"WARNING: Your route-finding and navigational skills must be impeccable in order to proceed. If you have any doubt about exactly where you are at at all times, follow Indian Creek upstream to the paved road east of the park. Not too many people are going to want to come looking for you out here if you get lost. If, however, you've been to the middle of nowhere before and liked it, scramble 1.2 miles south up the ridge..."
Welcome to the Hayduke Trail.
The Hayduke is a trail that's not a trail. It's a route across the Colorado Plateau from Arches to Zion, via the Grand Canyon, pioneered by a couple of guys with a big dreams and a lot of guts. It connects most of the scenic gems of the Colorado Plateau in one hiking route, often forsaking the most expedient or logical paths. It's 800+ miles of twists and turns and alcoves and arches and mountains and canyons. The Hayduke is amazing.
Along the way, the Hayduke uses old jeep roads, canyons, wash bottoms, cross-country routes, and, very very occasionally, established hiking trails where they already exist. It encapsulates perfectly the Western experience of land management - the constant tension between grazing interests, resource extraction interests, and preservation interests. Water is an extremely scarce resource, and what water exists is often fouled by cattle crap, mine tailings, or agricultural runoff.
Several years ago, I decided to hike the length of the Hayduke, in sections, over the course of multiple years. In April 2015, I set out to hike a 140-ish mile stretch of the Hayduke - from Moab, UT to Lake Powell. It was tough. It was beautiful. It was rewarding.
On Saturday evening, my ride (a fellow Hayduker, Beau, who I nominate for "Trail Angel of the Year", considering how far he drove out of his way to help me on my hike) dropped me off just outside Moab. As I walked down the dirt road, ATVs, trucks, and dirt bikes roared past me. Those things were loud. Where was the solitude, the quietness of the Hayduke that I was told to expect? I would soon find out. Finally, the the ATVs and trucks quit tooling around, and silence returned late in the evening. I threw my tarp down on the side of the road and tried to get some sleep. It was raining. A few thunderstorms had rolled through, doing nothing to dissuade the folks in their mechanical contraptions, but cooling things off, and, I knew, recharging the water sources along the next stretch of trail.
The morning of day 2 dawned with a mixture of sun and clouds, a very watery sunshine indeed. I was up and hiking by 6:15, and for a few hours I might have well been the only person in the world. All the weekenders were sound asleep in their RV's. I went over Hurrah Pass, a low spot in a large ridge of rock that separated the Kane Creek drainage from the Colorado River. I found a surprise water source and filled up, rather than having to drink from the muddy Colorado. As I continued along dirt roads, the sun rose and the heat grew more intense. But with each passing mile, I got more and more remote. I saw just a handful of adventurous souls that day, people who had drove their ATV's the 20 miles from Moab. For the first time I was experiencing what the Hayduke was really like.
Miles passed quickly. First I walked on improved dirt roads, then unimproved dirt roads, then jeep roads. I had done "twelve by twelve", a dozen miles before noon. I stopped at an ephemeral pothole for lunch and watered up. By time the next day rolled around, it would certainly be dry. I hiked up a canyon, and around a rock formation on a bench above the Colorado. The views were outstanding. Thanks to the clouds and occasional sprinkles, the heat didn't get too bad, and I was able to hike all afternoon. Finally, after about 25 miles, I finally got off the dirt road and headed down into a canyon. I hiked a couple miles and set up camp, shortly before sunset, on a bench overlooking the canyon.
Turns out the rain wasn't done. Shortly after dark fell, a thunderstorm moved in. Rain and wind whipped my shelter. I used every trick in the book to keep myself warm and dry, a challenge considering that my stakes were pounded in some very soft ground. A hundred feet below me, I could hear rocks grinding and crashing against each other as a flash flood ripped through the canyon.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. The front had moved through, and sunshine would be abundant for the rest of the trip. I hiked along the bench, following a cattle trail for a couple miles. I found the bleached bones of a long-dead cow, which i turned into an "HDT". Seems fitting for this trail, that the only "official" sign would be made out of cattle bones, off-trail, in the middle of nowhere. After dropping into Lockhart Canyon, I came to my first water source in about 20 miles. Water on the HDT is a challenge. It's infrequent, and where it does occur, it's unreliable, and not the best quality. This was a fairly alkaline spring. Alkaline water tends to cause, ummm, intestinal distress, so it behooves you not to drink any more of it that absolutely necessary, as it can dehydrate you. I grabbed a couple liters, hoped not to use them, and kept moving.
