The Hayduke was the most intense experience of my life. If you have two months to spare and want to experience the Colorado Plateau in its proper glory, I don’t think there’s a better way to start. You’ll get to hike through Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, Zion, and countless amazing places in between. It won’t be easy — you will lose blood, you may have one or more nervous breakdowns — but it will be worth it.
If you’re a prospective Hayduker and words are worth more than pictures, scroll down for a bunch of comments on my 2018 hike.
(This is an approximation made after the fact; I wasn’t recording our exact footpath. Don’t use this to navigate.)
Obligatory disclaimer: This is what I would tell myself if I were trying to prepare for the Hayduke again, but you’re not me. Take it with a grain of salt. Make smart choices.
- The hike: March 31st to May 27th, 2018. 58 days including 5 zeros and a bunch of half days. I was happy with the timing: the remaining snow on Mt. Ellen was easy and plus, the North Rim of Grand Canyon doesn’t open until May 15th. If we’d been much earlier, we would’ve missed out on cold drinks and a hot meal (not that it had been long since the South Rim, but still) and it would’ve been much harder to hitch out of the park from there (see our route above). That said, it was getting pretty hot towards the end so I wouldn’t leave later than early April unless you know you’ll be fast.
- Me, at the time: 26 years old. 5′4″. No climbing or bouldering experience. Only backpacking experience was 745 miles of the PCT (fortunately including the desert). Mildly exposure-averse. I would not have wanted to do this particular hike solo, more on that below.
- Baseweight: about 8.5 lbs. Total pack weight on the Hayduke still got pretty ridiculous since I would have up to a week of food plus up to 8 or 9 liters of water. If you do the Salt Creek alternate in Canyonlands, you’ll be carting around a bear can on that stretch too, but you won’t regret it.
- Salt Creek/Dark Canyon. Great petroglyphs and pictographs and ruins. Dark Canyon was a highlight of the trip.
- Halls Creek/Stevens Canyon. Not only is this one packed with great stuff, but you’ll only have to wade in the Escalante River for a couple miles instead of like 30. I would not consider it to be an alternate so much as the only sensible route through that area. Do not skip it.
- The Bryce extension. I’m also baffled why this isn’t the standard route. Not optional unless you’ve already hiked in Bryce and somehow don’t want to see it again.
- We did Buckskin Gulch/Paria River/Paria Plateau as a side trip; when we got to Hwy 89A, we hitched back to Kanab and then continued the standard route from Wire Pass. Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River should not be missed, but crossing the plateau wasn’t my favorite. Scrambling up and down the impossible-seeming cliffs was rewarding and very Haydukey, but in between was a lot of not-especially-scenic roadwalking on deep soft sand with the most disgusting water sources I’ve ever collected from. Unless you’re determined to hike back to the main route instead of doing a side trip, I would consider continuing down the Paria River to hitch out from Lees Ferry. (The rangers in the Kanab visitor center said it’s okay to camp along the river without a permit as long as you’re not at the bottom. Be sure to confirm this – we did meet a ranger out there who asked about our itinerary and lack of permit – but maybe just climb up the Bush Head Route until you find a flattish spot.)
- And lastly, when we hiked out of Grand Canyon to the North Rim, we decided we’d had enough of that for one trip, hitched back to Kanab, and took Jamal’s Grand Canyon bypass to get to Zion via the whole length of the Barracks. This meant postponing some classic Hayduke challenges until next time, but you can always trust in Jamal. There was lots of good scenery on the bypass, you can get hot food at Mt. Carmel Junction (including the famous “Ho-Made Pies”), and the Barracks ended up being one of my favorite parts so I was glad not to miss any of it. Fantastic way to end the hike.
- Hiking solo is a great thing and I’ve never felt a need to partner up on developed trails. But on the Hayduke, since I was new to scrambling and not extremely confident, it was helpful to have someone more experienced go first on the trickier moves. I also felt safer since our phones had separate copies of our maps and route notes, so when my GPS stopped working, or when my companion’s phone went swimming in the Little Colorado River, it was only a minor inconvenience. We could also pass packs over obstacles, split the cost of hotels, and take awesome photos of each other. Plus, there were many days where we never saw anyone else and many more where we only saw a few Jeeps or ATVs. For me, that level of solitude would have been a challenge in itself and not one I wanted to take on at the same time as everything else.
- Exposure and risk are extremely subjective. The parts of the Hayduke that scared me the most weren’t even mentioned in some reports, whereas other sections I had been dreading didn’t faze me at all. Chances are you won’t know how you’re going to feel until you’re actually standing there, so try not to worry prematurely. You may surprise yourself.
- Navigation was much less difficult than I anticipated, especially now that there’s Hikerbot. You’re frequently following a road or wash or canyon, which makes staying on route generally easy. However, Hikerbot’s trace isn’t super accurate and I really liked having the GAIA app with more precise Hayduke traces (many thanks to Tuna Helper) for the times when being on the exact route was key. And of course, buy the guidebook, scan it, and have it on your phone. You should also not leave without Skurka’s paper maps and a compass, because out there, you could actually be in very deep shit if your phone fails.
Tip: print the maps at 8.5×11 unless you plan to use them for everyday navigation. I did 11×17 and I don’t think the extra cost/weight was worth it to make an emergency-only item slightly easier to read.
