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!?