Reflections on the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET)
After 44 hiking days, we completed The Grand Enchantment Trail on May 22nd, 2018. Below are some afterthoughts on the hike. These are both reflections as well as ideas from the trail that we knew we would want to share on completion. This post captures thoughts outside the scope of our daily entries and we hope the following words are helpful to prospective GET hikers.
To view our daily journal from the hike, click here.
Tread type varies widely on the GET. The route of the GET is made up of cross country (meaning traveling without any trail), roads (gravel, dirt, blacktop), bush-wacking, old/non-maintained trail, old-style primitive trail construction, cow paths, game trails, maintained trail, and modern trail construction.
Generally, full walking pace that a hiker would have on one of the more trodden trails is limited to roads and the best of the trails. Before beginning, we had read the above sentiment and were surprised, but once headlong into the hike, we began to agree. Many of the actual trails don’t get a lot of maintenance, so blowdowns don’t get taken care of on a regular basis. Also, due to lack of hikers walking through, some trails are simply hard to actually discern, so it can take some time locating the route. One spot even had a bridge washed out and we scrambled up a 30 foot incline that was very steep. Other than that location, the trail only has a bit of scrambling here and there, which was generally pretty easy.
Sometimes, in the long distance hiking community, road walks are poo-poo-ed. There is a decent amount of road walking on the GET, but generally it is dirt road walking through high desert plains without vehicle traffic. Mostly, we didn’t mind the road walking on the GET – a few miles to connect to a canyon or trail up a sky island wasn’t a big deal.
The cross country walking on the GET is a mix of wash walking, crossing high desert plains, as well as ‘get up (or down) this mountain in the best way you can’. There isn’t a ton of non-wash XC, but enough to enjoy 🙂
Our feet took a beat-down on the GET. Beardoh has went the last 7000 thru hiking miles without getting a blister, until the GET. The mix of rocky conditions, sandy conditions, and heat is enough to make for some pain. For us, our feet got pretty beat up in the first 3 days in the rocks of the Superstition Mountains. The following several days were quite hot (95-100 degrees) while we walked from Picket Post (Superior resupply location) up to Aravapai Canyon (near Mammoth resupply) which didn’t help the blistering and hot spots which had started in the first couple days. Over time, the blisters and foot pain subsided for the most part as our feet got broke in a bit and got accustomed to the mixed terrain.
2018 was a record dry year for the Southwest. Both Arizona and New Mexico received very little snow over the 2017/2018 winter, and in some areas, the spring was hitting 100 year records for dryness. Thankfully, water sources and their availability/reliability was very much considered when creating the route. While we had no water carries that were over 30 miles, our longest planned carry was 28 miles – and on that stretch we had ‘bonus’ water (unexpected). Most stretches between towns had at least one carry of nearly 20 miles. Having experienced long water carries on both the AZT and the PCT, this wasn’t a big deal, though these longish carries were more frequent and regular.
In general, the quality of the water on the GET was far better than we had expected. Water sources tend to be cattle and wildlife troughs/ponds, springs, and small streams. Many of the cattle troughs have a pipe coming into the trough where water can be obtained. Many cattle troughs that we dipped into for water were very clear. While we had taken a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, we generally saved that for water that was murky or visually gross. Most of the time, we just used colloidal silver drops for treatment.
Rather than carry a lot of water in our packs for the long water carries, we brought along a gallon jug; the kind that ice tea (Arizona Ice Tea) is sold in at a grocery store. Since Beardoh just uses one hiking pole, he would carry the gallon jug with water when we needed more than the 2 liters that we each carry on our packs. A gallon of water weighs roughly 8lbs, but that amount was certainly tolerable, and we both appreciated keeping our packs at a light weight. On a couple occasions we did use our 2 liter Evernew water bladders in addition to the gallon jug and 2 one liter bottles that we each carry – this was adequate.
Certainly, it is always good to know where you are while hiking in the wilderness, but on the GET, it is imperative. As mentioned, there are few people in many of these wild areas. We consulted our maps, guide info and GPS more than on any other hike. The GET is not signed, and for a lot of the route, a hiker needs to stay very vigilant about his/her whereabouts or they will find themselves backtracking to get back to the trail or worse, they will find themselves lost.
Brett Tucker, the creator of the GET, offers a map set and a guidebook, as well as GPS tracks/waypoints to be used on the trail. All are excellent, and in our opinion, all should be included in your navigation arsenal. For most of the trail, we would use the maps/guidebook combo, and then confirm location with the GPS on Beardoh’s phone.
