Southwestern Horseshoe | USA, 2012

The Southwestern Horseshoe (SWH) is an approximately 1800 mile (2896 km) backcountry route from Arches National Park to Albuquerque.

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SWH Overview map & stats from my hike.

It passes through three states, five national parks and combines lengthy segments of the Hayduke, Arizona and Grand Enchantment Trails.

I pieced together this route as part of the 12 Long Walks journey of 2011/12. It was the ninth hike in the series, and immediately proceeded the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian Trails.

On a personal note, of all the thru-hikes I have done in the US, the Southwestern Horseshoe (SWH) was perhaps the one I was looking forward to the most. The Colorado Plateau in particular, with its hoodoos, rock monoliths, natural bridges and slot canyons, had long been on my backcountry radar, ever since reading the works of Colin Fletcher and Edward Abbey as a young man growing up in Australia. 

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Tower Arch | Arches NP, Utah | Starting point of the Hayduke Trail and Southwestern Horseshoe.

SWH Information

Distance:  1782 miles (2867 km) approx.

Start :  Tower Arch | Arches National Park, Utah

Finish :  Sandia Crest | Albuquerque, New Mexico

Route / Distance Breakdown :

  • As mentioned above, the Southwestern Horseshoe links together large sections of the Hayduke (HDT), Arizona (AZT) and Grand Enchantment Trails (GET), in one continuous horseshoe-shaped route through America’s southwest.
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Hayduke Trail Overview Map (hayduketrail.org)

  • The HDT and GET sections of the SWH are more “routes” than trails. Consisting of extended sections of cross country travel, interspersed with stretches along existing footpaths and little used 4WD tracks. The AZT is an established, more well defined pathway.
  • The approximate distances for each of the three segments are as follows:

693 miles (1115 km) – HDT 

476 miles (766 km) – AZT

683 miles (1099 km) – GET 

  • SWH JournalClick here for journal entries (eleven in total) from my Southwestern Horseshoe thru-hike of 2012 (February 24 to April 29).

SWH Junctions

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AZT Overview Map

Listed below are the three main intersection points of the SWH.

Note that the initial Hayduke Trail mileage (i.e. 693 miles) from Arches NP to South Rim, may vary according to the number and length of alternates taken during that section:

A.  After some 693 miles, the Hayduke Trail connects with the Arizona Trail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

B.  The SWH then stays on the AZT for the next 406 miles (653 km), until it reaches Rogers Trough Trailhead (Superstition Mountains), where it overlaps with the GET.

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GET Overview Map (simblissity.net)

C.  From Rogers Trough to Beehive Well, the AZT & GET are one in the same pathway for 70 miles (113 km). At this point the GET heads east in Putnam Wash, while the AZT continues south. SWH hikers continue on the GET all the way to the finish in Albuquerque.

Below is a brief summary of beta options (as of November, 2015) for the three individual segments of the Southwestern Horseshoe:

Hayduke Trail (HDT) – Maps & Info

The HDT is an approximately 800 mile (1287 km) backcountry route, that traverses the spectacular Colorado Plateau of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

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Mike “The Gambler” Towne at the confluence of the Green & Colorado Rivers | Utah | HDT

  • Li Brannfors Hayduke Trail mapset: I haven’t personally seen this mapset, but from the reports I’ve heard it’s of the same high quality as Li’s other mapping efforts for the Pacific Northwest & Arizona Trails. (Note: As of November, 2015, this option may no longer be available. See Walking with Wired Hayduke Planning Page for details).
  • Andy Skurka, Hayduke Resources Bundle (includes mapset, databook and water information – $35). Lots of good beta, but at the time of writing (November, 2015), it hadn’t been updated for about 5 years. Hold the presses! In mid-December, 2015, Andy posted some interim updates for his Resources Bundle, based on information he’s received from recent HDT hikers.
Rock Surfing, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah, USA, 2012

Rock Surfing, Bryce Canyon NP | Utah | HDT

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The Gambler at “The Wave” | Coyote Buttes | AZ | HDT

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Little Colorado River | Grand Canyon | Arizona | HDT

Arizona Trail (AZT) – Maps & Info

A designated National Scenic Trail, the AZT is an 817 mile (1315 km) pathway which runs north to south through the entire length of the Grand Canyon State.

