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Comparing the 3 Big Desert Thru-Hikes (AZT, GET, HDT)

Comparing the 3 Big Desert Thru-Hikes (AZT, GET, HDT)

Hiking through the American Southwest on an 800-mile desert thru-hike – does that fit into your schedule?  You’ve come to the right place to learn all about the 3 big desert thru-hikes in the American Southwest!

The Arizona Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and Hayduke Trail are all totally awesome trails that fit perfectly into a 6-8 week time commitment.  Each trail presents its own challenges.  This post is to help you figure out which one is best for you

I’ve hiked all 3 (AZT ’19, GET ’23, & HDT ’17) and this is all the information I wish I had before I hiked any of them.  Let’s get started and help you figure out your pros and cons to each desert thru-hike!

Arizona Trail VS Grand Enchantment Trail VS Hayduke Trail

Venn Diagram comparing all the similarities and differences between 3 desert thru-hikes: the Arizona Trail (AZT), Grand Enchantment Trail (GET), and the Hayduke Trail (HDT).
Desert Thru-Hikes Comparison

In a nutshell, you have 3 big desert thru-hikes that you can hike in the spring and/or fall in the American Southwest:

While all are roughly 800 miles, hike-able in the spring or fall, and are awesome, they vary significantly in difficulty, resupply options, and navigation.

Above is a visual graphic I created to help assist this post. 

There are other desert thru-hikes…however, these are the 3 ones that I get the most questions. Since, I’ve hiked all three of them, I can provide personal knowledge.

Desert Thru-Hikes Map

First, this map shows you the overall paths of the Arizona Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and the Hayduke Trail.  As you can see, they’re all solidly in the southwest.

Second, this map shows where the trails overlap.  This is common for routes to use a pre-established trail to move the route from one area to another.  But, more on routes later.

Difficulty Level of Desert Thru-Hikes

Let’s be real – any time you walk 800 miles with a backpack is going to be hard.  The exact level of difficulty will vary based on your personal level of backpacking and thru-hiking experience. 

That’s why I’ll never give any thru-hike an “easy” rating. 

Instead, I’m going to give them a rating like that at a ski resort or mountain biking. 

🟢 = easy

🟦 = moderate

♦ = difficult

♦♦ = very difficult

While there’s nothing saying a new skier can’t attempt a double black diamond, it’s not recommended until they gain the skills. These trails are similar. However, there is an exception to every rule…

🟦 : Arizona Trail

The Arizona Trail is a moderately difficult trail, in my opinion. 

What makes it EASIER than the other desert thru-hikes like the Grand Enchantment Trail or the Hayduke Trail?

  1. It’s a regularly maintained trail with a funded trail organization.
  2. Far Out has the GPS track with a crowd sourced water report integrated together.
  3. Your Arizona Trail resupply options are easier to go to with more options.

♦ Grand Enchantment Trail

The Grand Enchantment Trail is a difficult trail, in my opinion.

What makes the Grand Enchantment Trail HARDER than the Arizona Trail?

  1. It features roughly 60% trail and a large portion of that has burned or otherwise not had maintenance in 10, 20, or even 30 years.
  2. You need to have more than basic navigation skills to do cross-country travel. No Far Out here…you’ll need Gaia GPS.
  3. Your Grand Enchantment Trail resupply has more remote towns with less services.
  4. The water report may or may not be updated – you may have to rely on your knowledge of finding water.

♦♦ Hayduke Trail

The Hayduke Trail is a very difficult trail, in my opinion.

What makes the Hayduke Trail HARDER than both the Grand Enchantment Trail and the Arizona Trail?

  1. The Hayduke Trail can hardly be called a “trail” at all – it is a route.
  2. You MUST have your navigation skills on and ready.  A small navigation error can literally hurt. Gaia GPS is a HUGE help.
  3. Your Hayduke Resupply options are questionable and often have long hitches on dirt roads.
  4. Water on the Hayduke is next level – Not only is it far apart, but water can also be alkaline.  You cannot drink the alkaline water on the Hayduke.
  5. You MUST be good at and enjoy scrambling off trail.

Locations & Mileage

All 3 of these desert thru-hikes are in the Southwest of the United States.

The Arizona Trail is…you guessed it…in Arizona!  It runs a relatively central north/south line from the Mexican border to the Utah border.  It is just shy of 800 miles according to Far Out.

