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Major Challenges

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:

1. Adventure

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.

2. Length

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.

5 Responses to Major Challenges

  1. Josh Morris July 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    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.

  2. Shaun April 25, 2016 at 5:43 pm #

    I want to do the Arizona Trail and this in one run stupid maybe but definitely a challenge.

    • Corey January 16, 2017 at 10:52 pm #

      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).

      • Claire May 3, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

        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!

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