14 million steps in nine months, 7,000 miles on foot, 12 National Parks and 75 Wilderness areas — the Great Western Loop (GWL) is the longest conceivable continual thru-hike. The physical challenges are obvious and they are exacerbated by the environmental challenges of racing winter to complete a full circle through the best the western United States has to offer.
The brainchild of Backpacking Light founder Ryan Jordan and renowned adventurer Andrew Skurka, the route was first completed in 2007 by Andrew Skurka. For the feat, he won National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
The draw of such a momentous endeavor is the variability and the slim margin for error involved in timing the crossing of each section. Desert, mountains, plains, bushwhacking, and trailless routes all combine to create an adventure that weaves together five long-distance hiking trails with a cross-country connector section.
What drew me to the route is the continuous nature of the hike and the same weekend warrior draw of a loop trail. The route as I followed it, began at the Arizona-California border and involved a cross-country traverse of the Sonoran Desert to Joshua Tree National Park.
After a 60-mile water carry across one of the dryer areas of the country, I climbed up to join the Pacific Crest Trail. Hiking north, the trail was my path for 2,400 miles, to within 4 miles of the Canadian Border.
At the intersection of the PCT and the Pacific Northwest Trail, I turned east, following the PNT for 700 miles. Upon entering Glacier National Park, my route abruptly made another right turn to head south on the Continental Divide Trail. 2,700 miles later—near the Gila River of New Mexico—the route turned west onto the rugged Grand Enchantment Trail.
Maps became paramount on this demanding section of the GWL. After following the Grand Enchantment Trail across New Mexico and into Arizona, the route joins the Arizona Trail and follows it to the iconic Grand Canyon.
From the Grand Canyon back to the Pacific Crest Trail, the last leg of the loop is a self-created route relying on cow ponds, abandoned dirt roads and cross-country travel. No travel other than the occasional hitch to town and back was necessary to circle the West on foot.
After Andrew Skurka completed the GWL in 2007, the route sat dormant with few meager attempts until I did it in 2018. The most challenging aspect of the endeavour was its heavy reliance on map and compass navigation — particularly the Grand Enchantment Trail and a 600-mile, cross-country section connecting the Arizona Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail. It offered a great sense of adventure and unease as to whether my route would be feasible.
In 2020, Jon Schwarze was attempting an expanded version of the Great Western Loop that he began calling the “Greater Western Loop.” Starting on January 1st, the man with the trail name Airborne was hoping to complete each individual trail comprising the loop. With the thought, “Since the original loop never fully completes a single trail before turning off on the next one, why not add each one to my resume.”
The plan was off to a solid start, and despite some major snowstorms north of the Grand Canyon, Jon said he was on schedule through March. Then Covid-19 hit and he was soon off trail waiting for clarity to the situation.
Despite making it through the winter and nearly making it across the rugged Sonoran Desert crossing, Jon left his dream hike behind as each trail organization recommended avoiding thru-hikes.
The challenging weather, length of the route, nor injuries didn’t stop him, but something inconceivably out of his control did. Jon hopes to attempt the Greater Western Loop again next year.
The Great Western Loop is a unique trail in the variety offered, flexibility required, and the independence of hikers attempting it. For me, this was my favorite part. But it is a reason that few attempt such a long human-powered hike.
With the small weather windows encompassing both the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, it is right on the verge of feasible. It is an adventure that requires 33 miles per day and the acceptance of discomfort.
By the time I finally finished my loop, I was overcome with an unknown about the future. The daily habits of continually walking a route had washed out my memories of the traditional world.
The Triple Crown trails have changed and developed over the last decade, but the Great Western Loop still remains one of the most diverse, rugged, long, and incredible thru-hiking routes in the American west.
Despite its draw, only two people (myself and Andrew Skurka) have completed the adventure, even with more than ten people (including Jon Schwarze) attempting it in 2020. I think of the GWL as an adventure that sits right on the edge of possible. Who wouldn't want to circle some of the best public lands our country has to offer?