areas, where trails are often unmaintained or maintained to a lower standard. These wilderness areas, though, are special in their own right.

The Frank Church and the Selway-Bitterroot are the two largest contiguous wilderness areas in the Lower 48 - and they're separated by a single dirt road. Taken together, they're nearly 300 miles of continuous wilderness. After my Sawtooths traverse, I left civilization behind for two full weeks, seeing people on only a couple of occasions. It was a deep, immersive experience - and one of the toughest bits of hiking I've ever done.

Ponderosa forests make for beautiful and easy travel. Unfortunately, they're few and far between
Take eight days of food and put it in your backpack and set off into the wilderness. Bushwhack your way through terribly overgrown brush, climb over and around massive fallen trees. Make less than half a mile an hour through a massive burn area. As if that's not enough, throw in five straight days of rain. Even when it's not actively raining, you're wearing your raincoat - because by brushing up against those overgrown, head-high plants, you knock all the raindrops off their leaves, drenching you. To top off this crap sundae (pun intended), throw in some lingering Giardia, so you feel miserable.

Remember the older-style tunnel car washes, where your car goes on the little track and moves through the foam-rubber washer arms and rotating bristle drums? Picture trudging through that, but 1) all day, 2) climbing over and under obstacles, 3) everything's prickly, and 4) your stomach is gurgling like a Yellowstone mudpot. Yeah, it wasn't fun. But at least there were wild raspberries!

Trail's under there. Good luck!
The Flip Side: Now that we've gotten the complaining out of the way, let's talk about the wonderful bits of the last few weeks. My resupply in the middle of the wilderness was a private residence - a homestead, really - that has been actively lived in for more than a century but a succession of owners. The current owners bought the property a couple years ago and beautifully restored the historic cabin. They offer tours of the place to the tiny handful of people who pass by - virtually all of them whitewater rafters floating the Salmon River. Not only did they accept and hold a box for me (no small thing, as the only vehicle access is via bush plane and the mail is delivered by said plane once a week), they generously fed me, let me take a shower, and even did laundry. The realities of life in the middle of nowhere is fascinating (everything is flown in; a gallon of milk ends up costing them twelve bucks when all is said and done), and the stories they told about the history of the homestead were riveting. 

There are four homesteads along that stretch of river, all similar in their remote nature. And of the four, I saw two of the homeowners as I passed by. Both invited me in for a cold drink. I was overwhelmed by their generosity, hearty spirit, and good will. 

Noah's Ark: The past month has yeilded an unprecedented number of cool animal interactions for me. Let's start with the important one: After six years, hundreds of nights in the backcountry, and close to ten thousand miles walked, I have finally, finally seen my first bear!  As a matter of fact, I saw two different bears within the course of a week. Sure, it required a crossing of the largest designated Wilderness area in the Lower 48, but still, I saw a bear. In both cases, the bears took off running as soon as they saw/heard me. Over the years, I've had dozens of encounters with off-leash dogs that were far more frightening than either of those bear encounters.

No bear encounter is complete without a terrible, grainy Sasquatch photo.
Speaking of apex predators, a couple days after the first bear sighting, I had another neat animal encounter. I was descending from a ridgetop into a river valley when I heard a faint howl of a wolf. A few minutes later, as I reached the valley floor, I saw him loping his way up the side of a ridgeline. I stood still and quiet, but he happened to look around and caught a glimpse of me. He regarded me with something like apathy for a split-second, then continued uphill with not a care in the world. As I passed by, I could hear him continuing his song - a remarkable baritone solo.

And as if that weren't enough, I saw one of the very rarest and most reclusive of critters - a wolverine. It happened in a flash, but I could see him running down the trail away from me - almost looking like a miniature bear, but with those distinct ring-like tail colorations, and shoulders lower than his hips. What a treat!

Finally, a coyote tailed me for about a half an hour through the sagebrush of southern Idaho. She kept her distance, barking like a dog every so often. When I first came across her, I saw at least one more coyote scamper into the bushes. She clearly wanted to know that she was there and meant business, but also clearly did not want to mess with me. I'm fairly confident that I came across her litter of pups and she was just trying to scare off the intruder. I tried blasting some heavy metal on my phone's speaker to get her to leave me alone, but to no avail. Apparently coyotes are more metal than Tom Araya's shrieks!

