Desert WTH: Follow-up and version 2.0

(Scroll down for all-new interactive Google Map.)

2020 started with a bang that turned to a scream that ended with a whimper. We had a great hard time out in the sere and lonesome desertlands of western Arizona and southeast California last winter. January and February found us following up on mapped efforts to produce a mild and sunny off-season romp away from the masses, traversing the largely trail-less expanses of public land – BLM, some state, a bit of National Park and a taste of Natural Monument – contained within this driest region of the US. Along the way we replaced our preconceptions with some hard-won truths, learned a thing or two on how to live and move through such an unforgiving yet ultimately redemptive environment, and in the process brought all of our prior desert hiking and route-making knowledge to bear. It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough, but ultimately it sufficed, and the trip proved to be a genuine adventure. The kind to be savored in the afterglow of false remembrances. We couldn’t have had such an experience on an established long trail or even a retrod hiking route. Adventure demands a certain amount of willful ignorance, a deficit of knowledge, tempered by good judgment or at least good luck. We figure we mostly got lucky.

You can read all about our little winter desert adventure in Treehugger’s journal here.

Unfortunately, along with the rest of the world’s human population our luck ran out before 2020 got very far along. Vegetarians (I was one for over a decade) may argue over whether cutting out meat consumption is right for the animals, right for human health, or right for the environment, but it’s all valid and simultaneously most Americans can’t sustain eating just their veggies for long. And so it is with the long-distance hiking community and COVID-19, the pandemic that stopped hikers in their tracks this year, sending them home to stay safe for so many valid reasons, and with unsated appetites, at least until the community had fully eaten its own. Then all bets were off.

We didn’t get to complete our desert trek, and as 2020 officially goes down in flames, a more auspicious 2021 may or may not rise from its ashes in time for follow-on winter romping this season. But all is not lost. We were able to take what impressions we gleaned this past year, what data we gathered, the healed scabs of progress, send it all through the cartographic CPU, feel it in our hearts, and then spend another multi-hundred span of hours in Caltopo mirroring these emotional aspirations in the form of updated waypoints and tracks. We’ve revamped the route. We’ve expanded it. And it’s now, we conjecture, even better able to meet the needs of winter sojourners similarly tempted by the remote arid wildlands.

Among the improvements to the route:

  • Now begins conveniently on the east end at Saguaro National Park just outside Tucson.
  • Finishes at Joshua Tree National Park instead of Death Valley, with similarly helpful amenities and transportation right outside the park.
  • Offers a rugged connection between the Arizona Trail and the PCT, tying into the “Great American Interstate Trail System” with an emphasis on scenery, solitude, and exploration of the many important, protected landscapes along the way.
  • Follows a warmer trajectory overall, remaining at more southerly latitudes, and tracing a natural “in season” arc from east to west across the (lower) Sonoran and Colorado deserts to finish at the (higher) Mojave desert later in the winter, on the cusp of springtime.
  • One of our big breakthroughs last winter was learning how to find more water. Our experience and research has since uncovered well over a hundred potential sources of water on or near the route. All the route really needs is a little rain first, and then it’s go time, without any great need to rely on cached water bottles.
  • Runs directly through (or within close range of) more resupply towns, minimizing the need to hitch (which can be difficult in this hardscrabble country).
  • 800+ miles in length, providing more of a full-season experience for those hikers looking to “maximize use of their down time.”
  • Still offers a link to Death Valley by way of the Desert Trail which the Desert WTH route intersects in California. (Water caching required in that case)
  • 10% of the route located on designated trail (singletrack!), 2.5% paved roads, and the remainder split perhaps evenly between dirt roads (mostly primitive) and cross-country travel (including desert washes).

We have a “version 2.0” mapset waiting in the wings, provided the state of the world improves, lockdowns are lifted, quarantine requirements revoked, and ICU beds become available once again to shameless tourists and chumps. But it’s dangerous out there and so we’re not optimistic this will happen in time to salvage winter 20-21. Check back again for status updates. This goes for our other routes as well. We’re not necessarily stoked at the prospects of creating an aggravating “outsider” element in small town life-and-death America during the pandemic, so disproportionately affected as these communities stand to be by our random comings and goings, regardless of how they voted. Of course it’s a free country, you have rights, and these are just arbitrary, unofficial hiking routes after all. But we all share the responsibility, together, to get us out of this unfortunate place as soon as we possibly can. Please consider your impacts in this new light just as you already do your impacts to the natural world we all cherish. Thanks!

Click the map above to make it bigger. Zoom in and tap the icons for photos, more information, and more.

“An adventurous 800-mile hiking route highlighting 20 Wilderness Areas, 7 National Parks and Monuments, and remote protected lands of the Sonoran, Colorado, and Mojave deserts. Featuring mainly low to mid elevation desert valleys and mountain ranges occurring at lower latitudes of the American Southwest, the Desert WTH offers a true winter season thru-hiking option for very experienced walkers looking to extend the US hiking season into the December – February timeframe. And yet despite the aridity and remoteness of this warmer region, the route has been carefully crafted to all but eliminate the need for caching water in advance, while also providing easy access at its termini both to begin and end the long hike.”


“The Desert Winter Thru-Hike connects the Arizona National Scenic Trail on the east with the Pacific Crest Trail to the west, providing a lonesome and rugged link to continuing adventures even farther afield. Along the way it tours such diverse treasures as Saguaro National Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Sonoran Desert National Monument, Mojave National Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park, all while showcasing the hallmark plants, animals, and distinctive landscapes endemic to each. Click through the placemarks in the legend below for more information on the Desert WTH hiking route, where it goes, and what awaits on the journey!”