Old trail sign on the Kokopelli trail with sage prairie in background

Backpacking the Kokopelli Trail – Part 1

In the spring of 2019, I solo backpacked (self-supported) from Loma, Colorado to Moab, Utah on the Kokopelli Trail. Given it was a relatively high snow year and the wet weather forecast, this was sorta dumb. But I was determined to hike “the entire Colorado Plateau” after a geologist friend asked about the Hayduke. He was driving me to Vegas so I could pick up a rental car in 2016, just before the first time I hiked it. He seemed to challenge me when he said:

“Why would the Hayduke not cover the entire Plateau?”

I am not sure he was exactly throwing down that gauntlet, but that’s how I took it, and even after having hiked the Hayduke twice, once in each direction, I decided to put together my own hiking route which stretched the entire Plateau. I mapped this using Caltopo (of which I’ve been a happily paying member for several years now), referring to satellite imagery, online trip reports including some from my friend Jamal and various strangers, frequent visits to snowpack reports and river flow gauges, phone calls to ranger stations, and books like George Steck’s “Hiking Grand Canyon Loops.” Putting together my dream route took longer than the actual hike itself, which lasted from April 9 to June 1, covering about 800 miles (who is counting?). They say the Kokopelli is 142 miles but I got 137 using CalTopo. In other posts I’ll go into what made this route so exiting (hint: water travel) but here, I’ll just cover the 7 days it took me to walk the entire Kokopelli, at an average of about 20 miles a day.


Would I walk this again? No. Would I bike it? Maybe! The range of trail difficulty on this route, as scouted on foot, sorta highlights how difficult it’d be, especially hitting some of the hardest (most technical) bits on the last day. If this trail was wet or snowy, like it was for me, I’d definitely plan on doing something else. Ew. Then again, waterpockets are a gift in this desert environment, and I had plenty of water.

Striking Off

A “before” picture wearing actual clothes taken in Hanksville, my “favorite” town in Utah, while along my route placing caches.

OK, that’s me. Nice to meet you! It probably helps to see who’s yapping at you. ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, after having driven out from California and placing various caches along the way, on April 8 I left a cache (which included snowshoes and subsequent days’ food) near CR-191 along Westwater Creek. I slept there overnight on the ground outside my rotten tiny little rental car. Interstate 70, the railway, and the other views in the area weren’t very interesting yet, but I was excited to be somewhere new. I know that just around every turn is a new world.

On April 9 I dropped off the rotten tiny little dusty rental at the airport in Grand Junction and took an Uber to the trailhead outside Loma. The adorably freckled redhead driver was very sweet and offered me her umbrella, which in hindsight, I should have taken. I should have taken that damn umbrella!

Kokopelli MTB trailhead sign Loma Colorado

BRAP! It pulls my heart strings to see these MTB projects. I would love to revisit my aggressive riding days, so damn super fun and raucous, but they kinda… destroyed me physically!

Kokopelli trailhead sign Loma ColoradoMy backpack is still pretty full even though I’m collecting a cache in two days. Sometimes the logistics of everything are just too complicated and I have to just “let it be.”

Starting off on the trail I guess I was surprised to see how rural housing spread along the gorgeous Wingate bluffs above the Colorado River. The sky was threatening but quite a few people were out, mostly day hikers. I got quite a few strange looks, because I guess people aren’t expecting backpackers or thru-hikers out there, and I was equipped with my camouflage ULA Circuit backpack.

Kokopelli Trail Utah Colorado sandstone viewsView to the northwest from between mile 3 and 4
Colorado Kokopelli Trail viewNear mile 6 of the Kokopelli trail
Colorado River view from Kokopelli TrailThe River view from just before mile 14. Why is it so green? Because it’s early Spring on a high snow year!

Despite the threatening clouds, it never rained that day. To be picky, the day was short and cold and the sun low, so the scenery was somewhat low-contrast and muted. Cumulous give better photo ops than do cirrus and whatever. What really charmed me was how the Colorado River winded out of Grand Junction inside the red rock cliffs I came for. I was getting an immediate dose of my red rock medicine. I camped early somewhere just before mile 16 in the big green rolling hills after passing Salt Creek, which was flowing well and clear. (I’m no fool though — I filtered it very well.)

Day 2 – Cue the Rain

April 10. Seeing as how it rained during the night but my tent was bone-dry in the morning (a wonderful “feature” of desert hiking), I decided to let myself get a little wet. I knew I’d be headed into the snow at elevation in the La Sals, but trusted that I would have chances to dry out. Probably dumb. I wasn’t used to day after day of rain, and so this was an uncomfortable mistake to make. That said, how much more dry could I have stayed even if careful, without my umbrella?

American Discovery trail west of McDonald CreekCastle Rocks. If you gotta walk in the rain it might as well be pretty, and this area is very pretty… and popular, even in the rain. I saw a Westfalia camped out and almost went to say hi!
A sign that says "No water" near a puddleThe border. Utah would like everyone to know there is no water, most the time.