What's Next: I'm stuck in town for a couple days, as this last section completely destroyed my nearly brand-new shoes and a bunch of other gear. But as soon as my new stuff arrives, it's back at it - through a section I'm really looking forward to, the high mountain ridges of the Idaho-Montana border. And from there, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to Canada. Lord willing, I will be done by this time next month. See you then!

Friday, July 19, 2019

RIB Part 4: Torrey to Grace

Note: This post is the fourth update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Uah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Part 3: Kanab to Torrey

Utah is complete! When I planned out my route through Utah, I expected it to be beautiful. I expected it to be rewarding. But even my lofty expectations fell short. Simply put, the Utah section of the RIB is my favorite section of trail - ever. Sure, I'm almost certainly wearing rose-colored glasses, but nearly every step of the route featured something beautiful, meaningful, or challenging. I finished the high plateaus of southern and central Utah, walked the Wasatch through northern Utah, and followed the Bear River Range (the northernmost extent of the Wasatch) into southern Idaho.

Hooray, More Snow: When I got back on trail, I knew that I wasn't done with snow. Plenty had melted out, but I still expected to travel through a good amount of snowbound terrain. I wasn't wrong. My route through the central Utah followed Skyline Drive, a highly scenic dirt road that follows the crest of the Wasatch Plateau for more than a hundred miles. At least, that's the rumor. I didn't see too much of the road - just little glimpses here and there where the snow had already melted. Travel was slow, frustrating, and exceedingly beautiful. I was the only person up there. I traveled snow-covered ridges, made my way past massive cornices, and used every trick in the book to minimize the postholing. It was exhausting and exhilarating. With nobody up there and barely a trace of road to be seen, it felt like a vast, beautiful wilderness.

After six grueling days, I got to the road crossing and attempted to hitch down into town shortly before sunset. I'd been standing there for maybe fifteen minutes when a truck rolled by. And I recognized the faces! The truck slammed on the brakes and my friends Kyle and Kendra jumped out. They were headed down on a weekend foray to southern Utah and just happened to be driving by. After a brief moment of disbelief, we all piled into the truck and headed down the mountain to find a place to camp for the night. The next morning, they dropped me off in town. It really is a small world. Thank you guys!

The 2018-2019 snowpack smashed dozens of records and at least one unfortunate Jayco
Curveballs: Near Salt Lake City, I encountered more unique challenges. My route down into Spanish Fork Canyon passed through a massive, ugly burn area. The trail was completely obliterated. I did less than one mile per hour down the steep canyon, clambering over blackened fallen trees and leaping eroded stream beds. I knew this area had burned quite badly last fall, but the effects of the wildfire were so widespread that this was still the best way through, despite the misery. 

Near Ogden, the trail threw another curveball at me. I had planned to cross the Weber River and I-84 using the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, a trail system that runs just above the floor of the various Wasatch Front valleys. But, in my planning process, I failed to notice that this section of the BST hasn't actually been built yet. My only option was to walk the shoulder of another freeway through a full cloverleaf interchange. With bumper-to-bumper traffic and road construction in progress, this was a non-starter. So regretfully, I ended up taking an Uber across the bridge to where I could resume walking on not-a-freeway. I hated to break the line of continuous footsteps, but it's really not worth getting turned into paste on a busy freeway! Once the BST through this section is actually built, this won't be a problem. Someday.

Oh and I've walked a bunch of very faint, almost non-existent trail, but that's expected in this brave new world of underfunded public lands. 

Seems legit.
Riding the Roller-coaster: From Ogden northward, I faced a series of very long climbs. I dropped all the way from the crest of the Wasatch down to the valley floor - a five thousand foot continuous descent. From there, I climbed right back up to the crest again, followed by another drop, another climb, etc. While I excel at climbing, at least relative to my pace on the flats and downhills, this was still a lot. Add in triple digit heat, and the last few weeks made for some very tough miles. 

