No hiker has completed, or even attempted, the Great Western Loop, which is one of the most difficult ultra-long-distance hikes that has ever been conceived, at least on par with (but different than) the Sea-to-Sea Route, Calendar Triple Crown, and Pacific Crest Trail Yo-Yo. A long-distance hiker who attempts to complete the Loop in a single continuous push will face four major challenges:
The volume of information available through guidebooks, handbooks, mapsets, trail journals, and mailing lists has diminished the element of adventure in long-distance backpacking, including along some sections of the Great Western Loop. However, overall the Loop promises constant adventure-induced excitement and worry: it includes a pioneering effort across the hot-and-arid Sonoran and Mojave deserts; it requires an early-season entry into the snow-filled high country and a late-season just-in-time exit about four months later; many of its miles are along “wilderness trails” that have no blazing, little signage, much unrecognizable trail tread, and/or scant use by thru-hikers and other backcountry enthusiasts; and it will test the upper limits of human endurance because of its length and intensity.
At approximately 6,875 miles, the Great Western Loop is equivalent to 260 consecutive marathons! However, a mile on the Loop is much more difficult than one in Boston, Chicago, or Boulder Backroads – the Loop’s hard-won miles are done over rugged slow-going terrain, in all sorts of weather, with the added weight of a backpack, and without aid stations and post-race treats.
3. The Mojave and Sonoran desert
The Great Western Loop includes a 675-mile section across arguably the least hospitable region in the Lower 48—the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. This section is necessary in order to link the Arizona Trail (at the Grand Canyon’s Grandview Point) with the Pacific Crest Trail (in the Mission Creek drainage, due west of Morongo Valley, CA) and it will undoubtedly create major problems for an unsupported backpacker because of extreme heat, scarce and unreliable water sources, and difficult canyon travel.
4. Late spring, early winter
The High Sierra in central California and the San Juan’s in southern Colorado are the two southernmost serious challenges for a hiker on the Great Western
Loop. The traditional hiking season in both places is 3.5 months long (early-June to late-September); pre-June travel is difficult and dangerous due to lingering snow and heavy runoff, and post-October travel is risky due to the increasingly likelihood of expedition-halting snow storms. It would be extremely difficult to hike the 4,400 miles between these two points within the traditional hiking season—it would require hiking about 40 miles per day—so a hiker attempting the Loop must enter the high country earlier and leave later than traditionally recommended, while still averaging about 35 miles per day.
Interesting you list Adventure as Challenge number one. Would you also list Adventure as Reason number one to attempt this through-hike?
And it’s about time you update the “no hiker has ever completed, or even attempted” this hike intro, yeah? 😉 Thanks for all of the information and ideas. Your accomplishments are awesome and inspiring.
I want to do the Arizona Trail and this in one run stupid maybe but definitely a challenge.
I was struck by lightning near the Arizona Trail in 2015…and survived. Better call me stupid – I’m hiking the Great Western Loop starting in May of this year (2017).
Really thinking of training very hard for this hike next April! And I would like to know as much information I can! Any help would be great!
Happy to answer specific questions. If the questions are endless, I offer a coaching service so that I can dedicate more time to it, https://andrewskurka.com/product/backpack-coaching/
Very inspired by your Great Western Loop expedition. Do you know if it would be possible to do the desert portion in January or February? I’d love to walk for a full calendar year, starting earlier than April (even if that meant taking pauses throughout to wait for better weather). Is this possible on the GWL or is it a race against the elements no matter what?
Thank you so much for your help and very inspired by your story.
You could do most of the desert section (i.e. Grand Canyon to PCT) in the winter.
Higher elevations in the GC would be very cold and at risk of snow, however; and some parts/canyons of the GC are treacherous in the winter because they hold snow.
Thank you so much Andrew. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond given all that you do, you’re amazing!
Last question for now is how difficult you found the Mojave and Sonoran deserts to navigate. Was there a lot of canyon-hopping or were you able to skirt around going in and out of canyons constantly?
We hear tell of increasing interest in the GWL, and wonder whether it worth considering an alternate that would include Utah redrock country (via a portion of the HDT), which is hard to justify missing. We have a low desert winter-friendly hike that connects the PCT to Phoenix or Tucson (AZT) without having to rely on the aqueduct for water. From there one could head east on GET to the Gila (tagging New Mexico), then NW along the Mogollon Rim (MRT) to AZT at Flagstaff. An AZ – UT – CO connection has been pioneered by others already.
Related to Brett’s comment above — if you’re reading this, Andrew, I’m curious why you *didn’t* incorporate a HDT-like segment, given that a route from the San Juans west across SE Utah to the Grand Canyon would traverse iconic redrock country (otherwise unrepresented on the GWL but seemingly in the spirit of the adventure). Why’d you opt for the CDT-GET-AZT lobe instead?
In early-2007 I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with this part of the country to plot “the best” route through it. I could do that now, but only because of my GWL hike and other hikes (e.g. HDT, guiding in southern Utah). So I was relying on and trusting information that others had put together.
Those in their 20’s would say that my time is counting down. [37 years old]
So, might as well find out what I can.
1) What is a good time of the year to start?
2) Where can I get detailed information on the route so I do not stray off-course? [Not like there will be signs. That’d be ridiculous]
3) How much should I expect in expenses?
4) What items and clothing to pack?
5) Do I rent rooms along the way to sleep and shower or, do I use the lake and sleep in a poncho?
*I don’t know what to ask. So, I just decided to throw in all types of questions*