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Hiking Utah’s Hayduke Trail

You won't find Utah's 725-mile rogue route on any map. But thanks to two passionate Utah hikers, you'll soon be able to search it out with your boots.

Less than 3 weeks into a planned 660-mile hike across the Colorado Plateau, a vast uplift of canyon- and mesa-riddled terrain that stretches across the heart of the Southwest, Mike Coronella and Joe “Mitch” Mitchell faced a daunting stretch of slickrock that threatened to prematurely end their journeyand their lives. They were deep in Grand Canyon National Park’s trackless backcountry, facing a dangerously steep, slick section of ancient Vishnu schist, with nothing but the raging Colorado River 50 feet below. Crossing the terrifying half mile meant “using finger- and toe-holds while carrying 60-plus-pound packs,” recalls Mike. “Any slip would have been fatal.”

Several nervous hours later, Mike and Mitch were safely on firm ground. They continued on and completed a 101-day epic that started in waist-deep snow, ended in sizzling summer heat, and resulted in a radical three-pronged vision: 1) forge a route linking the most spectacular national parks and monuments in southern Utah and northern Arizona; 2) promote much-needed protection for the wilderness treasures of the Colorado Plateau; and 3) create a National Scenic Trail from the ground up.

Like the free-thinking Canadians who forged the Great Divide Trail (see “Great Divide Trail” in sidebar at right), these southern Utah visionaries also ran into red tape and special-interest groups that threatened to quash their plans. But Mitch and Mike decided not to try to break through the impenetrable bureaucratic wall. Instead, they resolved to create an undesignated trail only a backpacker could find, use, and appreciate)-all without any hint of official involvement.

The seed for Mitch and Mike’s big adventure had been planted 2 years earlier during a 94-day journey (see “A Utah Adventure,” May 1999). On that trip, they connected the dots between Arches and Zion National Parks, trekking through parts of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The expedition was “so sweet,” as Mike puts it, that they planned an encore in spring 2000.

On trek number two, they picked up where they had left off in Zion, dipped south across the Arizona Strip, spent a month beneath the rim in the Grand Canyon (the Vishnu schist episode), then explored a new route back to Arches. Along the way, they gained some publicity, promoted wilderness protection through newspaper updates and on Web sites (including www.backpacker.com), and fell in love with the Colorado Plateau.

The region encompasses 130,000 square miles of redrock splendor like no other landscape in North America, from squeeze-through narrows deep in the plateau’s sandstone guts to snow-capped mountains to long-forgotten mesas where you can still stumble across untouched 1,000-year-old Anasazi ruins. Aside from the high profile national parks and monuments, great swaths of the plateau are virtually unknown to wilderness enthusiasts. What’s not to love? The problem, as they saw it, is that this sublime terrain is also highly vulnerable to threats like mining and grazing. Mike and Mitch knew they had to do something about that.

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