4,500 Miles of Adventure
For some the Great Western Trail is almost a myth. But to a large extent much of it is a reality.
Part of the problem with that trail system which was born out of the minds of some horsemen over 30 years ago is that it isn't just a single trail; it is a corridor.
The master plan is to someday have the trail go the entire length of the span from the Canadian border to the border with Mexico, unbroken, marked and developed.
But creating a multiple use trail system that can be traversed through four to six states without any gaps has proven to be difficult. Yet there are those that still imagine that, because a large part of the system is already in place. The key to a trail like this is the fact that much of the trail plan lays on public lands either administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service or in some cases state lands.
As envisioned the trail system starts in the Idaho panhandle and skirts along the Montana border. It then dives south near the Frank Church Wilderness area and into Utah (near Beaver Mountain in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest). From there it passes through the Uinta, Manti-Lasal, Fishlake and Dixie National Forests. It also crosses a good deal of BLM land. Then it would cross the Colorado River upstream from the Grand Canyon and head down the eastern side of Arizona passing out of the way of the metropolitan areas in the southern part of that state and ending at the border.
As it is set now one could ride the trail in segments, some very long. When finished it will travel almost 4,500 miles. It will link together 18 national forests and literally pass through every kind of topography, wildlife habitate and vegetation the west has to offer except ocean beach front.
In 1996, the Great Western Trail was designated Utah's Centennial Trail as part of the Statehood Centennial celebration. In 2000, the GWT was designated one of 16 National Millennium Trails by the White House and the Department of Transportation. It is also currently under study by the U.S. Congress to become part of the National Trails System.
With that said, it is easy for locals to presently ride a horse, a ATV/UTV, a motorcycle, a mountain bike, hike, snowmobile, or drive a four wheel drive on that trail. In fact many have already done it just by driving or walking down Skyline Drive. It is part of the system.
However not all of it is friendly to every kind of unit. In some places it is a wide road capable of handling big trailers and trucks. In other places it is nearly just a path, with horses and ATV's riding right up against rocks and brush. As the trail develops it is said that it will have corridors through most of it for all kinds of travel. It will also have separate trail paths so that hikers and equestrians will be separated from motorized vehicles. However this may be hard to do in some places.
Each state has its own signing system for the trail, but all will use the GWT designation on the sign. In Utah the signs will have a covered wagon on them. The Arizona and Idaho sections have renditions of their state in the middle of the signs and Wyoming has the every present Buckaroo on his horse on their signs.
Since the trail system is not completely finished (there are some gaps) there is room for improvement. In the beginning when the trail was first thought up by some Utah horsemen, it was just a dream. Now in Utah over 90 percent of the trail is in place. Cautions must be taken by those riding or hiking the trail because in some places (particularly watersheds) pets are not allowed. There are also places where the crossing of regular highways and roads must take place. In some cases there may also be some short sections of travel on paved roads. For instance in norther Utah in the Parleys Canyon area those on the trail have to go under the I-80 underpass near Lambs Canyon. But in other places there are special provisions for those with various kinds of vehicles. Passing under I-70 is a snap because of a small culvert constructed just for that in Salina Canyon, near the Gooseberry exit.
There are a lot of camping areas along the trail too. A lot of the sites are disbursed camping areas (find out and follow the rules of the national forest you are traveling, because they can be different from one to another). There are also a number of improved camp grounds along the way as well.
As if 4,500 miles of trail is not enough, there are literally thousands of side treks that can be taken from going into small towns for supplies to visiting national parks and other national sites as well. One could literally spend their whole life just trekking this trail to see it all. And even then some of it would still remain.
Just a sample
A good sampling of the trail and its varied appeal can be seen in the section where Skyline Drive drops down into Salina Canyon and then the trail continues south through the Fishlake National Forest to the south.
The trails from the north rim of the canyon toward Fish Lake drop quickly on a widing and very interesting trail. It is not a rocky trail that one might find in such places as the Uinta Mountains, but it does have rocks and they can sneak up on the rider. The views of the canyon are magnificent.It has some very narrow spots (not recommended for a UTV) and some very tight turns. It travels through pine and aspen and later juniper. As it drops to the lower part of the canyon the trail widens out and gets much like those in the west desert area of the Great Basin.
Once the trail reaches I-70 a culvert directs travelers onto the dirt frontage road south of the freeway. From there a couple of block ride takes the traveler into a campground that has one restroom and a lot of camping spaces. Often this campground is relatively deserted, but sometimes it can be loaded with horsemen and machine riders vehicles. Many spend the day traveling the trail.
Then it is off on the trail again heading out of campground through some gates to the east, with first encounter being a wide creek, with a cool splash to ease a hot day. From there it heads south into the beautiful mountains of the Fish Lake National Forest.
This section of the trail is well marked and easy to follow. It's many diversions make for a good day ride or even a week long campng trip.
So saddle up, put on your helmet, apply the sun screen and go have fun along the backbone of America.
(Sources of information include ExpeditionUtah, ATVUtah.com and various National Forest Service operations that exist on the trails web sites).