On one occasion, I planned to get up at 4am to beat the heat on a huge climb starting at very low elevation. But around 1:45am, I felt something on the foot of my sleeping bag. I instinctively kicked my feet upward, and a large rat flew four feet in the air! When the undissuaded critter returned a couple minutes later, I realized that sleep was a lost cause, I packed up and started hiking in the middle of the night. Not all was lost though, as I got to the top of Ogden Peak just as the sun was rising. What an amazing sight!

What's Next: This next section largely consists of "filler" miles. I am making my way through the hot and dry lowlands of southern Idaho to the Pioneer Range on the north side of the Snake River. And I get to do all of this in record-breaking heat. The challenges just keep coming. But this is exactly what I signed up for.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Oregon Coast Trail - Quick Tips

There's a relative lack of information out there on the Oregon Coast Trail. I did absolutely zero preparation for this hike (I went from "hey, maybe I should do the OCT" to boarding a Greyhound bus in about 36 hours), but even so, found very little information which is relevant to the experienced thru-hiker looking to bang out a quick and easy trail. Most of the information out there caters to day hikers and backpackers who have the luxury of planning for months. So, without further ado, a bunch of bullet points:

  • Location: Oregon Coast (Washington->California)
  • Length: 420ish miles
  • Surface: 40% beach, 40% pavement, 20% road
  • Difficulty: Easy-moderate
  • Land manager: Multiple, but spearheaded by Oregon State Parks 
When and How:
  • Although the trail is doable year-round, it's reputedly miserable during the rainy season (October-April). Most locals recommend doing it between Memorial Day and the end of September.
  • Southbound is the vastly superior choice. The coast is a very windy place in the summer, and the prevailing wind is northerly. The Coastal Sandblaster is much more tolerable when it's the back of your legs getting pounded, rather than your face. Plus the southern half is prettier and wilder, so things get better as you go. 
Purity: Almost nobody hikes every single step of the OCT, for the simple reason that it's sucky and dangerous sometimes. In particular, the tunnel near Haceta Head cannot be walked safely. Certain sections between Yachats and Florence should probably be hitched, as US 101 is full of blind curves and no shoulder. Same thing applies for a stretch between Humbug State Park and Sisters Rock. 

In addition to the safety concerns outlined above, most folks hitch some of the longer roadwalks - through Tillamook, Reedsport, and Coos Bay in particular. Boat ferry options are available for most of the major bays, but are often expensive for the solo hiker. I did all those long roadwalks because, I dunno, that's what I do. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that others follow in my footsteps unless it helps you sleep better at night.

Resupply: Don't worry about it. If you aren't picky, you can resupply in every single town. If you are picky, you may want to plan for the fact that Depoe Bay and Pacific City only have basic convenience stores. I never carried more than a day and a half of food. Do not plan your resupplies. Do not stress. When you're in town, just look up how far it is to the next town and double-check to make sure there's a grocery. Easy as that. There's a reason that nobody has published a resupply guide for the OCT.