We used an iPhone 6 and started the trail using the OsmAnd free app. This app was OK, but would take a long time to refresh its location and had some other minor issues. After about 2 1/2 weeks, we got GAIA GPS and paid the yearly subscription – which allowed us to download the National Forest Service Map layer. GAIA was excellent, no complaints at all. We believe that it also saved battery life as the screen would be on for much less time than when we used the OsmAnd app. There are a lot of maps to load onto GAIA, but we were able to do it over the course of a couple hours on slow internet in a motel. (At this time, there is no app available from Guthook/Atlas Guides for the GET)
Surprisingly, we didn’t use compass orienteering skills too many times. There were a few cross country stretches where we took a bearing and followed it across a large parcel of land (1-2 miles). Beardoh enjoys that kind of navigation, so that was entertaining for him.
In 2017, Beardoh got a Casio Pathfinder watch, which has a digital compass built into it. We used this a lot. After getting our bearings quickly (basically finding which direction is north) with the watch, we could orient the map (or phone with GPS track) to help make decisions and understand the lay of the surroundings – very quick and helpful.
We used dead reckoning all the time…pretty constantly. Dead Reckoning is (from Wikipedia): “the process of calculating one’s current position by using a previously determined position, or fix, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time and course.”
Example: If we entered a sandy wash at 2pm and knew that we had 1 mile to walk in the wash before exiting the wash onto a 2 track, we could estimate that our arrival would be between 2:25 and 2:30pm (depending on obstacles en route) – knowing that in sandy washes, our pace would usually be around 2.5 mph.
Of the various navigation skills, dead reckoning is one of the easiest and most helpful to develop. There was rarely an hour that went by on the GET that we didn’t use this skill to help give us an idea of our location.
While we both love hammock camping on thru hikes, our expectation was that hammocking would be quite difficult on the GET so we each took a poncho-tarp and inflatable sleeping pad (short NeoAirs) instead. This worked fine. By-in-large, camp spots are not too difficult to find – often we camped in washes, between some juniper bushes on grazing land, and up on ridges in the sky islands. We experienced no overnight rain (except for 15 minutes of sprinkling, once) so sleeping under the stars was enjoyed most evening. Bugs are not pervasive on the GET and we didn’t have any real issues, with the exception of one evening as we were setting up camp where flies were very pesky. However, once darkness set in, they were gone.
Two challenges that are occasionally present on the GET are wind and rock/sandy earth. The wind can be really strong in the afternoons and sometimes high speed winds/gusts linger through the night. We would have appreciated a bivy sack for both keeping the dirt and dust off our gear and to have that small enclosed area to store things. The few times that we did set up our tarps (when skies were darkening in the evening), getting stakes to go into the ground was hard, and we ultimately just put pretty large stones over our lines to keep the tarps secured.
In general, we don’t give too much thought to the clothes that we plan to wear on a particular hike. SweetPea generally wears a skirt and a t-shirt or long sleeved pullover shirt. Beardoh has been wearing a buttoned-down long sleeved shirt and shorts. Neither of us has worn pants on our hikes for several years. The GET, however, has enough bushwacking to give serious consideration to pants.
Ultimately, we both chose to wear calf compression sleeves and our normal (shorts for Beardoh, skirt for SweetPea) leg wear and long sleeved shirts. The compression sleeves have become pretty standard for the both of us to stave off shin splints, as well as protect against sunburn. Granted, we both have some exposed skin on our legs, but only a few inches.
How did this work out? We both would do the same thing if we were to hike the GET again. Neither of us got so cut up that we wished we had worn pants, and we both appreciated the airflow that our shorts/skirt gave. The compression sleeves give a good deal of protection and don’t get ripped up too much by the thorns. Having long sleeved shirts was nice as we had significant sun exposure almost everyday of the hike, and often the thorns, cat claw and brush was quite high. SweetPea’s skirt did suffer some near mortal blows by thorns and it has several hole in it now. The other GET hiker that we walked with a short bit had several holes in his pants from thorns.
If you are a pants wearer, we’d recommend wearing pants. If you are a die hard shorts, skirt or kilt person, maybe consider compression sleeves for protection for your legs. Without either, your legs will get pretty beat up. Additionally, a light weight long leave shirt will serve you best on the GET.
The weather on the GET can hit some extremes…even within the same day. We could start out the day in a wash and be in 90-100 degree heat at 1pm, and then finish the day up at 9000 feet in a sky island with strong winds with temps in the high 30s. Our only real precipitation was on our penultimate day, and brought with it hail. Another GET hiker we talked with had snow flurries one afternoon.
Our start date of April 5th was on the late side for 2018 (drought year). We choose this start date quite a while in advance after reading journals of hikers hitting snow in the mountains in New Mexico. Not wanting to posthole, we choose a late start date when planning. We probably would have been well served to start mid March to avoid some of the heat that we experienced – particularly in the section coinciding with the AZT, south of Picket Post to Beehive Well.
