Desert WTH: Winter ’22-’23 update

A route ready to hike, with caveats

WTH! New Logo!
WTH! And share the trail! New logo / graphic

Three years have somehow passed since I found myself poring over maps and satellite imagery from a dark winter room, planning that first fateful escape to a brilliant sunny land of brash burros, elusive tortoises, and few people. Several trips later and the fascination still burns bright. I’ve learned the desert here is slow to reveal its secrets, even more than usual, softening its sharp edges only reluctantly and only after one has sufficiently gained its trust. Learning the natural order here takes time, perseverance, a willingness to first suffer, bruised and forgotten within the depths of an inescapable desert canyon. (It happens.) Only with such sacrifice might true freedom be earned. The lonely and recalcitrant landscapes of western Arizona and southeastern California offer few equals for the well-tested freedom-seeker. I know of no place else where I can travel so readily, in the throes of a North American winter, and encounter so much of what I seek, and so little I’m seeking to avoid. I’m still trying to fully earn this desert’s trust.

With each subsequent hike, the route of the conceptual Desert Winter Thru-Hike continues to improve. The layout of the journey becomes better conceived, more scenic, plenty adventurous without being overly so, more rewarding and with fewer unpleasant surprises and temporary setbacks. For the right kind of hiker, the WTH now offers an unparalleled chance to explore a little-known desert region of remarkable beauty and diversity. But for all its harshness this is, ironically, also a quite delicate place, one in which any particular travel corridor should necessarily see only limited human use in order to minimize our collective impact. Because of this, and since the intent of the hike is to highlight a place as it simply exists and not what so many visitors would cause it to become, at this time I am offering planning, mapping and GPS resources for the route to a limited audience only.

Latest Google Map of the WTH above. A few video clips (and plenty of photos) highlighting the current route are here.

Who the route is for (gatekeeping edition)

It’s easy for me to look back and recall naively believing this winter-ready route could satisfy a great need in the long-distance hiking community, come one come all. But what the desert has shown me is at odds with the notion of a hiking route designed for the masses. After much consideration and hand-wringing, and at the very real risk of “gatekeeping,” I’ve concluded that the right candidate for the Desert WTH will have previously hiked another conceptual long route of mine like the Grand Enchantment Trail, Mogollon Rim Trail, or Northern New Mexico Loop, a combined total distance of 400 miles or longer. This isn’t so much a suggestion as a requirement, at least for now. This is how we’ll collectively keep our numbers down, at least on this route, an imperfect system though it is.

Such a hiker, it’s safe to say, should have gained the requisite experience, the perspective, and—just as importantly—the sensitivity needed to hike a route that traverses some of our least explored and most fragile desert environments. This hiker should be well-versed in Leave No Trace backcountry ethics so that the next hiker can enjoy the same sense of connection to the land, without cairns, obvious food / water caches, or finding other overt evidence of your passage. Knowing your background of experience and awareness from our shared reference point of a “Brett Tucker route” is, although personally awkward for me, the only type of vetting I’m comfortable doing here, again for the current season at least. This way I can simply reference our past correspondence, whether directly or of the “via PayPal” variety, as my reminder. I don’t want to clear others on a case by case basis; I simply don’t feel qualified or self-satisfied enough to play kingmaker in that way.

And so, to those who’ve made it past my rusty and imperfect barbed wire gate, please take a few moments to read on and familiarize yourself with the current state of Desert Winter Thru-Hike before reaching out and potentially committing to this adventure.

The Desert Winter Thru-Hike connects the Arizona National Scenic Trail on the east with the Pacific Crest Trail to the west, along the way touring 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. Again, the WTH has evolved since our first exploratory hike. The following links to the blog describe some of this evolution over the past few years.

Current State of the Route

The route continues to evolve and improve, but here are a few key points to consider regarding the current state of the Desert WTH:

  • The main route is currently around 800 miles in length between Saguaro and Joshua Tree National Parks. Connecting to the Arizona Trail on the east adds around 30 miles, while a PCT connection adds a similar distance on the western end of the route.
  • Previous blog entries detail the approximate mileage breakdown between different surface types. The current estimate is as follows. “Trail miles” refers to singletrack trail, whether human or animal-made, as well as ancient roads located within Wilderness areas or otherwise closed to motorized traffic. Dirt roads along the WTH are vastly more often of the rugged 2-track / jeep trail variety rather than smooth wide graded roads. Cross-country miles are either overland or in washes, i.e. any travel not on roads or trails.
     Trail miles: 171 (22%)
     Dirt road miles: 342 (43%)
     Paved miles: 23.5 (3%)
     Cross-country: 254 (32%)
  • The route consists of 8 sections, divided at or near potential resupply locations. On average the WTH becomes more challenging as one progresses west, either with more XC or otherwise slow and rugged miles, longer distances between resupplies, more challenging resupplies, greater distance between potential water sources, less reliable water, or some combination of the above. In other words, the WTH affords the experienced hiker a chance to regain their “trail legs” and “route savvy” after coming off the couch, provided the route is hiked in the recommended westbound direction.
  • While there have been several long section hikes and (as of this writing) two successful thru-hikes of the WTH, the route nonetheless remains in a “beta” phase and future hikers should be prepared for a hike that is not yet entirely vetted throughout. We continue to gain insights with each successive hike and will incorporate these into future versions of the mapset. As of this writing, the majority of what we present as the recommended route has been walked and is passable, but there are certainly miles that could benefit from further refinement and re-routing. 
  • For reasons discussed in the blog, the recommended season is winter and direction of travel east to west (Saguaro to Joshua Tree). To put a finer point on this, we believe the ideal season begins sometime around mid-January and ends mid to late March. You could begin later, but the ideal window for finding water closes around the start of calendar spring. The later you do start, the longer the days and potentially warmer the temps (shorter nights really help). You could also begin earlier, but too early could mean insufficient time for winter rains to accumulate as drinking water, and can also mean a colder time crossing the higher elevations of the Mojave Desert. Keep in mind that desert winter storms are normally your friend on the WTH, helping to recharge those precious water sources. That said, normal sunny-day highs in the 60’s and 70’s can sometimes turn to chilly 40’s and 50’s during storms, which often bring wind as well, and quite possibly mud. You may need to budget some down time during the hike if not prepared to hike through any stronger storms (these are normally well-advertised several days in advance). 
  • Just about all WTH hikers so far have noted the resupply towns to be lacking in amenities as well as ambiance. This is hardscrabble country, and towns tend to be very modest, few and far between. You may need to adjust expectations for those zero day reprieves from the desert. In some cases, town isn’t really a town at all, but just a store with basic supplies or a willingness to hold a hiker package if we continue to play nice. So the LNT ethos applies to the resupply days as well. “Accept, adapt, and appreciate” (as a certain well-known hiker likes to say). And let’s set a positive example that will benefit the next hiker coming along behind us.
  • We continue to believe that caching food and/or water is optional on the Desert Winter Thru-Hike, if (big IF) the hiker times the hike to coincide with a winter rainy season of average or better moisture. Start too early and you’ll be less certain of what the season provides. And keep tabs on whether areas farther ahead on the route are also seeing the expected winter rains, especially in the Mojave. If in doubt, the mapset resources discuss a way to leave the route about half-way along–at Parker–in order to set out a few critical water caches if needed.
  • It should be noted that the route passes through a known migrant corridor in its early miles west of Tucson, particularly within Ironwood Forest National Monument. As on southern sections of the Arizona Trail and PCT, hikers here will occasionally find discarded water bottles, clothing and other items, and may encounter migrants from time to time (unlike on the established trails they may not recognize you as a hiker or try to hide from you). You will also likely see and hear activities by the Border Patrol, especially helicopters. In our experience, none of this is reason to avoid the area but to simply maintain a sense of vigilance. Don’t camp near roads or wherever you happen to find a heavy footprint from these travelers. Any vehicles or people encountered during the day will typically just be folks out recreating within the monument.
  • Fall-Winter 2022 thru-hiker Brian “Buck30” Tanzman has an excellent day-by-day journal online including a follow-up summary page and his impressions of the WTH resupply points. He also elaborates daily on the types of terrain and surfaces encountered, navigational and other challenges the route presents, offering a sense of what to expect in each section of the hike. Check out his journal here. (Buck30’s is the only hike so far to our knowledge to feature an actual encounter with the Border Patrol and migrants west of Tucson, a possibility outlined above. He also hiked the route eastbound starting in October for some strange reason.)
  • Long-distance hiker and route-maker Kevin “Larry Boy” DeVries wrote a very insightful article on US winter thru-hiking options that compares the WTH with the (limited) mix of alternative hikes available at this time of year. An overarching reality among all winter-ready routes, he notes, is the short days and the effect this has on mileage potential. With only 10 or 11 hours of available daylight, it’s worth planning to scale back miles to a maximum of perhaps 20 MPD. This is especially true for a route like the WTH with its often slower (XC / wash / jeep track) miles.

Desert WTH Water Sources

Some current notes about water on the Desert Winter Thru-Hike. While the route does run near the familiar cattle troughs here and there, natural rockbound pools or tinajas, and very (very) occasional flowing water as on other desert hikes, arguably the most unique feature of the WTH is its emphasis on wildlife guzzlers. Indeed, the guzzlers (artificial rainwater catchments) are by far the most common type of water source you’ll encounter, and in a good year, will also be the most reliable water you’ll find in this parched country. 