At around 2pm, after having crossed into Utah, I rounded a corner into new geology I wasn’t prepared for: the Morrison Formation. These big whoopdees would have been wicked fun to ride dry on a bike, but I know from other hikes (such as hiking the Colorado River south of Nankoweap Canyon) that this mudstone and siltstone shit is slippery as snot. I even read somewhere once that some component of it is used in lubricants. As careful as I was trying to be, I still slipped in it and ended up hyper-extending my right knee badly. I sort of expected the rain to stop in apology, but it wasn’t sorry, and my only choice was to keep moving. Or so I thought. In hindsight, with the damage I did to that knee on this hike, I probably should have set aside my pride and eagerness and just headed back to Moab to rest it until my boyfriend arrived on the 16th. This knee ended up troubling me during most of my hike. Sucks how one little very quick slip can change things so much!

view down a scrabbly red canyon to sage fields and maybe colorado riverBetween mile 27 and 28, where someone left a cache bucket hundred years ago seems like.

I fetched my cache and camped just a bit past mile 40 in a sparse grove a junipers.

Day 3 – Cloud Dodger

April 11. A magical day of road-walking.

By 10am storm clouds blew off overhead, and though they surrounded me and dumped all day, I was somehow never under them. Yay!

Colorful (rainbow) sedimentous Morrison hills along an old concrete roadJust out of Cisco Landing, just before mile 50.
View of storm clouds in the distance over a cattle grazed field near a dirt road.Some really nice clouds over some really disturbed soil. I’d be so curious to see what this landscape looked like 200 years ago. I bet very different!

I dodged the rain, and had a chance to dry out, all while enjoying spectacular cloudscapes over mostly wide-open views. To be honest, the road walking can get a bit boring, so I caught up with some friends and my boyfriend because this section had great LTE phone reception. I camped a few miles after the odd (industrial… farming?) wasteland of McGraw Bottom, just before mile 63. As I was passing through there, but stopped to rest, my boyfriend remembered he had read a blog post about a woman who lived alone out there, and sent it to me, because he thought I’d relate. I related.

A little Ibuprofen went a long way today. 22 miles to be exact.

Day 4 – Bas Relief

April 12. On this day I was particularly glad to be walking, because the scenery was nuanced. There were many things I would have missed on a bike, or wouldn’t have had time to think about. Isn’t that just what I loved about switching from bike touring to walking! If I see something that draws my eye, I just slow down, or stop. The fact I’m on foot going slowly makes it more likely I’ll see it in the first place. And so today I caught my first view of the snow-covered La Sal mountains. The inverse bas relief of foreground set against the graded backdrop of layer after layer of canyon face in varying angles was mesmerizing. It’s as if someone dropped a bunch of puzzle pieces in a pile, and each piece’s curves offset by the curves of that below it were made interesting by the fact it wasn’t a bunch of puzzle pieces. It was geology and color and light and shadow making some of the best art I’d ever seen. I don’t understand geology very well and I don’t really have the brain for it, and I guess I like it that way — the mystery is savory! But I guess these areas are even mysterious to geologists, so there’s that.

Old carsonite trail sign on the Kokopelli trail with sage prairie in background

Early in the day I dropped below the Wingate Formation and got to enjoy a gorgeous bumpy bubbly wall of smooth peachy rock. Before I dropped down I stopped and enjoyed watching some crows fly together in circles near the top of the cliff wall. Over and over again, round and round, and I don’t know anything, I don’t know why nor could I guess, but they were beautiful and hypnotizing.

View of the La Sal Mountains up Fisher Canyon from a distance (near Dewey, Utah)A first look at the La Sal snowpack from near mile 65. I’m carrying snowshoes, just in case…
picture of wire cattle gate near Dewey, Utah on Kokopelli, with view of La Sal Mountains

Also today I crossed the Colorado River by bridge and hit civilization briefly again. I walked along roads more frequented by Jeeps, but overall it was clear that most everyone else but me had the weather forecast (high of 50ยบ, raining) in mind, and were smart enough to stay inside by the fire. I did like having these Jeep roads to myself, because at least for me, when I’m “out in the middle of nowhere enjoying nature,” nothing breaks that spell faster than the sound of a combustion engine. I was also really glad for the rains because I could tell that otherwise certain sections of these roads would be fairly deep sand, and that’s no fun to walk in. Count yer blessings.

A rugged canyon with red rock walls and a lot of green shrubbery, blue cloudy skyNear mile 77.5 the road inclines up and around a pretty canyon.

After crossing the River at mile 70, the route followed a Jeep road past my dream home near mile 73 and then on a tour of some gorgeous Wingate. I could tell this road was popular, and why. As if that wasn’t good enough, the road led up to a quite rough, nearly impassable Jeep road after mile 77 which wound up through a cool maze of interesting Kayenta canyons clotted with debris and vegetation (as usual, isn’t this how Kayenta always feels? Clotted?) and a lovely tower. It was a very special moment because I felt like Indiana Jones for a bit! IMO it is one of the best scenic highlights of the Kokopelli, though brief. Speaking of brief, as the days are short and the nights below freezing, I was asleep in a PJ forest just past mile 83 before 7:30pm. To keep warm I filled my Hydrapack with hot water and placed it on top of my groin where the big arteries sit… and prayed it wouldn’t burst.

Would you like to continue reading Part II, about days 5-7 hiking the Kokopelli? I’m about to head into the mountains!