Our expectations of seeing few hikers on the GET was met. In total, and outside of the AZT, we saw three other GET hikers. Two of them were only in town, and one we hiked with for a short bit in the last week. In most sections of the trail, we didn’t see any people at all. This trail truly has that solitude. We both enjoy the social aspects of a trail, and have made great life-long friends on previous hikes, but we really did enjoy the extreme quietness of this trail.
All but two of our resupplies were mail drops at motels or post office locations. We went stoveless on this hike, and were happy with that decision.
Here is a daily breakdown of our food that we shipped/dropped off at the mail drop locations:
1 Nature Valley Granola Bar, 3 Lara Bars, 3 oz of Assorted Nuts, 1 Large Dark Chocolate (Trader Joes) , 2 DIY Protein/Complete Nutrition Shakes -> about 3000 calories and 1lb, 6oz in weight.
1 Nature Valley Granola Bar, 3 Lara Bars, 4 oz of Assorted Nuts, 1 Large Dark Chocolate (Trader Joes) , 2 DIY Protein/Complete Nutrition Shakes, 3 oz DIY Beef Jerky -> about 3300 calories and 1lb, 10oz in weight.
The above may look a bit light on the calorie side, but since most of the calories are of decent quality, it worked well. After a few weeks into the hike, we did pack out a little more on the sugar side – like a candy bar or bag of skittles per day. There were a couple of bags of Cheetos that found their way to the trail as well.
Most of our thoughts on towns are in our resupply plan.
In a few locations, hitching into towns can be hit or miss – meaning that one could wait minutes or hours. Our luck was pretty good, and the longest we waited for a hitch was one hour and ten minutes, and it happened to be on one of the busier roads that we crossed. Ultimately, we only hitched in/out of Morenci, Winston, Mountainair and Doc Campbell’s. Without hitching, it would be hard to get in/out of Morenci, Winston and Mountainair…and with hitching, it could still be hard – so, we were more forward, and asked for rides from motel owners and others that we hoped could be helpful. One hiker that we knew waited 5 hours for a hitch into Winston, and another got a 9 mile ride out of Winston, and walked the remaining 9 miles back to the trail. So…the hitching experience can really vary.
Having hiked the AZT in 2015, we knew about food cache possibilities along that stretch of trail, and we cached food at the Florence-Kelvin Bridge Trailhead as well as the Freeman Road Trailhead (we drove out to Phoenix, so driving our car to those trail locations was not a problem). These caches worked well. We had also cached water for ourselves at those two locations as well as a spot along Klondike Road. If we were to hike the GET (or AZT) again, we would probably not cache water in the metal boxes at Freeman TH or Kearney TH (unless going to cache food) mostly because these water caches are well-stocked and maintained by Trail Angels. For the water cache that we left at Klondyke, we left it under a bush a short distance off the road.
Who is this hike for?
Not everyone willl enjoy the experience of the Grand Enchantment Trail. We enjoyed our hike on the GET a lot, but when considering whether or not this hike is for you, there are a few things that we’d recommend keeping in mind:
Since the GET is not a trail maintained by a trail organization, the trail is often quite challenging. In fact, sometimes there is no trail, and to get from point A to point B, one is crawling up a pile of rocks or pushing through thick shrubs for extended periods. If you are a hiker who is really set on doing a certain number of miles each day, the GET may get frustrating. If you can remain flexible with your mileage expectations/outcomes and be OK with going 1 mile/hour at times, this will serve you well. We promised each other (and ourselves) ahead of time that we would not blame/curse the trail for being what it is – rocky, steep, sandy, a road whatever. This pre-hike commitment actually worked in the course of the hike – we didn’t get down on the difficult sections, and just laughed off the 5 hours that it took to go 5 miles in the Santa Theresa Mtn Range one morning. It is what it is, no more, no less.
Hiking the GET with a good level of concentration dedicated to knowing where you are locationally (at all/most times) is very beneficial. If you like working with maps/guidebooks/GPS for navigation (beyond checking how far the next water/campsite is), you will enjoy the navigational challenge that is the GET. Time must be allowed for navigation, and this will slow down most hikers from their peak pace.
To say the least, the GET would be a very ballsy first or second thru hike, unless you have other significant experience in the wilderness. Forget that it is only 1/3 the length of the Appalachian Trail or that it’s highest point is thousands of feet shorter than Forester Pass on the PCT – the GET is a place where a hiker can get lost pretty easy if their navigation isn’t good (or the cell phone battery running their GPS dies) and one could potentially sit still on the trail for a week or a month, and not have another hiker walk by. Being comfortable in the wilderness, while being alone, is quite valuable on this hike.
More directly to point, to enjoy the Grand Enchantment Trail: you should have your gear dialed in, have decent navigation skills, understand your pacing in different environments, know what food/calories are right for you, be OK with long water carries, and be content with the lack of socializing on a hike without other hikers.