As I hiked through Lockhart Basin on a few dirt roads, the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, and it got hot. Very hot. The forecast for Moab said highs around eighty, but temperatures in the basins and canyons were easily fifteen degrees warmer. I took a long siesta in the shade that afternoon, and only hiked for about 45 minutes at a time. It's simply too hot to hike during the heat of the day. Other than two ATV drivers who I saw on a brief dirt road stretch, I encountered nobody the entire day.
Finally it was time to leave the dirt roads. At a random bend in the road, the guidebook to said to head "generally southwest" for several miles. There wasn't one particular route down into Rustler Canyon - this was choose-your-own-adventure hiking at its finest. After negotiating a fairly spicy pour-off, I made it down into Rustler. There was water, but everywhere it left traces of white sediment - it was too alkaline to drink. I was surprised to find a few human footprints in the canyon. From what I've read, nobody other than Hayduke hikers has been known to traverse the canyon. A few miles later, I reached the junction with Indian Creek. Indian Creek is a substantial body of water - an obviously perennial stream with a large sediment load and a squishy bottom. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting stuck knee-deep in muck.
Here, my navigational senses went into overdrive. I counted every twist and turn of the canyon, to my departure point a mile upstream. There was exactly one way out of the canyon, and I had to find it. I climbed out just as the heat was starting to recede for the day. I found a pothole still filled with good, clean water. Purifying four liters as a tedious process. I scooped tiny amounts of water at a time from the half-inch deep depression. I found a cozy cowboy campsite, high on the canyon wall. A light breeze blew across my face, but I didn't care. I had battled the heat, exhaustion, and sore legs for several days now. The trail had also taken a mental toll on me. I had seen very few people, had to pay complete attention at all times, and had zero latitude for making mistakes. Still, I fell asleep happy and contented, gazing at the stars that twinkled down on the lonesome desert landscape.
It was an early morning again. I was learning my lesson - I had to beat the heat. I continued on my Seven Miles of Chaos, which had begun when I climbed out of Indian Creek. I followed my map and triangulated landmarks across a narrow ridge between two vast canyon systems. The rising sun transformed the slickrock into a glowing, almost neon spectacle. I hiked rather quickly across the landscape, pausing only to navigate.
The Seven Miles of Chaos continued with a drop down into a new canyon system. Like the ascent out of Indian Creek, there was exactly one way, and I had to follow it. The guidebook recommended lowering one's pack with a rope, or handing it down to one's hiking partner. As I had neither, I was slightly concerned. As it turns out, such fears were overstated. I took off my pack once, and that was probably unnecessary. After descending into the nameless canyon system, I picked my way through deep sand and confusing drainage junctions, and reached the end of the Seven Miles of Chaos.
Somewhere in there, I had entered Canyonlands National Park. There were no fences, no signs, no landmarks to alert me of this fact - just the serpentine winding of canyon walls, which could not be contained by an arbitrary line on a map. But as I kept hiking, I saw the periphery of human society. I was walking on well-graded dirt roads. I saw a family picnicking under a juniper. I arrived at the Needles Outpost, possibly the loneliest business establishment in the country. It offered camping, meals, showers, and gasoline - all for outrageous prices. The proprietors had a terrible reputation, and showed a particular disgust for grungy, tired hikers. Stopping there was not advisable. Less than two months after my hike, the Outpost would be shuttered for good.
But I wasn't stopping anyway. On a hike like this, indulging in the comforts of civilization would be inappropriate. I crawled under a barbed-wire fence and past an "employees only" sign, hiking as fast as I could to get back to my comforts - the comforts of the wilderness. The sun was once again blazing hot, and deep sand made my progress slow and tedious. But I was on home turf now. I had hiked this stretch of lower Salt Creek four months before, and for the next twenty miles I could zone out and follow the canyon upstream. I threw my sleeping bag down under a juniper and immediately fell asleep.
I moseyed up Salt Creek, enjoying the coolness of the morning and the cheery stream gurgling through the grasses. I stopped briefly to wash out my sweat-soaked socks and kept moving, passing landmarks which I recognized from my previous hike in the canyon. For the first time on my trip, I allowed myself to zone out. Prayer, philosophy, even singing aloud - the wilderness is a wonderful place for the unencumbered mind to explore the nooks and cranies of human experience. My mind wandered as I walked along. And so did my legs, apparently.
