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.
With steps one and two of their vision accomplished, they began the task of turning the finished route into the nation’s next designated National Scenic Trail (working title: the Colorado Plateau Trail). Mike laid the groundwork for a nonprofit trail alliance, talked to land managers, and in short order found that it takes more than a couple of ordinary hikers with a dream and a killer route to get a National Scenic Trail on the map. The intrepid wilderness enthusiast found himself facing a mountain of red tape he couldn’t climb.
“It was a lot more complicated than we’d thought,” says Mike, admitting that initially they were naove about the process. “An official trail would have required new management plans in the parks, environmental impact assessments, and tons
of fund-raising. I’m not wealthy. I’m a bartender in Salt Lake City.”
“Creating a National Scenic Trail is no small task,” confirms Jere Krakow, superintendent of long-distance trails in the National Park Service’s Salt Lake City office. “It takes connections, especially political, and a lot of money. You need to get legislation passed by Congress just to study feasibility, then another bill is required to amend the National Trails Act. There are only eight such trails currently recognized in the country. The process takes far more than two guys with a strong commitment.”
After completing two epic treks and enduring every hardship the Colorado Plateau could throw at them, Mike and Mitch were not inclined to jump through bureaucratic hoops. “We never wanted to physically build a trail anyway,” explains Mitch. “It would have harmed the very land we hope to protect. A real trail might attract too many people to sensitive areas where there shouldn’t be crowds.”
So they abandoned the pursuit of federal designation. Instead, they returned to a dusty idea they’d bandied about during the first leg of their two-part hike: create the Hayduke Trail, named after George Washington Hayduke, the renegade character in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Mike calls the Hayduke a “rogue route,” a below-radar path that won’t appear on traditional maps. The route will employ established trails and backroads where available, and you’ll need good navigational skills where trails and roads don’t exist. In other words, serious backpackers will be able to piece the Hayduke together, and have access to some of the wildest backcountry on the Colorado Plateau.
“We want to publicize the route because it’s in a one-of-a-kind environment that needs protection. But we want people to have the same sense of adventure we had,” Mitch adds.
The two are currently at work fine-tuning the 725-mile route—from Arches to Grand Canyon to Zion—for a guidebook they plan to publish in late 2002 (for information about ordering their book, see Guides in the Expedition Planner at the end of this article). If all goes well, they will have pioneered a new, nontechnical route entirely on public land, complete with water sources and resupply points, and across some of the most forbidding but beautiful terrain in the Lower 48. But don’t worry about that sketchy section of Vishnu schist that almost did the pair in. “We’re avoiding that for sure,” Mike says. “We don’t want anyone to die. We just want to tell people about a cool route.”
For more information about what you can do to help protect the Colorado Plateau or to donate funds, contact the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 486-3161; www.suwa.org.
Expedition Planner: Hayduke Trail
Because the Hayduke is very much a work in progress, and much of it is cross-country, complete and exact route details are still sketchy. If you can’t wait for the “official” guidebook, here’s a taste of what the trail will offer, courtesy of Joe “Mitch” Mitchell.
SUGGESTED ROUTE: This section of the Hayduke is a mostly trail-less stretch that will carry you through southern Utah backcountry between Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park. Expect serious solitude and keep your compass handy.
The 35-mile hike starts in the high desert (elevation: 5,300 feet) and ends in the mountains (9,100 feet). Begin on Cottonwood Canyon Road, near Kodachrome Basin State Park. Hike southwest on Rock Springs Bench Road (#410) and then down Rock Springs Wash to the confluence with the Paria River (5.5 miles from Cottonwood Canyon Road). Continue downstream along the Paria River bottom for 3.75 miles to the confluence with Sheep Creek, then hang a sharp right and proceed northwest up Sheep Creek for 1.5 miles to the mouth of Bull Valley Gorge (spectacular narrows; allow time to explore). Continue up Sheep Creek for another 3.75 miles to the mouth of Willis Creek, then head generally west up Willis Creek, through the narrows, for 2.5 miles to a dirt road (#500). Stay northwest for just under a mile to a junction with another dirt track (#530), which you follow for the next 8.5 miles (most of it along Willis Creek again). When you reach Agua Canyon, take a connecting trail a mile to Bryce Canyon’s Under the Rim Trail, which leads southwest 8 miles to the Rainbow Point trailhead.
SHUTTLE: Arrange a trailhead shuttle through Bryce Canyon Scenic Tours and Shuttles ($40 for up to four people; 800-432-5383; www.brycetours.com). The shuttle departs from Ruby’s Inn, just outside Bryce Canyon National Park on UT 63. From Rainbow Point, a Park Service shuttle will return you to Ruby’s Inn (May through September only; free with entrance fee, but let the park know you’re coming). To reach the trailhead on your own from Cannonville on UT 12, go south on Cottonwood Canyon Road to Rock Springs Bench Road.
PERMITS: You’ll need backcountry permits for both Grand Staircase-Escalante (free) and Bryce Canyon ($5 per group, $20 entrance fee). See Contact below. Inside the national park, backcountry camping is allowed only at designated sites.
SEASON: In terms of weather, water availability, and shuttle services, the best time to go is late spring/early summer.
GUIDES: USGS 7.5-minute topo maps Slickrock Bench, Bull Valley Gorge, Rainbow Point, and Tropic Reservoir (888-ASK-USGS; www.usgs.gov; $4 each). For
the forthcoming Hayduke Trail guidebook, when available in late 2002, contact the University of Utah Press, (800) 773-6672; www.upress.utah.edu.
WALK SOFTLY: Observe Leave No Trace etiquette when you are safeguarding water sources and disposing of human waste (bury it in a a cathole 6 inches deep at least 200 yards from camp and the nearest water source).
CAUTION: This route is off-trail and has challenges that could pose problems even for experienced hikers. High water, flash floods, and lack of potable water are all possible at one time or another. Treat or boil all drinking water, and don’t drink from arsenic-tainted Rock Spring. Check with local land-management officials on current conditions and flood danger before heading out.
CONTACT: Bryce Canyon National Park, (435) 834-5322; www.nps.gov/brca. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Interagency Office, (435) 826-5499; www.ut.blm.gov/monument.