The Grand Enchantment Trail travels between Arizona and New Mexico.  It winds its way between the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix and the Scandia Mountains in New Mexico.  It is about 770 miles on average.  We added a few miles to make our route a little over 800.

The Hayduke “Trail” connects National Parks through Utah and Arizona, then back into Utah.  It finds a path between Arches National Park and Zion National Park.  It has at least a dozen alternate options and is usually about 800 miles.

Desert Thru-Hike Seasons 🌸 🍂

One of the only things all 3 desert thru-hikes have in common are the best times to hike.

You’ll want to thru-hike the AZT, GET, or the HDT in either the spring or the fall. 

In the spring, your hiking season is roughly March-May.  Depending on the snow during the winter prior, it might be an earlier or later start date.

In the fall, your hiking season is roughly September – November.  You’ll want to watch the summer monsoon season ahead of your hike to anticipate water.

Trail VS Route: What’s the Difference?

The major difference between a trail vs a route is regular maintenance and consistency in tread.

A long-distance trail is a regularly maintained foot path from point A to point B.  It has trail markers to help you navigate and often has at least semi-established campsites.

A long-distance route often uses trails, but also uses dirt roads, two-tracks, 4WD roads, and traverses the landscape cross-country.

In terms of our 3 big desert thru-hikes:

The Arizona Trail is an actual trail.

On the other hand, the Grand Enchantment “Trail” and the Hayduke “Trail” are routes.

Both the GET and the HDT use existing trails, but they are not trails in and of themselves.

What Makes Each Desert Thru-Hike Awesome

Each desert thru-hike has its own set of challenges and difficulties, however, they’re all awesome in their own way.

The Arizona Trail winds through a valley of prickly pear cacti toward a snow covered mountain.
Arizona Trail

Arizona Trail – The AZT packs a big punch for 800 miles.  It not only has classic desert views, but high mountain vistas as well.  The trail has clear, often beautiful metal markers at every junction and sees regular maintenance.  Having a water report embedded in your navigation app (Far Out) is a luxury.  And let’s not forget about Grand Canyon National Park!

A tent pitched on a ridge overlooking Albuquerque, New Mexico
Grand Enchantment Trail

Grand Enchantment Trail – The GET has stunning canyons and whole mountain ridges that see very little foot traffic.  It’s a great route to test your navigation skills on!  The GET has a significant amount of cross-country travel, but usually it has it in small bursts giving you reprieves.  As it grows in popularity, you’ll get a better google sheets water report.

A woman backpacker scrambles in the Grand Canyon on a route
Hayduke “Trail”

Hayduke Trail – The HDT is next level beautiful, and it will probably make you cry.  Either from the blood you leave behind or the sheer stress in hiking it.  Hiking over 100 miles in the Grand Canyon with sheer drops the AZT couldn’t even dream of and it shows a different side of the iconic canyon.  While awesome, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Which Desert Thru-Hike is for You?

While I could go on and on about the Arizona Trail vs the Grand Enchantment Trail vs the Hayduke trail…each presents an amazing opportunity.  Desert thru-hikes will grow on you.

The Arizona Trail is perfect for you if:

  1. You have never thru-hiked or hiked in the desert.
  2. You’ve only gone on a few overnight backpacking trips, and you want to try a thru-hike.
  3. Maybe your navigation skills still need work and you’re not comfortable off-trail navigating.

The Grand Enchantment Trail is perfect for you if:

  1. You have hiked in the desert before and have a decent understanding of it.
  2. You’ve had a few thru-hikes under your belt and you’re looking for a challenge.
  3. You’re up for off-trail navigation and ready to get better at it.

The Hayduke Trail is perfect for you if:

  1. You have definitely spent time in the desert understand how to travel through it leaving no trace.
  2. You’ve tested your off-trail navigation skills and feel confident identifying where to drop into and climb out of canyons.
  3. You know how to look for water that’s not marked, identify alkaline water, and are up for large water carries.

Final Thoughts

Arizona Trail in early spring.

Before you embark on your desert thru-hike, do your research.  Read blogs.  Watch YouTube videos.  Talk to your friends who have thru-hiked each of these trails.  Drop a comment below with questions.

The AZT, GET, and HDT represent 3 levels of difficulty.  Make sure you pick the one right for you.  It’s ok if you’re not ready for the Hayduke.  If you’re not, the AZT and GET will give you some of the best preparation you can get.

And don’t forget to have fun on whichever of these amazing desert thru-hikes you choose!