Finding Your Way in Canyon Country

One Woman's Solo Hike on the Hayduke

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” -Edward Abbey

Danielle Alling served with SCA as a Crew Leader in Yellowstone National Park in 2017. She knows the importance of our public lands and how they enrich everyone’s lives. Danielle recently spent 33 days out on the Hayduke and wanted to share her experience to inspire fellow hikers and outdoor enthusiasts! 

The Hayduke is over 800 miles of backcountry trail, stretching across six iconic national parks, in both Utah and Arizona. The highest point is on Mount Ellen in the Henry Mountains, 11,419 feet above sea level. The lowest point is in the Grand Canyon, 2,000 feet above sea level. The Hayduke is some of Utah’s most gorgeous wilderness, and definitely not your typical idyllic walk in the woods. 

What inspired you to hike this trail?

Each year I get an itch to disconnect from everyday life and reconnect with myself. Some years I can only take a week, and other years I’m in a position to give myself several weeks to disconnect. I have found that when I remove all the distractions of daily life - cell phones, social media, rush hour traffic - the things that really matter reveal themselves. Time off is important to me. 

I’m lucky to live just a few hours from the Hayduke, so it seemed like a good opportunity for me to hike as much of it as I could. It’s an off the beaten path route, with few water sources and no formal trail to follow. I was looking for and ready for the challenge that awaited. 

Wash along Hayduke Trail in Utah

What surprised you most during your trip? 

One night I camped just above a wash that had barely more than a trickle of water running through it. I almost couldn’t collect enough water for dinner. That same night it rained straight through until morning, and when I woke up the entire wash had become a raging river of mud. I knew these sorts of things happened in the canyons, but to see a flash flood for myself was quite an experience. These canyons have been shaped by the immense power of water, and to see a landscape change overnight was truly breathtaking.

There is so much majesty in the public lands we have access to, but most folks still flock to the busiest, most Instagram-worthy spots.  I have found that the extra work to find those lesser-known trails is always worth the effort.

What is your advice to someone looking to take a long solo trip like the Hayduke? 

Don’t let fear stop you from doing anything. The Hayduke is really hard and it is not for the faint of heart.*** That has been the biggest lesson - the only way past the fear is to step into it and move through it. The fear will never go away, but it is how you respond to it that shapes your courage. 

There are more practical measures to keep yourself safe, too. I carried a SPOT GPS tracking device and checked in with my loved ones nightly. Being in a remote location with unpredictable conditions in the canyons, this was absolutely essential to my safety. Luckily, I never had to use the SOS button, but I recommend carrying a SPOT device for any extended, backcountry hike. 

Off-trail travel in canyon country is extremely different than hiking a well-maintained tread in the mountains. It was essential for me to be familiar with the terrain and its dangers. I had to be aware of everything from flash floods and mountain lions to potholes and cryptobiotic soil. It is imperative to know not only the dangers you may encounter, but also how to follow Leave No Trace principles that are specific to the land you’re on. As a solo traveler, I had no one to remind me of these things, so I took extra care in my understanding of these principles and planning how I would adhere to them. 

What skills from your time with SCA proved useful during your Hayduke trip? 

My SCA crew experience was very eye opening and shined a light on how I deal with challenges. I had to carefully assess the risks and determine whether the consequences were acceptable, just as I did when I was leading my crew in Yellowstone. My time with SCA gave me perspective for what to do when the going gets tough, which happened several times during my recent hike. I learned to take better care of myself - take more breaks, write in my journal, and eat more snacks! 

What do you wish you had known before taking on this trip? 

That it’s never about getting to the finish line. When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail I was 100% committed to finishing, and I didn’t give myself much time to soak it all in. As a result, there are sections I sped through and don’t actually remember too much about. I don’t regret that at all, but it has given me some perspective. I was also committed to finishing the Hayduke…until I wasn’t. I only had so much time off work to hike, and after struggling to make a certain number of miles every day, I was getting really worn out. So I made the choice to take it easier on myself, hike slower, and take time off in town. I only hiked about two-thirds of the trail, from Arches National Park to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but it was worth every slow and steady mile.

What do you do to pass the time during long hikes? 

Lots of staring off into space! I’m not big into listening to music and podcasts on the trail, though I do some of that when I need a morale boost or am in a really boring stretch.

But on the Hayduke, you need to be alert. If you let your mind stray for too long, you might miss the side canyon that will take you back up to the rim, and you could get really lost. Or you might miss your only water source for 30 miles in any direction, and you definitely don’t want to do that! So I had paper maps handy and would check them every 10 or 20 minutes to ensure I stayed on course. That, plus learning to read the landscape to anticipate my route, kept me pretty busy.


What an incredible adventure! Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Danielle! If you are an SCA alum and want to share your own experience contact us here - [email protected]. Looking for more hiking inspiration? Check out Tyler Lau’s story of hiking a Calendar-Year Triple Crown last year >>

 

*** The Hayduke is some of Utah’s most stunning land boasting the most breathtaking views. We at SCA know the value of preserving and protecting public land, so please help us keep the Hayduke healthy and happy. Need a refresher on Leave No Trace principles? No problem, we’ve got you covered. The Hayduke is also not a casual afternoon hike. It takes a lot of skill, preparation, and the right gear. Get to know the land and plan your trip carefully!