Appearing with enough frequency to slake thirst on a semi-regular basis, guzzlers in no small way make the cache-less hike possible, but there are some important caveats to consider. While the guzzlers aren’t subject to being “turned off” like cattle sources, they can fall into disrepair over time or suffer damage from intense storms, potentially. When working properly, these simple yet efficient contraptions will continue to store accumulating winter rainfall to the tune of potentially hundreds of gallons in a season. You’ll share them with wildlife (especially birds) as well as the occasional hunter. In a drier winter, the water stored in guzzler troughs may be scant and of poorer quality. You may also have a sense that you’re competing for limited resources, both with wildlife as well as your fellow hikers. While the intentions and ethics surrounding the very existence of wildlife / “game” guzzlers occupy an inherently gray area, our job as hikers should always be to minimize our impacts and be respectful of other users and differing attitudes. Again, as a seasoned veteran of BTR’s, we feel you’re capable of being a conscientious traveler on the land, one who can make the right call on sensitive issues, and for example, decide on your own if caching water in advance is preferable to relying exclusively on the guzzlers.

Types of Guzzlers

You’ll encounter generally two varieties of wildlife guzzlers on the WTH. The first type is typical for western Arizona, developed by AZ Game and Fish in the 1950’s and 60’s to ‘improve’ habitat and hunting in these driest lands. These feature up to two large collecting aprons and as many in-ground troughs, one of which may store overflow from the main trough. Aprons and troughs may be made of cement, or occasionally you’ll encounter aprons made from sheet metal and troughs of hard plastic. Total storage capacity can exceed 1000 gallons (even a lowly one inch of water in the bottom of these troughs can represent 15 gallons remaining given the total surface area beyond what’s visible and exposed). Game cameras are commonly encountered within the guzzler corrals, often set up by hunters who occasionally monitor and even hunt the guzzler areas. Cows, horses and burros are kept away by the corral fencing, leaving the water more exclusively for native species.

The other type of guzzler is the much smaller, “upland game bird” variety encountered only in California, and which is the predominant type found along the route there. Constructed usually in a remote area away from roads, the aprons are hand-made of cement and epoxy and are smaller so collect less rainwater. Water is protected in a 100+ gallon covered in-ground cement tank. The well has a heavy access hatch on top but these are often sealed shut to limit evaporation. Normally the only access is the same narrow horizontal entry point as birds and rainwater enter (via a low-angle ramp). Water itself is typically out of reach without using a trekking pole or stick tied to a rigid water bottle and inserted sideways into the slot. With the right setup and technique, good water is easy enough to come by. Always leave these remote, all-volunteer-maintained quail guzzlers better than you found them, and clear any dirt and debris from the apron and channel to improve rain harvesting ability. Do so and you’ll actually be creating conditions to generate more water than you’ll take.

About the Mapset

The 2022-2023 “beta” mapset consists of detailed, navigation-ready printable maps as well as georeferenced PDF maps for use in the free Avenza GPS app. We also have a complete resource for the Gaia GPS app including tracks and detailed waypoints for the entire route. For this season, the printable mapset runs from Section 1 (Saguaro NP) through Section 5 (AZ / CA state line). Due to less certainty over a finalized routing in California, Sections 6 through 8 are currently only navigable using Avenza and/or Gaia. Additionally there’s a complete 70+ page print-friendly Databook as well as a Water Chart (interactive google sheet), both of which can be cross-referenced with the other resources. A summary-style town / resupply guide assists with planning.

Sample page from the printable mapset. Colored shading denotes land ownership type.

Individual section overviews list distances, miles by surface type, # and distance between water sources, and more

Excerpt from the 70+ page printable Databook, with section & cumulative mileages, waypoint name and description, etc.
Screenshot from the Water Chart. Shading highlights more (and less) reliable sources, potential cache locations. Hikers contribute their observations via Google Sheets, dating back to 2020 for some sources.

Finally, two straightforward but important asks.

To access the mapset, BTR veterans can simply send a comment on this post (I’ll see it but won’t publish it) or message me: @HikeInvention on Instagram. The mapset is available as a Google Drive link, accessed via a Gmail account.

Please do not share the resources with others. In order to maintain a sustainably small number of hikers along the route each year, it’s imperative that the mapset remain exclusively in the hands of the appreciative few rather than the oblivious masses. This means not sharing it beyond yourself and, say, a trusted hiking partner. It means not putting the information online, and especially not publishing it to a sharing-driven social site even such as Caltopo with its “public maps” default. And it means not communicating in absolute terms the locations of the fragile water sources along the route. 

Secondly, please consider helping with the evolution of this route by contributing your water observations via the interactive Google Sheet water chart. You’ll see that other hikers before you have generously recorded their observations for your benefit. Please do the same for the next hiker. Knowing what’s wet and what’s dry is critical information for a successful walk and potentially even for wildlife managers, since we may be among the few to visit some of these remote sources in a given year. Thanks so much for your help as well as your willingness to give the Desert Winter Thru-Hike a go. We wish you a safe and rewarding journey across this little-explored and surpassingly scenic landscape.