Some stats from the Desert Winter Thru-Hike (WTH), which we’ll be attempting in January and February.
Starting point: Sonoran Desert National Monument (Table Top Mountain)
Ending point: Death Valley National Park (Furnace Creek Ranch)
Average winter high temperature: 68 F.
Average winter low temperature: 41 F.
We wanted a hiking route that would offer predominantly warmer, lower elevations (below 3000 feet) and would be located almost exclusively on public lands, particularly Wilderness areas, and not military installations, tribal lands, or agricultural areas. This informed the choice of termini greatly, as well as the overall layout of the route.
Total miles: 660 – 700. A possible extension across the remainder of Death Valley, using a variation on the Desert Trail route, could add another 100-200 miles of lower elevation, winter-ready hiking.
A little over half the route is located on dirt roads. Unsurprisingly, very few hiking trails exist on the BLM lands of western Arizona / eastern California’s Sonoran and Mojave deserts, so dirt road walking is the order of the day. A majority of these roads should prove to be primitive in character, receiving minimal use, or are decommissioned and since absorbed into Wilderness areas with no vehicle traffic at all.
Cross-country travel features prominently, accounting for about a third of the route’s length. Overland travel comes into play whenever roads fail to head in the right direction, and especially help to facilitate travel through the many Wilderness areas along the way. A majority of this travel should be across open country with few impediments, or in desert washes, although some of these miles will undoubtedly be more adventurous, such as when the route surmounts the occasional trackless mountain ridge to continue on trajectory, or if canyon bottoms happen to box up, possible with dry falls that the hiker will need to find a way around.
Actual hiking trails will be a genuine bonus in this country. There are at least a few of them – notably in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, the Mojave National Preserve, and within Death Valley National Park, but only enough to account for roughly 10 percent of the entire route. We do expect to encounter many social trails, game trails, and old roads that are essentially trail, adding to the overall flavor of singletrack.
There are numerous potential resupply points along the route of the Desert Winter Thru-Hike, to the tune of one or two per week of walking, or about every 60 to 90 miles. Some are located directly along the WTH, while most are within 10 to 20 miles of the route, accessible via hitchhiking, taxi or occasionally Uber. We wanted to minimize carried food weight in order to accommodate a bit more water weight, since we didn’t want the WTH to outright necessitate that the hiker cache water when hiked during the “wetter” winter season. And so the route was chosen to give reasonable access to towns and stores without compromising the integrity of the wild experience too much, we hope. What we aren’t expecting are very many good “trail towns” in this neck of the woods, but mostly the standard desert crossroads community, with maybe a restaurant or two, a Dollar General, budget motel, and perhaps a post office. (Resupply locations are shown on the WTH Google Map, for reference. Highlight these entries from within the legend bar to the left of the map.)
Water, or the absence thereof, is the number one impediment to this otherwise ideal winter hiking ground. It’s dry out there! The majority of this territory receives less than 7 inches of rain a year, and in some cases such as at Death Valley, as little as 2 or 3 inches. (For reference, Tucson sees about 12 inches of precipitation a year, and 9 inches at Phoenix.) The monsoon season in particular is less pronounced the farther west, which also just happens to coincide with a lower elevation, winter-friendly route. The upshot is fewer natural water sources, fewer reliable springs, but also less stock water since the range is poorer for cattle. One potential advantage: wildlife guzzlers are somewhat common, especially in California.
Pioneering this hike without first doing any real leg work in the field, we are taking things somewhat on faith by planning not to cache water to any great degree. But with the availability of today’s incredible online mapping tech and a fair few years of foraying along desert routes in the Southwest, hopefully I’ve backed that faith up with enough research – poring over maps and satellite imagery, deep-diving into what scant trip reports I could find online. It’s winter after all, so water would normally be at its most plentiful, given a typical pattern of occasional wetting rains and reduced evaporation in cooler weather. Nor would there be a need to consume nearly as much water as would be typical during the hotter months. Still, truth be told, I’ve only put in about two weeks of advance research on a 700 mile route across terrain I’ve never previously hiked. So perhaps we’ll die – who knows? This is a living experiment, after all!
In an average winter season, the WTH should ideally offer up in-situ water sources most days of the hike, typically every 10 to 15 miles, with occasional dry stretches of 20 to 25 miles. That said, the interval between likely water sources, save for the random water pocket, increases dramatically as the route continues into the driest zones around Death Valley, where the hiker may well need to cache water in advance, hitch into towns, or have support. But these long, dry sections should hopefully be brief in the grand scheme of the walk, and in any case are something we personally plan to contend with as the time gets closer.
Length of Hike / Direction of Travel
Even higher mileage hikers will find that a route of this nature, with lots of cross-country travel, a high focus on navigation, and deliberately moving from one water source to the next, reduces their familiar on-trail pace by a mile per hour or more per day. The 700 mile Desert WTH could easily keep one occupied for the duration of January and much of February.
We’ll hike the route starting in the south / east, as we expect the Sonoran Desert region will be warmer overall, especially in terms of the overnight temps in January. Arriving in the somewhat higher, colder Mojave Desert later in February will allow temps to moderate a bit, taking the edge off those chilly nights while they also get a bit shorter. That goes for Death Valley as well – the later the better to arrive there, we figure, at least within the span of a winter season. Start with the saguaros and javelinas. End with the joshua trees and wild burros – and just maybe the first buds of a desert spring bloom.