Utah / Arizona, USA
Distance: 1,328 km
Time: 3 months
Surface: Desert Paths, Mountain Trails
Is it a trail, or one of the most diabolical tests of endurance ever devised? The Hayduke Trail is 1,300 km of mostly backcountry hiking through the stunning red rock scenery of the Colorado Plateau, passing through some of America’s most iconic national parks and the barren no-man’s lands in between. The trail, however, is not one to take lightly. Its website even carries a warning that if you’re not an experienced desert backpacker and in good physical condition then don’t even think of walking so much as a section of it. It can thunderstorm, it can snow, water is scarce, and its winds can blow the ears off a donkey. But you don’t walk the Hayduke Trail because it is easy. You come here because it is hard.
George Washington Hayduke III was a fictional character in the book The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), written by the environmentalist Edward Paul Abbey (1927-1989). A tireless advocate for the preservation of America’s wilderness, Abbey was an anarchist, an atheist, an opponent of laws relating to the public ownership of land, and despite working for a time for the National Parks Service he remained a fierce critic of how America’s parks were managed. ‘Every time you see a national forest sign that reads “Land of Many Uses”‘,he once said, ‘just change that last word to “Abuses”‘.
The book’s four central characters – a Mormon river guide named Smith, the well-to-do surgeon Doc Sarvis, his impressionable female assistant Bonnie, and Hayduke himself – a former Green Beret – were ‘eco-warriors’, their lives dedicated to a common purpose: to oppose in any way they could the unchecked development of public lands in America’s southwest. Hayduke’s approach to wilderness, like his creator’s, W3S uncompromising, raw, the real deal. Surely any trail that might come along one day with his fictional name attached to it would need to be something special too, a trail unlike any other.
It began humbly enough. Over 94 days in 1998, and again over 101 days in 2000, two avid Utah hikers – Mike Coronella and Joe Mitchell – backpacked their way through most of the vast Colorado Plateau’s ‘crown jewels’ of parks: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Staircase-Escalante and more. They blazed their way through NationalForests, through designated Wilderness and Primitive areas, through isolated canyons and places like Poison Spring, past formations with names like Hole in the Rock, along Burr Trail and Willis Creek, Last Chance Creek and Dirty Devil River, around Horseshoe Mesa and down into the Grand Canyon itself, before exiting on to its North Rim and heading northwest to end it all in spectacular Zion National Park. Rarely did they take the easiest, or the most direct route, and everywhere they went they were conscious of the man who surely would have approved of their remarkable odyssey: Edward Abbey. Not long after completing their journey their call for the establishment of a thru-hike did not fall entirely on deaf ears, and was given impetus when Coronella and Mitchell’s guidebook, The Hayduke Trail: a Guide to the Backcountry HikingTrail on the Colorado Plateau, was published in 2005 by the University of Utah Press. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In the years following that second ‘expedition’, Mike and Joe refined the original route with help from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, managing to keep it very much an informal path – the exact opposite of what you would find on other great American trails such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. On the Hayduke you had instead a series of ‘suggested’ routes over unmarked terrain, and now as if 1,300 km isn’t long enough there are a series of optional ‘diversions’ that take you to places too numerous
to mention here. Of course there are a number of ‘known’ pathways that the Hayduke takes because, after all, it is meant to be an uplifting visual and sensory experience and not merely a slog – paths like the Nankoweap Trail down from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, originally built by Major john Wesley Powell during his 1882 expedition so his geologist, Charles Walcott, could better see and catalogue the canyon’s rock layers in the Supai Formation (285 million years old), the Redwall Limestone (average age 335 million years), and the rocks of the Muav Limestone (average age 515 million years). Hiking the Nankoweap is, like all Grand Canyon trails, a walk back in time. And a dangerous one, too. In fact the National Park Service named Nankoweap the canyon’s most dangerous trail. Hardly surprising, then, that the Hayduke adopted it.
In the spirit of the fictional man after whom it is named, the Hayduke Trail runs entirely through public land. First thru-hiked by Brian Frankle in 2005 it has an impressive elevation range, from 550m in the depths of the Grand Canyon to 3,480 in on the southern summit of Mount Ellen in Utah’s Henry Mountains, the last mountain range in the Continental United States to be surveyed by the United States Geological Survey – over two vertical miles of elevation gain/loss, just another example of the tail’s love of extremes, and its unrelenting isolation.
Each of its fourteen individual sections through the desert landscapes of southern Utah and northern Arizona is a test of endurance, stamina and resourcefulness, and to contemplate walking even just one means you need to be proficient with a compass and able to navigate your way around a topographical map (and take a GPS too). Keep your kit tight to minimize weight, and consider leaving the camera at home. Water purifier, inner soles, lightweight gaiters, flashlights and trekking poles are an absolute must, and carefully assemble your pack prior to leaving as only limited opportunities exist to buy missing items once you set out. You can walk for days here without seeing a water source (be careful not to drink any water from arsenic-tainted Rock Spring), and the next minute you could be hemmed in by flash flooding, courtesy of one of the region’s ferocious thunderstorms.
To walk the whole thing right through, a feat managed by only a handful of hardy souls every year, will have you walking on every surface imaginable including slick rock, sandy washes, sand dunes, quicksand and scree. It intentionally does all it can to avoid towns and populated areas as it bisects regions under pressure from over-grazing and governmental mismanagement. Temperatures range from freezing to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and then there’s the wildlife: coyotes, rattlesnakes, several species of scorpion. And mountain lions.
The Hayduke Trail is a ‘rogue route’, a path that even now with its growing reputation still manages to slip below the usual trail radar. To walk it is to see America the way Edward Abbey always believed it should be seen, crawling if necessary as he once famously said, ‘on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thorn bush and cactus. And when traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe’.