Transportation: Transportation on the OCT is incredibly convenient, even if you're taking a flight/trail/Greyhound from out-of-state:
  • Northern terminus is near Warrenton, which is accessible via POINT bus. The POINT will drop you off at the Fred Meyer grocery store, from whence you will want to board the Sunset Empire Transportation District #15 bus and ride it to the KOA. From KOA, walk (or hitch) about 4 miles to the South Jetty of the Columbia in Ft Stevens State Park. 
  • Southern terminus is near Brookings, which is also accessible via POINT. The bus stop is about a 5 mile walk/hitch down from the trail's endpoint on the beach.
  • In addition, nearly every town along the OCT has at least sporadic bus service to surrounding communities. Useful if you need to get to a store/outfitter, or if you want to skip some of the longer roadwalks around the bays. There are multiple agencies and websites, depending on where you are, so just google it. One site I found particularly helpful is the NWConnector site, which provides unified resources for about the northern half of the trail. 
Navigation: There's really not "one map to rule them all" on this trail. You'll end up using a combination of the Oregon State Parks overview series, a random GPS track you found online, and probably Google Maps or similar. Certain segments of the trail are still being constructed, and sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised with trail tread when you expected to have to walk a road or bushwhack. Generally, you are best off following the signs, when the signs conflict with your maps. I ended up at an airstrip way inland once when I trusted my maps rather than the signs on the ground. Follow the signs.
  • Oregon State Parks overview maps: insufficient for day-to-day navigation, but gives a good at-a-glance picture of when the trail is going to be like. Ten 11x17 printouts cover the entire trail and are available free on OSP's website.
  • I used a GPS track from DoingMiles. I loaded it onto my phone (Backcountry Navigator, though Gaia is similar). This GPS track is a decade old and is not perfect. But thanks to them for putting it together, as it's by far the best navigational resource out there. Check out their entire site; there's a lot of good information on there.
  • I repurposed James and Amy's GPS track onto a custom map overlay (topographical information + OpenStreetMap + trails track) and am pretty happy with the results - far better than USGS quads, which are horribly out-of-date, and just a street map, which doesn't have trails or topo information. Print to your heart's content! I downloaded them as PDFs and saved to my phone. They definitely saved my bacon a few times.
Camping: I never paid to camp, and never had a problem finding a place. A lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about the subject, as legal sites can be few and far between. Any state park campground will offer relatively cheap hiker/biker sites, with running water and showers and such if that's your thing. More up the long-distance hiker's alley, though, is dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is allowed on the beach and on federal (BLM/USFS) land unless specified. It is NOT permitted in state parks except in those designeted campgrounds. The beach is fair game except within city limits or state parks, but beware of tides and so-called "sneaker waves" - the near-shore equivalent of rogue waves. Your sleeping pad may float, but it's probably not designed for use as a life raft!

Most nights, I frankly didn't know whether my campsite was legal or not - who knows where the city limits are anyways? Most days I made camp as it was getting dark and got up at first light, and never had a problem. I'm frankly more concerned with being respectful of others, leaving no trace, and being a good ambassador of the trail community than I am with the strict legality of my campsite. I will offer no specific suggestions, other than to say - stay out of sight, go to bed late, get up early, and don't camp anywhere you wouldn't want other people to camp in your hometown.

Western Snowy Plover: A little white lively bird called the Western Snowy Plover nests on the dry sand March-September and is endangered. You are permitted to walk the wet sand through the closure areas, but you may not walk on the dry sand, camp, and or bring a dog. Respect these closures! And enjoy - they're fascinating little birds and fifty of them peck a tiny spot of beach is just so cool.

Gear: This summary is designed for experienced long-distance hikers who probably have a gear system they're happy with. Just a couple tips for the OCT specifically:
  • You can go incredibly light on the OCT. During the summer months, temps never get below 50, so your summer sleep system and layers should be sufficient. You'll never carry more than a couple days of food or liters of water.
  • Everything will get full of sand. Maybe replace your zippers beforehand as a bit of prophylaxis.
  • Do not skimp on the raingear or shelter. It's a wet environment, with frequent rain. Heavy dew is a near-daily occurence, especially when you're camped close to the water. I bought a semi-freestanding shelter to make camping on the beach a more attractive option. In the end, it was probably unnecessary since I only ended up sleeping on the beach 5ish times, but those times were remarkably beautiful.
Some favorites: I particularly enjoyed the Ecola State Park area (map 1). The Sam Boardman Scenic Corridor (map 10) is probably the most scenic single stretch of the OCT. If I were to hike just a portion of the OCT, I would spend most of my time in the southern stretch. It is more remote and scenic than the more populous areas to the north. Favorite towns included Manzanita (the general store's deli counter is quite yummy) and the historic downtown of Bandon. After you finish, there's a wonderful greasy spoon on the southern outskirts of Brookings called Fely's. The atmosphere is great and they don't skimp on the fries.

Some downers: The long stretch between Garibaldi and Lincoln City is mostly on roads and, aside from Cape Lookout, hardly worth doing in my opinion. While 90% of the beach makes for fast and easy walking, there are a couple stretches of soft, slow, frustrating sand on either side of Bandon. Just treat it as you would postholing (grit your teeth and bear it, don't worry about the pace you're keeping), and it'll be a lot easier, mentally.