Voices from the Hayduke Trail
I interviewed six people who hiked the Hayduke Trail for a forthcoming article for Vamoose. Over the phone and in emails, the hikers painted a picture of a circuitous and challenging backcountry route, through National Parks and Monuments, and along the narrow tracts of nameless wild places you can only find in the West. When I talked to these hikers a month or so ago, public lands in Utah were in the same position they've always been in— tenuously protected, under the looming threat of resource-hungry politicians and corporate interests. But today, in light of President Trump's executive order demanding a review of all National Parks and Monuments, these voices from the trail feel especially relevant.
These folks have taken months from their lives to walk hundreds of miles through public lands. They've felt bitterness, disappointment, exhaustion, and thirst; they've waited hours for a hitchhike, days for a water source, weeks for shade. But not one of them ended their interview, or their hike, with a hint of regret.
Here are six more voices speaking up for public lands— places for Americans to find themselves, to dig deeper, and to go wild.
The Hayduke Trail, or HDT, isn't really a trail. It’s more of a suggestion, 800-or-so miles that can be hiked straight through, or in a leap-frogged set of section hikes. There are no signs. Joe Mitchell, HDT co-creator and mastermind behind the trail’s original routing, says simply, “It’s not a sidewalk." Referencing the oft-unprepared author of the hiking memoir Wild, trail co-creator Mike Coronella described it like this: “You can be Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail. On the Hayduke Trail, it’ll kill you."
Joe and Mike designed the trail after two 90-day expeditions into the Utah desert, eventually linking 5 of Utah’s National Parks and the Grand Canyon. When they started hiking, a formal trail was the last thing on their minds. Mike explained, "We had no idea what we were doing, so we just decided to go wander.”
Hiking long distances in the desert in the late 90s, Mike and Joe didn’t have the benefits of modern ultralight gear. When I asked Joe about his pack weight, he sighed. “We never once weighed our packs, because we didn’t want the psychological burden of knowing how much they really did weigh. Because of the roughness of the terrain and the unknowns of what was ahead, I had climbing gear and ropes, self-rescue equipment, a lot of water… yeah, they were heavy.” Contemporary Haydukers at least have the option of a lighter-weight pack, but long distances between water sources can sometimes be non-negotiable— Jonah Katz, who through-hiked the HDT in 2016, sometimes carried upwards of 10 liters, or 20 pounds of water weight. Reflecting on him and his partner's HDT journey, Jonah concedes, "As much as we prepared, we weren't really well prepared. So thank goodness we were stubborn."
Stubbornness is certainly a Hayduker's asset, but solid logistical preparations are valuable too— and with enough research and expertise, lightweight hiking the HDT is possible. Katherine Cook and Erin “Wired” Saver, both experienced hikers in their own rights, completed the trail together in 2015. Wired is a long-distance hiking rockstar, known for her meticulously documented adventures, and one of the rare breed of hikers who can tell you the weight, in ounces, of every item in her backpack, including her Diva Cup. When asked about the challenges of trail visibility and increased use, Wired wasn’t too worried. "The Hayduke isn't the kind of trail that would draw hordes of people even if it were a well-known trail. It’s intimidating,” she says, "and it tends to attract hikers who are more seasoned and have experience, and who value the land and treat it with care."
Katherine, a mathematician and educator, is a little more dubious about the long term viability of increased HDT traffic. "Already in 2015, on some parts of the route there were boot tracks breaking up very old colonies of cryptobiotic soil. The other concern with increased use is the taming of the trail— more cairns being built, more [boot tracks] that lead the way.” In a delicate desert landscape, traffic adds up to a visible trail, sooner or later. “The experience of wildness and solitude on the HDT… will change over time."
Brett Tucker is the mastermind behind another long distance hiking route, the Grand Enchantment Trail, a snaking route in the mountains of New Mexico. He and his girlfriend Melissa, both of them serious hikers, completed their version of the Hayduke in 2015. Brett suggests that any potential Hayduker should have "a solid background on the more established trails, and preferably have some desert hiking experience already under your belt.” Although the trail’s vertical gain is insignificant compared to the endless up-and-down of the PCT or the AT, long stretches spent trudging through sandy washes are exhausting in a different way. “It’s a unique challenge,” he says, “Both physically and mentally."
Jonah, Wired, Katherine, and Brett are a few voices among many. As long-distance hiking approaches the fringes of the mainstream, more popular long trails like the AT and the PCT are seeing record numbers of hikers— and while the HDT is considerably more underground, more hikers in Harpers Ferry may, eventually, mean more hikers on the Kaiparowits Plateau. But Mike and Joe, the guidebook authors, are on to other things. They both have families now, and run their own businesses based in the wild— Joe runs a fly-fishing outfit, and Mike has a guide service in Moab. Neither has hiked the HDT in years. When I asked Joe if he was planning on hiking the Hayduke again, he said no, probably not. “We said our piece, and now it’s for other people to finish."
The Hayduke Trail travels 800 miles through public lands, including an extended section in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument— a landscape that's now at dire risk of losing its protections. Take one minute to call (202-208-7351) or tweet (@SecretaryZinke) Secretary Zinke to tell him to leave public lands in public hands, and to preserve the wild places that make America great.