  • Click here to see an informative, well made video about the people, trail maintainers and gateway communities that help to make the Arizona Trail tick.
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Grand Canyon view from the South Rim – Where the SWH switches from the Hayduke to the Arizona Trail.

Sunset on the Arizona Trail | 2012

Sunset on the Arizona Trail

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Saguaro Cactus | Arizona Trail

Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) – Maps & Info

The brainchild of Brett Tucker (aka. The Water Whisperer), the Grand Enchantment Trail is an approximately 770 mile backcountry route between Phoenix and Albuquerque.

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Aravaipa Canyon | AZ | Grand Enchantment Trail.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings | NM | GET

Southwestern Horseshoe Q & A

On the off chance that anyone else is interested in doing this route, I thought I’d put together some imaginary questions and answers that may be of help.

How long will it take?

In all likelihood, the majority of folks attempting this hike will have previously completed either the Pacific Crest or Continental Divide Trails.

Assuming that the SWH aspirant has a fairly solid backcountry skill set, here are some estimates as to what you might expect mileage-wise in comparison to the aforementioned trails. Note that the figures below factor in rest or zero days, which naturally will drop a hiker’s overall daily average:

  • PCT  –  22-23 miles per day
  • CDT  –  18-19 miles  ”      “
  • SWH  – 14-16 miles ”      “

I estimate that the average SWH hiker will finish the route in approximately 110 to 120 days.

Due to the weather windows (see below) being potentially smaller than on the PCT and CDT, my advice would be to get your backcountry skates on and not take too much (if any) longer than these estimated totals.

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Cross country desert section near Magdalena, New Mexico | GET | Only a few days from the finish of the SWH.

How difficult is the SWH? 

How hard you find the SWH, depends on a number of factors including off-trail hiking experience, pack weight, navigation/route-finding and seasonal conditions.

It’s definitely a step-up in difficulty over a regular season Triple Crown trail. However, if you are looking for a challenging multi-month hike through some of the most spectacular natural scenery in North America, then the Southwestern Horseshoe is a great option.

Do I need GPS for navigation?

If you have a good level of proficiency with map & compass and are accustomed to off-trail hiking, then a GPS is not necessary for the SWH.

That being said, this is 2015 and the reality is that most (more than 95%) hikers will either have a GPS app on their phone or carry a dedicated unit.

If you choose the GPS option as your principal source of navigation, my only advice is to bring along a compass as well (and, of course, know how to use it).

Batteries can die, electronics can fail, coordinates may be off, signals don’t always come through. GPS have their limitations and if you have little to nothing in the way of navigation skills to call on as a backup, then you may well find yourself up poo creek, without a technological paddle.

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Swami & The Gambler | Chinese Trail across the Red Benches | Hayduke section of the SWH.

How’s the water situation?

In a word………dryish.

That being said, H2O options on the AZT and GET are generally more frequent and of higher quality than on the Hayduke Trail segment.

Indeed, in regards to the latter section, the ubiquitous cow patties around almost each and every water source, led me to conclude that Utah is a legitimate contender for “cow poo capital of the US.” Better start looking over your shoulder, Texas.  😉

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Almost forgot………some of the “water sources” on the Hayduke are alkaline………….it’s actually quite a good litmus test to find out exactly how thirsty you really are.

Resupply

Once again, the Hayduke is the most challenging of the three sections. Expect at least two or three 7 day plus carries.