At some point, that still small voice in the back of my head started to pipe up. I didn't remember this part of the canyon. I sat down and checked the map. I could be anywhere. As long as I check my map regularly, navigating in canyon country is fairly easy. But I hadn't checked my map in a good two hours, and now it was a useless piece of paper. Still fairly confident that I was on the right track, I pushed forward.
The canyon continued to get narrower and narrower, and I sensed that the elevation was increasing much too quickly for a major canyon system. Finally, I admitted to myself that I was off-course. I pulled out my phone, and it confirmed what I already knew - I'd spent the last three hours hiking up a random side canyon. I sat down and just about cried. I had plenty of time to complete the route, but I had just spent the best three hours of the day going nowhere, and had to hike three hours back, just to get back to my route. And it was only getting hotter. I filled up on water, gritted my teeth, and prepared for the misery.
The afternoon was just as hot as I feared. I spent fifteen minutes of every hour sitting in the scrappy shade offered by stubby trees, which did almost nothing to cool me off. The miles were easy but slow. I saw a couple backpackers and briefly said hi to them. They would be the last people I saw for four days.
As the sun set, the trail improved. The canyon continued to wind upwards, and the stream began to carve a deep gorge with high, vegetated banks. The route turned into a proper trail now, following a beautiful footpath (by Hayduke standards) on the banks. I came upon a waterfall and below it, an ice-cold plunge pool. I was ecstatic. I dropped my pack and immediately jumped in, the freezing cold water nearly taking my breath away. It was a short swim, but a good one. I may not have been any cleaner than before, but I felt better. Clean is a state of mind, not a state of body.
I hiked past several Indian ruins and pictographs, echoes of a culture almost a century old. The Anasazi had lived on the Colorado plateau for centuries, only to suddenly disappear around the year 1300. It's impossible to say what happened to a society in its pre-literate years, but the archaeological record suggests severe drought, crop failure, warfare, disease, and even cannibalism. Not a pretty picture. Edward Abbey, the patriarch of the desert southwest and often-crazed environmentalist, would predict the same future for our society. With thoughts of the mortality of civilization rattling around in my head, I settled down for the night under a rock overhang. Those thoughts soon quieted, and yet another day, a day of highs and lows, was in the books.
The sun rose entirely too early once again, and I reluctantly crawled out of my sleeping bag. Mice had visited my camp last night, but the makeshift bear bagging job I had done (with the help of my trekking pole) had kept them at bay. I packed up quickly and the miles flew by on the solid trail. At the very last opportunity, I filled ever water container I had. The next reliable water was 35 miles away. I expected to find water somewhere in there, but the only good water reports were based on someone's memory from nine years ago. Not exactly solid intel.
Burdened down with six liters (and another liter in my stomach), I left the beautiful trail, and the National Park. I headed up a drainage, westbound. There was supposedly a trail somewhere, but I never found it. Instead, I followed the drainage, then headed overland, navigating by compass. Sooner or later, there'd be a road.
In theory anyway. It was very apparent that nobody had driven the road in at least two decades, and it couldn't really be considered a road anymore. As a matter of fact, I often couldn't even find it. The first potential water source was dry. Good thing I had brought enough.
I hiked and the sun grew hotter and hotter. I scrambled down a series of ledges, off a ridge into a big, open basin. Judging from the number of cow patties I found, the name "Beef Basin" seemed to fit. But the crap was at least a decade old; again, nobody comes this way.
On the other side of Beef Basin, it was time for another stretch of pure cross-country. Head overland, through a mess of scrub and juniper, drop into a canyon, follow it a ways, and then climb very steeply out of the canyon, across another ridge, and down into a feeder canyon leading to Dark Canyon. Seems simple, right? I took a few minutes to study the map closely. And boy I'm glad I did.
It was slow going. The terrain was steep with lots of ups and downs. Branches tugged at me as I ducked over, under, and around them. I stopped to check the...
MAP. Where's the map?
It was on the lanyard around my neck just a few minutes ago. But now the lanyard was broken, dangling mournfully around my neck. And that map pack was nowhere to be found. I attempted to re-trace my steps, but it was impossible. It could be anywhere. I walked a mile back and forth, looking for where it fell. Nowhere.