- Utah is very windy. The combination of gusting wind and fine sand is particularly undesirable. Stick a piece of duct tape over your phone’s ports and only peel it up when you have to. I heard of zippers failing but thankfully none of ours did. I had been tempted to bring a separate camera but ended up grateful I wasn’t worrying about keeping sand out of it.
- Grand Canyon is not like other national parks. All the other parks claim to be rugged and issue dire warnings about how treacherous their trails are and it’s all lies because you’re a Hayduker and you do this stuff every day. Then you show up at Grand Canyon armed with a permit that claims you’ll be doing 20 miles a day and eat crow. I’m sure if you’re determined/crazy enough, this is feasible, but if you can relax your schedule anywhere on the Hayduke, this is where to do it. If nothing else, unless you’re there much earlier than we were, the canyon turns into an absolute oven every afternoon and you may find yourself parked in a shady spot in no hurry to leave. Particularly if you’ve stumbled upon a raft party with extra food.
- Caching is a good idea to reduce pack weight, but it’s expensive if you have to rent a car and adds more logistical complexity. We didn’t and we made it, but the first days out of Escalante were memorably terrible and the start of Section 13 probably would have been miserable too, had we not bailed on Grand Canyon and hitched back to Utah.
- Maildrops should probably be sent to Needles Outpost, Hanksville, and Tropic: they all do sell food but the selection would be limited for a full resupply. If you’re doing the Salt Creek alt, send your bear can to Needles and send it home from Hanksville (or Hite Marina, if they’ll take it). Tropic is roughly halfway through the trail so it’s a good place to send a second pair of shoes.
- LNT considerations are a little more extreme here, especially now that thruhiker traffic is picking up. If you are not willing to pack out your used TP, please do not hike the Hayduke (or any other trail, really, but especially stay out of the desert). It’s never going to decompose. There will be cryptobiotic soil along the entire route and you will step on it and ruin it for all eternity; try to walk in existing hoof/footprints to minimize damage. When you get to Grand Canyon, pee directly in the river.
- Gaiters were not necessary. I heard the sand on the Hayduke was very fine and gaiters were a must. Turns out because you’re wearing trail runners, the sand just goes straight through the mesh. I’m not convinced much of it ever came down through the actual opening of the shoe. After trying gaiters a few days and not noticing any difference, I mailed them home. You’ll be emptying your shoes out either way.
- Leggings or pants were fantastic. You’ll be fine without wind or rain protection for your legs but the sun is brutal, especially at first while you’re working on your tan. They’re also great protection for bushwhacking. Get something lightweight and don’t spend too much because they’ll get ripped up.
- Full-fingered sun gloves were great too. Not only for the sun, but my hands are delicate (again, I’m not a climber) and I liked wearing them on scrambles for protection. I didn’t have problems with reduced grip or dexterity.
Tip: don’t bother getting touchscreen-compatible gloves; after a few weeks on the Hayduke the conductive patches were too mangled to work anymore. Take your scissors and cut a horizontal slit across the underside of the index finger of the glove, where the last joint of your finger sits. Then you can stick your fingertip out whenever you need to use your phone.
- Trekking poles saved me. There are enough long stretches of flat ground or water that I appreciated having two poles, but if I did the Hayduke again I would probably downsize to one. Be sure your poles are easy to stash since you will often want one or both hands free to grab onto rocks.
- Superior Wilderness Designs packs are the best and the prices are very reasonable. I bought the 35 liter with full suspension and a bunch of bells and whistles, so it wasn’t super ultralight, but I loved it. For the Hayduke’s heavy carries, I really appreciated the frame and padded hipbelt and larger volume. The tall slender profile was great for squeezing between rocks and it kept the weight closer so I wasn’t as unbalanced on scrambles. Meanwhile, I heard many complaints about the weight distribution of my companion’s Osprey Exos, thanks to its trampoline back, and its mesh side pockets got shredded on the rocks.
- Tarp + bivy is ideal for the Desert Southwest. The tarp wasn’t necessary very often, but I used the bivy every night since I can’t relax knowing that things might be crawling on me. I got the MLD Bug Bivy 2 and it ended up being one of my favorite pieces of gear. No claustrophobia because of all the mesh and since I’m small, it was roomy enough to hold me and all my stuff (minus my empty pack). I also liked the high walls on the Bug Bivy 2 versus the original since I get cold easily and that helped keep out some of the wind and sand.
Tip: if there’s nothing to hang from, you can keep the bivy off your face by tying it to a trekking pole, which I kept propped upright against my empty pack by sort of threading it through the pack’s haul loop/lashing it down with various straps. I kept my food bag inside at the head of the bivy to help prop the trekking pole up from the other side too. Be creative and you’ll make it work. It’s nicer than sleeping with your hat on.
- GPS emergency beacons are stupidly heavy and expensive but I thought carrying one (Garmin inReach Mini, never again with SPOT) was worthwhile since it gave some peace of mind and facilitated jokes about calling for an airlift whenever we saw a helicopter.
- Machete and/or flamethrower would be fantastic on certain sections of the Hayduke but are not LNT or ultralight or probably even legal. Remember, the suffering is Type II fun. Make Ed Abbey proud.