  • For an overview of Hayduke resupply options, see Wired’s Hayduke Planning Page. When it comes to trail beta, this woman is Queen. By her own admission, she’s not too great in the navigation department, but what she lacks in map & compass skills, she makes up for in pre-hike research and perseverance.
  • Click here for a list of potential resupply points for the Arizona Trail.
  • As for the GET, check out the Simblissity.net’s Town Guide for an overview of resupply options.
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Joe’s Burger Shack | Tropic, UT | Culinary highlight of the SWH and possibly the meridian of my eating efforts during the 12 Long Walks | In one and a half hours, I consumed two double burgers with the lot, both of which sported two half-pound patties (i.e. two lbs of beef total); immediately followed by two pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

How I resupplied during my SWH hike

Below is a list of my resupply points for the Southwestern Horseshoe. The numbers in brackets represent the mileage and amount of days food I sent via maildrop to each point (i.e. to get me from there to the following resupply). The places in which I purchased locally are noted in blue font:

  • Moab – HDT (198 miles / 7 days)
  • Hite Marina – HDT (188 miles / 7 days)* – According to Wired, as of 2015, Hite Marina is no longer a resupply possibility. See her page for alternative options.
  • Escalante – HDT (98 miles / 4 days)
  • Tropic – HDT (107 miles / 4 days)
  • Jacob’s Lake – HDT (102 miles / 4 days)
  • South Rim – AZT (bought at the store)
  • Mormon Lake – AZT (bought at the store)
  • Flagstaff – AZT (bought at the supermarket)
  • Pine – AZT (165 miles / 6 days)
  • Superior – AZT/GET (161 miles / 6 days)
  • Safford – GET (167 miles / 6 days)
  • Gila/Doc Campbells – GET (180 miles / 6 days)
  • Magdalena – GET (158 miles / 5 days)

What’s the best season for the SWH?

This is definitely a spring or fall trip, with a slight overlap into the beginning or end of summer.

Given average conditions and an itinerary of between 110 and 120 days, I would suggest an early March start date from Arches NP. Prepare for a chilly first couple of weeks.

If you would prefer going in the other direction, a mid-August beginning from Albuquerque could also work, as long as winter doesn’t come too early and you don’t mind a bit of late summer heat in New Mexico. Aim at getting to Arches no later than the end of November.

 

Conclusion

Putting together the 1782 mile (2867 km) Southwestern Horseshoe wasn’t exactly rocket science.

It’s basically just large chunks of three already established routes/trails joined as one. All of the cartographic heavy lifting had already been done by the founders of the HDT, AZT and GET (see above) respectively.

That being said, I think the distance and timeframe required to complete the SWH, hits that multi-month thru hiking “sweet spot” that many long distance hikers search for. Something that an 800 to 900 mile (1287 – 1448 km) trip doesn’t always accomplish.

When coupled with the fact that it passes through such a wide expanse of one of the world’s most incredible natural regions, for my money the SWH represents a great option for experienced thru-hikers that are looking for their next long distance challenge.

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Comments

Southwestern Horseshoe | USA, 2012 — 5 Comments

  1. Hi Cam,
    Wow, what a thorough resource you’ve made available here! I’m very intrigued about this trail, as, like many, have been drawn to SW Utah, parts of AZ & NM for a long time.
    I’ve lived in Phx & Santa Fe, but never explored a lot.
    Thanks for the post,

    Scott 2

  2. Hi Cam,

    Great Info, Thank. What would be the optimal time to start southbound from Moab? September?

    Also, Have you looked into the idaho centennial trail?

    Zach

    • Hey Zach,

      The only caveat with a September start in Arches, is that in an average snow year, it might mean a slightly smaller weather window than the other options I mentioned.

      The final half of the GET goes over some high areas that are prone to storms from late October onwards. Check out this link from Brett Tucker’s Simblissity.net in regards to hiking seasons for the GET: http://www.simblissity.net/get_faq.shtml#10

      In regards to the Centennial trail, I’ve heard of it, but haven’t really looked into it too much. Perhaps sometime in the near future!

      Cheers,

      Cam

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