My Guide to Hiking in the Desert

I’m a creature of habit when it comes to hiking. Alpine trails, tall trees, summits with a view, the occasional lake… you get the idea.

Since my move to Utah I’ve traveled south not only escape the cold of the winter, but to be able to hike in March – something that you don’t get to do in the Wasatch.

Long story short, I fell in love. I don’t even like the heat. How is this possible? I’m a diehard alpine forest lover, but something about this place has my mind in the clouds and my heart strings in a twist.

I’ve come to reason with the fact that it has to be the newness, the unknown, the true opposite of what I love that has drawn me in. I’m curious.

Last week I was on my way to Vegas and decided to camp overnight In Red Cliffs Conservation Area just outside of Hurricane, Utah. It was a dispersed site that I had to make a short pack into because the road wasn’t fit for my Subaru. After setting up camp I made my way to the top of a rock outcrop to watch the sunset. Alone in the silence of the desert, drinking a box of wine, watching coyotes pass below me was centering.

In the morning I set out on my hike which included a little arch hunting. I studied several maps before my trip because 1) I love maps, 2) I was alone and 3) I need to know my directions. Some people may find that I can’t “go with the flow”, “where is your sense of adventure”… Truth be told, when it comes to getting lost, I’m not a fan. I will deviate from the path, but direction is important to me. I digress.

So I made it to my destination: Pentagon Arch. I saw a few smaller, less noticeable arches along the way – which was great. It’s my trip back that brings me to the point of this post which includes an accumulation of my experiences thus far of hiking in the desert.

Kayla’s Guide to Hiking in the Desert

1) Know where you are going- This can mean have a map with you, looking at a map ahead of time, anything. The thing about the desert is that in most cases there isn’t a completely defined path like there is in the forest. In the forest you can see where the trail is cropped out, sure you can make a wrong turn at the fork, but once you realize it it’s usually an easy turn around. If you deviate in the sandy path of the desert onto some rocks…how do you truly know which line of sand is the trail?

2) Know your footprint- This may sound silly but it really helped me out – know what the tread of your shoes looks like. On my way back from the arch I was like a kid in the candy store. My eyes couldn’t stop wandering and I found myself down a path that eventually I realized seemed wrong and looking down noticed that the only footprints on this route were from rabbits. After retracing my steps back to the nearest trail arrow post, I found the direction of my opposite tread to help guide me.

3) Have a sense of direction, a map, or don’t hike alone- The scenario of me getting off the beaten path happened more than once unfortunately. I have a good sense of direction (thank you, Dad) and hike alone often enough that I feel comfortable in my decision making. I had my map, but what good does a map do when it shows the trail route that may not be a defined trail? My advice is know yourself. Don’t go hiking alone if you don’t know the area well and don’t think you’ll be able to get yourself out without having a complete anxiety attack.

4) Water- It’s imperative. People, myself included, highly underestimate how much we are sweating and expelling water in a warmer climate. I drink around a gallon of water a day. That day I had a full bladder in my pack, but with my panic I started to sweat more. By the time I was back to the trailhead I was getting a mild headache from being dehydrated. If anything, pack more water than you think you’d need. If you don’t drink it, you carried some added weight for a better workout, it’s a win, win.

5) Learn to love cairns- Cairns are special and an extremely useful symbol in hiking. As an ode to my fellow hikers and our lessons learned, any time I come to a tough spot where I become confused on a route or if in fact get lost, when I make it back to that spot I build a cairn. This hike I built 3. The on the Arch trail helped me locate my direction while I stood in the sand looking at layers and rows of red rock. Cairns are not only an ornament of the hiking trails but a beacon to those who need them.

The desert is such a captivating place that I can’t wait to spend more time exploring yet is an entirely different animal than the forest. Getting lost isn’t a bad thing every now and again. It allows me to test myself and most importantly, my patience.

Here are a few photos from the trip

Pentagon Arch

Pentagon Arch


Facing East from a perch in Red Cliffs

Facing East from a perch in Red Cliffs

West side of Red Cliffs from the Sand Cove Trailhead

West side of Red Cliffs from the Sand Cove Trailhead

Pano of Sand Cove at Red Cliffs

Take my advice and go on a hike, because the fresh air is good for you. Be smart, because it could save your life. Build a cairn, because they rule. Enjoy and fight for your public lands, because they are truly free, ours, and worth fighting for.

June is upon us – summer, show me what you got!


One thought on “My Guide to Hiking in the Desert

  1. Sketchpacker says:

    Wow a desert hike! I agree with you about the balance between getting lost from lack of planning and being too ‘found’ from excessive itineraries. I guess the key is exactly what you’ve suggested – plan the essentials and let the wind do the rest!


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