There is no official starting or ending terminus along the Great Western Loop, which itself has nothing official about it. For the sake of writing a route description, we’ll start at Grandview Point, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Skurka decided to start his hike here in early-April because this allowed him to: hike through the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts when water sources have not yet dried up completely and when the region’s extreme heat is not yet in full force; and enter the High Sierra in mid-May, which is early in the season but which should be doable.
Gap: Grand Canyon to the Pacific Crest Trail
Starting at Grandview Point, the Loop descends into the Grand Canyon and follows the Tonto Trail west to the South Bass Trail. At this point the hiker can continue cross-country around Great Thumb Mesa to Havasu Canyon or can climb out of the Canyon. Once back on the South Rim, the Loop heads south through Seligman, AZ, and into the Juniper Mountains in Prescott National Forest. Bagdad, AZ, a in-the-middle-of-nowhere mining town, makes a good resupply point before entering Burro Creek, which the Loop follows until it empties into the Big Sandy River. Burro Creek is supposedly a narrow slow-going canyon, whereas the Big Sandy is supposed to be more pleasant, though sometimes brushy. The Loop follows the Big Sandy south to its confluence with the Santa Maria River, at which point they become the Bill Williams River, which is dammed just downstream to form Alamo Lake. Things get interesting a few miles downstream from the dam, where there reportedly are three short stretches (up to 100 feet in length) where the river deepens and the canyon walls narrow; swimming here is almost always necessary, except in extreme droughts. After “the Narrows” the Loop continues to follow the River, which generally has a nice riparian corridor, all the way to Mineral Wash, where it exits south and follows dirt roads to Parker, AZ, located on the Colorado River.
The high elevations and river corridors that made the Arizona segment relatively pleasant are a thing of the past once the Loop crosses the Colorado River. At that point it is in the middle of the Colorado Desert (a sub-desert of the Sonoran), which is known for outrageously hot temperatures and dry conditions. Thankfully for the hiker, the never-quenched-of-thirst city of Los Angeles has built an aqueduct from the Colorado River that will keep him or her hydrated all the way to the eastern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park. The Loop enters the park where the Pinto Wash exits it, and then proceeds cross-country up the waterless Pinto Basin and eventually attains the higher west side of the park at Twin Lakes Campground. A network of park trails is utilized in order to reach the Black Rock Canyon entrance station, which is the first water source since entering the park some 75 miles back. It is possible to cache water beforehand, though the resources and risk involved probably make it worthwhile to just carry 2 day’s worth of water. From the entrance station the Loop follows a jeep road and does some cross-country travel in order to reach Morongo Valley, CA, which makes a convenient maildrop point before heading another 6 miles west into the San Bernardino foothills to reach Mission Creek and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)
The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail is a 2,665-mile footpath from Mexico to Canada that passes through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges of California, Oregon, and Washington.
From Mission Creek, the PCT/GWL travels 475 miles through the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Ranges, across the Mojave Desert’s Antelope Arm, and along the Tehachapi Mountains until it reaches Kennedy Meadows Campground, the gateway to California’s High Sierra, which includes three phenomenal National Parks (Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite) and several gawk-inducing wilderness areas (South Sierra, John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Emigrant). In the High Sierra the PCT/GWL reaches its highest elevation atop Forester Pass (13,180 feet) and features its longest roadless stretch (200 miles)!
Around Sonora Pass the Sierra Nevada — which is characterized by sleek granite domes and valley walls that are remnants of an underground magma chamber that hardened, was uplifted, and exposed as overlying surfaces eroded away — begins to give way to the Cascades, which is populated by active volcanoes (such as Shasta, Hood, and Rainier) and which features significant evidence of past eruptions. By southern Oregon the PCT/GWL is fully immersed in the Cascades, which become more heavily glaciated and arguably more scenic in its northern regions. The Pacific Northwest Trail joins the PCT/GWL corridor near Woody Pass; the GWL/PNT leave the PCT 10 miles further north at Castle Pass, 4 miles from the Canadian border and the PCT’s northern terminus in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness.
A more detailed trail description can be found at the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.
Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT)
The Pacific Northwest Trail is a 1,200-mile footpath from atop the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park in Montana to the Pacific Ocean at Cape Alava in Olympic National Park.
From Castle Pass, the PNT/GWL head east near the Canadian border to the small city of Oroville, located in Washington’s Okanogan Valley. It ascends 7257-foot Mt. Bonaparte as it continues east to the Kettle River Range, which it follows north for some 25 miles before heading east again to cross the Columbia River at Northport. It soon enters the Salmo-Priest Wilderness before dropping down into the Upper Priest Valley, just before it ascends back up into the Selkirks, far north in Idaho’s Panhandle. The major-range-followed-by-major-river pattern continues as the PNT/GWL traverses the Purcell, Kootenai, and Whitefish Ranges, before making one final and remarkable ascent to the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park. At Goat Haunt Ranger Station on Waterton Lake, the GWL leaves the PNT to join the Continental Divide Trail.
Continental Divide Trail (CDT)
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is a 3,100-mile footpath from Mexico to Canada along the backbone of North America.
From Goat Haunt Ranger Station the CDT/GWL head south along the Highline Trail, past St. Mary’s Lake, over Dawson Pass, and eventually out to East Glacier, MT, after one last view from Scenic Point above the Two Medicine valley. The remaining 600 miles through Montana are highlighted by the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the Centennial Mountains, and the Spanish Peaks. In Wyoming, the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park are followed by the phenomenal Wind River Range; the route descends into the high plains to cross the Great Divide Basin before entering Colorado in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. Colorado is arguably the most beautiful stretch of the CDT, with its long stretches atop the Continental Divide’s grassy tundra amidst 14,000-foot mountains; wildflowers usually hit their peak in mid-July and the aspens turn a golden yellow sometime in September. Colorado’s climax is reached in the San Juan’s, which are followed by New Mexico’s San Pedro Peaks before temporarily descending to lower elevations. The CDT/GWL enter the Gila Wilderness, and at the Gila Clif Dwellings National Monument Visitor Center the GWL leaves the CDT to join the Grand Enchantment Trail.
A more detailed trail description can be found at the Continental Divide Trail Association’s website.
Grand Enchantment Trail (GET)
The Grand Enchantment Trail is a 700-mile wilderness hiking route from Phoenix to Albuquerque that connects mountains, deserts, canyons, and places of cultural and historic interest.
From the Gila Clif Dwellings National Monument Visitor Center, the GET/GWL travel east along the Gila River into the 10,000-foot Mogollon Mountains, which it then descends into Arizona via the San Francisco and Blue River Canyons. It passes the sister mining towns of Clifton and Morenci on its way towards more 10,000-foot peaks in the Pinaleno Range, followed by the rugged Santa Teresa Mountains, and the highly regarded Aravaipa Canyon, where sheer canyon walls rise near 1,000 feet above the perennial waterway. The Arizona Trail joins the GET/GWL at the Gila River, where they all head north into the Tortilla Mountains and Superstition Wilderness. Near Rogers Trough Trailhead the GET peels off towards Phoenix, while the AZT/GWL continues north.
A more detailed trail description can be found at the Grand Enchantment Trail website.
The Arizona Trail is an 800-mile non-motorized trail that traverses Arizona’s deserts, sky islands, and high plateaus from Mexico to Utah.
From Rogers Trough Trailhead the AZT/GWL heads north to the Roosevelt Lake Dam, which backs up the Salt River in order to feed the golf courses and grass lawns that Phoenix developers and residents maintain, seeming not to recognize that they live in a desert. North of the dam is the Four Peaks Wilderness followed by the Mazatzal Wilderness, home to a view-filled 7,000-foot ridgeline. After coming within a mile of Pine, AZ, the AZT/GWL climbs through the Mogollon Rim, a sandstone and limestone cliff escarpment that marks the geological boundary of the Colorado Plateau. In the city of Flagstaff the hiker should stock up and treat themselves to a milkshake – only 100 miles remain before reaching Grandview Point, where this amazing expedition began some 6,875 miles earlier.
A more detailed trail description can be found at the Arizona Trail website.