I sat on a fallen pinyon trunk and tried and compose my thoughts. I had no map, 40 miles from the nearest paved road. I had downloaded a backcountry mapping program onto my phone, but had cell coverage to access the topo for this area. However, even though I didn't have topographical data, I still had a GPS track of the route saved on my phone. A blue line through empty space. I had no choice - try to follow that line - and be cognizant of the remaining battery.
I knew that, as long as I made it into Dark Canyon, I'd be home free. I expected to see backpackers in Dark Canyon and in the worst case scenario, I could hitch a ride back to my car from them. The challenge was getting there. I aligned my phone to north with my compass, shot a bearing, and started following my compass, overland, south-southeast. I had to go three miles and end up in the right canyon system.Messing up was not an option.
An hour later, I saw it - the canyon system below. I pulled out my phone to check my location. Making my way down into the canyon, I discovered running water and a bunch of cow crap. This stuff appeared rather fresh. I set up my tent, and only then did the relief start to wash over me. I was halfway there. Tomorrow, I'd hike over the steep ridge and down into Dark Canyon.
I slept fitfully, in part due to elevation (I was at 8,000 feet), but mostly due to stress. I knew that I wasn't home free - not yet. I was still miles from civilization with squiggly line in empty space and a depleting battery. I arose gratefully at first light and got an early start.
I climbed up, past Indian ruins perched on the side of steep buttes. A couple of moves edged into class IV territory. While climbing, I reached up to grab a ledge - and got fifty cactus spines stuck in my hand in the process. Ouch.
It was a long, slow, hot climb onto the ridge - and it's not easy walking once on the ridge. But presently, I crossed a rough dirt road, and arrive at the Trail Canyon Trailhead. A small sign marked a maintained path down into Dark Canyon. A trickle of water appeared along the way and I stopped for a break. Another wave of relief washed over me. I'm in Dark Canyon. I'll be alright.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. More deep sand, more blazing hot temps. I had no appetite and no energy, due to not eating. It was a tough day. I developed a blister (my first one since the Paleolithic) and my shoes started falling apart. Perspective: I could be wandering, lost in the desert. Instead, I was following a canyon downstream toward water, people, and cold pop in Hanksville.
I slept like crap again, this time because of the incessant desert wind (camp sites are almost non-existent around here). I got up, happy to moving in the right direction. The travel proved slow, this time over boulders and rubble rather than deep sand. Soon I hit traces of water- then a solid stream.
And then everything turned magical. The ever-increasing stream cut deeper and deeper into a gray slate layer. I walked on benches, sometimes 20, 30, or 50 feet above the water. There are excellent swimming holes, and I took advantage. The water was a beautiful clear blue, the kind that sparkles in the hot desert sunshine. I found a large rock to jump off of and had more fun than a kid on a diving board. Later in the afternoon, I ran into a couple of lovely young ladies, the first people I've seen in four days. I mumbled something to them and they continued on their way. It's amazing how quickly the brain re-wires itself. Awareness, concentration, survival? Finely honed. Conversation? Atrophied.
I ran into more backpackers as I near the lower end of Dark Canyon. They were overloaded with stuff - bulky sleeping pads, heavy tents, Nalgene water bottles - all strapped to the outside of their huge packs like a vagabonding garage sale. They tramped through the canyon, I danced. Light means fast, delicate, low impact. They're camping; I'm traveling. Still, I couldn't begrudge them for enjoying the outdoors in their own way. They were part of the few who get out and have adventures. And they formed the backbone of the movement to protect of this priceless landscape.
I ended the day with a ridiculously steep ascent up the Sundance "Trail" (which fades in and out of existence at random). I lost the trail from time to time but I wasn't concerned. Map or no, I had begun to "get it". I knew where I was going.
I camped under a rock overhang, looking down into Dark Canyon below. The sun began to set. I took a few minutes to reflect on the adventures of the past week. I'd seen God's hand at work. I'd seen his care for me. I'd seen the beauty of the canyons and the barrenness of the high desert. I'd drank sketchy water, but at least there was water.
I had got fifteen miles to do - and in short order, if I wanted to beat the heat. My destination: my car parked at Hite - an old, semi-abandoned marina well above present high-water that had once thrived when lake Powell was more full. It's a very Hayduke place - a lasting testament to man's folly. With the floodwaters came the people, and when the waters receded, so did the people. But the land remains.
These are the last fifteen of my first 140 miles. Lord willing, I have another 700 miles to go. The beauty, the adventure, the challenge inspire me to return. This is the last page of the first chapter.