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Begins: Apr 3, 2019
Date: Sun, Feb 17th, 2019
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The Desert Trail: XC and Water
This trail is going to be hard. Well, actually this "route" is going to be hard since there really isn’t much trail. I shall hypothesize how this came to be. As far as I can tell, Steve Tabor created the majority of the route through California (minus Death Valley which was routed by George Huxtable) and Nevada. Steve seems like an old time badass hiker. I read in an article that twice he left the Pacific ocean and just walked east until he hit the Continental Divide. That seems badass to me in a day and age when that word in the hiking community gets thrown around pretty lightly and underserved.
So when Steve was choosing a route it seems like he went for the most scenic, the most remote and the most wilderness….pretty much regardless of the terrain. The trail while created as a continuous 2,000 mile route (well Steve routed/connected the first 1,500 miles which are the true “desert” miles) was planned out to be more of a section hiking route. The first 1,500 miles were broken out into some 50+ sections/stages and each section started and ended at a road. Some of these rugged, sandy roads are quite challenging to get to, but nonetheless a road to drive to. Because of that setup it was expected you would pretty much cache water at each section end or you would just go home cause you were just hiking a few sections at a time. 2 issues for a thru-hiker. First, caching water in most sections is pretty difficult unless you have a real truck and want to put in the effort and second, routing a trail through some really gnarly terrain works fine for a few sections over the weekend but can really take its toll over the course of a thru-hike. Some of the wilderness areas the trail is routed through or some of the sky islands the trail is routed over look pretty damn rugged.
But probably the hardest thing that stands out to me is the amount of cross country (XC). 55% in my calculation. That’s really a staggering number over the first 1,500 miles. I’ve yet to see a trail of this length with that much XC. Think about it. The AT has 0% XC. The PCT has 0% XC. The CDT has like maybe 1%? People talk about XC on the CDT but it’s not really there. Even the XC in the first section in New Mexico is basically a trail now following from 5’ tall signpost to 5’ tall signpost. I guess the Hayduke or the Oregon Desert Trail has a lot of XC but still nothing approaching the Desert Trail and those trails are half the distance of the DT’s desert 1,500 miles. The Desert Trail is 55% XC and unmarked and un-GPS’d unlike both the Hayduke and Oregon Desert Trail which have gound-truthed GPS tracks. XC is slow and XC is hard. I’d say about half the XC is fairly straightforward walking across big valleys, playas or wash walking. It will still slow you down a bit but not too bad. The other half of the XC sounds pretty gnarly. Canyons, ridges, hills, passes. Things that are rugged and slow. Especially while carrying a shit-ton of water. Speaking of water…..
The other really tough thing about the Desert Trail is the lack of water which I guess is pretty obvious. California in particular is really dry. I crossed Nevada on the Hot Springs Trail, walked the PCT through Southern California, the CDT through New Mexico, the Hayduke through Utah, the Negev through Israel and so on. Nothing remotely compares to the lack of water on the DT. I’ll go into water/caching in more detail later on but for now I’ll just mention that I plan to place about 12 caches for the first 700 miles. By doing so I still end up with some pretty solid water carries. Here is a summary of the miles per reliable source (including caches) for the first 700 miles:
0-10 miles: 3 carries
11-20 miles: 8 carries
21-30 miles: 12 carries
31-40 miles: 4 carries
61 miles: 1 carry!
So out of 28 reliable water sources, 12 of these are caches, 11 of these are towns or campgrounds and only 5 are natural sources. That’s right, 5 natural water sources that are reliable (hopefully) in the first 700 miles! Hence the caching or trail routings through campgrounds or towns occasionally.
Looking at the distribution it does seem manageable to me but I have to take into account the pretty hostile terrain, potentially hot weather / unrelenting sun and heavy backpack with food/water. That will make even a common 25-30 mile carry pretty hard potentially. Fortunately, the water through Nevada seems a bit better and then even better into Oregon and then not really an issue from mid-Oregon to Canada.
Ok, that was my…fuck the DT looks hard speech. On the flip side, man the DT looks amazing. Beyond amazing. California looks especially amazing to me. It looks like Steve was just like, here are the amazing protected desert areas and I’m going to connect them no matter the terrain. The route starts at the Mexican border in Jacumba and goes through Anza Borrego State Park (largest state park in the country), Joshua Tree National Park, Sheephole Valley Wilderness, Mojave Preserve and then the entire length of Death Valley National Park to the Nevada border. It looks really cool laid out on Google Maps as the trail just connects these big green patches of protected public land.
I’m less familiar with the rest of the trail. I crossed Nevada on the Hot Springs Trail but went diagonally across whereas the DT goes south to north up the western side so completely different although I expect to see somewhat similar terrain. Then a good chuck of southern Oregon uses the Oregon Desert Trail which I haven’t hiked but there is a lot of trail information on so I know a bit more about that section. And then from mid-Oregon (Hwy 78) to Canada is actually Colter’s route where you mostly leave the desert and Colter connected trails, dirt roads, rail trails and some pavement to get a hiker to Canada.
Overall, as I mentioned the first 1,500 miles to mid-Oregon is about 55% XC. Then about 10% trail, 23% jeep road, 9% dirt road and 3% pavement. A pretty interesting distribution overall, especially the only 10% trail.
As for mileage the trail covers about 650 miles in California. Then another 550 miles through Nevada, 500 miles through Oregon and finally 350 miles through Washington for a total of a little over 2,000 miles. Although these mileages are probably understated by about 5% or so due to the little twists and turns you lose to mapping on Caltopo. It’s interesting that the trail essentially parallels the PCT from Mexico to Canada yet ends up 600 miles shorter than the PCT. That’s mostly due to the DT’s more direct XC as well as just the much more open nature of the desert allowing for more straight-line travel.
If you take a look at the 2 pictures I’ve added to this post it’s interesting to see the original concept of the Desert Trail. Picture #1 is from the early 1970’s and is the only caricature map I could find that shows the entire proposed route to Canada. Picture #2 was created by me so I’d have a little hip-belt pocket sized map to show people when they ask what I’m doing out in the middle of nowhere. You can see the difference as the initial concept started much further to the east in California, walked a bit further east in Nevada, was about the same for the first half of Oregon and then the original concept turned east into Idaho and walked Idaho north to the Canadian border as Colter’s route continues through Oregon and Washington. Personally, for me I like Colter’s route better as I’ve already walked the length of Idaho on the Hot Springs Trail.
There’s nothing quite like hiking in the huge open expanses of the desert. I loved Nevada on the Hot Springs Trail more than anything and really can’t wait for the Desert Trail. It’s going to be a challenge but one that I think will be worth the effort.
The Desert Trail
The Desert Trail is a 2,000+ mile route from Mexico to Canada through the deserts of eastern California, western Nevada and eastern Oregon and Washington. Originally conceptualized in the 1960s this rugged, beautiful and almost forgotten route visits Americas greatest desert landscapes and wilderness areas.
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