How Long To Hike Great Western Loop

Andrew Skura made hiking history when he assembled and completed the Great Western Loop in 2007. In 2018 the 7,000-mile thru-hike was finally successfully tackled again by Jeff “Legend” Garmire. In 2020, Jon “Airborne” Schwarze strove to do the Greatest Western Loop, adding nearly 1,000 miles, but was derailed by the pandemic. You see, the challenge of the GWL isn’t just the miles but timing.

It took Andrew Skura and Jeff Garmire 208-213 days to complete the Great Western Loop. Niels Rabe did it counterclockwise in 2021, but it took over 220 days due to forest fires. Speed and timing are essential, as there is only a small window where The Sierra and San Juan mountains are passable. 

Thru-hikers come in two basic camps: tortoises and hares. Both are tough breeds and are brilliant at going the distance. But speed hikers eat up 20-30+ miles a day. Thankfully, for most thru-hikes, you only need to be a hare if you want to try for a record or bag a certain number of trails in a season. But for the Great Western Loop, you have to be a hare if you want to complete it in one go.

How Many Days To Hike The Great Western Loop?

Andrew Skurka’s Great Western Loop originally covered 6,875 miles. He completed it in 213 days, with Jeff Garmire following over a decade later with 208 days. Both men averaged around 33-miles per day. The hike is not only difficult due to the length and terrain, but due to short seasonal windows. The Sierra and San Juan mountains have a limited window where there isn’t a high risk of blizzards or avalanches.

But other areas are time-sensitive, too. For example, the Grand Canyon and the Gila Mountains are known for their scorching heat but hit them at the wrong time, and they too can be hit by snow. If this happens, it won’t necessarily end the hike but may create the need for alternative routes which add miles and time.

Yet avoiding high snow doesn’t guarantee smooth passage, as Niels Rabe discovered. Forest fires made it necessary to find alternative routes, lengthening his journey to 222 days. He is the first hiker to do Skurka’s route counterclockwise.

Jon Schwarze adjusted the route, naming it the Greatest Western Loop. However, while he was doing well, the pandemic hit. This caused uncertainty, as thru-hiking was discouraged during the tightest restrictions. The difficulty was waiting for clarity on pandemic regulations was costing Schwarze time, shortening his window of being able to pass certain sections safely. Thus, the project had to be put on hold. 

What Hikes Create The Great Western Loop?

Andrew Skurka’s Great Western Loop was created by knitting together pieces of other famous hikes such as Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, and Continental Divide. However, there are 675-miles from the Grand Canyon to Morongo Valley that Skurka’s own plotting. The original GWL crosses 75 wilderness areas, including 12 national parks, and incorporates nine states.

Skurka breaks down the loop into the following sections:

  • Surka’s Grand Canyon NP To Morongo Valley, CA (675 miles)
  • Pacific Crest Trail (2,515 miles)
  • PCT with PNT (10 miles)
  • Pacific North West Trail (657 miles)
  • Continental Divide Trail (2,400 miles)
  • Grand Enchantment Trail (350 miles)
  • GET & AT (30 miles)
  • Arizona Trail (320 miles)

States involved:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • Colorado
  • New Mexico

As it is a loop, it can technically begin at any point. However, Skurka began his historical adventure at the Grand Canyon.

What Hikes Create The Greater Western Loop?

Jon Schwarze’s Greater Western Loop essentially involves the same trails as Skurka’s, but rather than create a smooth loop; he was planning to hike the following from start to finish:

  • Pacific Crest
  • Continental Divide
  • Grand Enchantment
  • Arizona Trail

 Doing the four trails in their entirety would turn the GWL into an 8,800-mile journey, hence the name change to Greater Western Loop.

How Long To Hike The Trails In The Great Western Loop?

The Great Western Loop is essentially a race against the elements. It requires strategic planning to avoid getting cut off by snow, although avoiding it entirely is impossible. The Greater Western Loop is an even greater strategic challenge. Jon Schwarze was trying to do it in under a year. To put that in perspective, here is the typical time it takes to complete four of the trails in the GWL:

  • Pacific Crest
  • Continental Divide
  • Grand Enchantment
  • Arizona Trail

How Much Time To Hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

The Pacific Crest Trail Association says it takes the average hiker 4.5-5 months to complete the 2,650-miles. That’s approximately 136-152 days. While the PCT is much shorter than the GWL, timing still matters on this thru-hike. Those headed north are advised to begin in mid-April to early May. Whereas the Southbound hikers from late June to early July.

How Much Time To Hike the Continental Divide Trail?

The Continental Divide Trail’s 3,100-miles takes 150 – 180 days for the average hiker. One of its challenges is the lack of groomed trail. Thus, those with poor wayfaring skills can easily wander off course.

Due to the altitude involved for much of the Continental Divide Trail, timing is crucial. Those headed south must wait until around mid-June, or they could be thwarted by high snow or impassible water crossing due to excessive flow. Those headed north can leave as early as April, but they risk getting caught in high snow if they leave before that.

How Much Time To Hike the Grand Enchantment?

The Grand Enchantment Trail’s 770-miles takes the average thru-hiker two months to complete. The desert conditions limit this hike to spring and fall. Summer is scorching hot, and winter is typically snowbound.

How Much Time To Hike the Arizona Trail?

The Arizona Trail is 800-miles and takes a typical thru-hiker 6-8 weeks to complete. Due to seasonal extremes similar to the Grand Enchantment, this is a spring or fall hike.

Conclusion

Very few thru-hikers have attempted the Great Western Loop, and less than a handful have been successful. The difficulty isn’t just the length of the hike but completing it in the seasonal window. Two of the four major trails involved typically take 4-5 months to complete, yet the GWL has been squashed into 208-220 days. Thus, the GWL isn’t just a feat in fitness and stamina but in planning.