First published at The Trek (thetrek.co) Dec. 6, 2018.
GPT Pilot Trail At-a-Glance
Trail: Pilot trail of the Great Plains Trail
Distance: About 250 miles
Location: From Scottsbluff, NE, to Bear Butte, SD
Maps: The Great Plains Trail Alliance plans to post a pdf version of a databook in February or March 2019.
The Great Plains Trail is America’s newest long-distance trail. The brainchild of Steve Myers of Longmont, CO, the trail’s official birth year is 2012, when he registered the Great Plains Trail Alliance as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
At just over 2,100 miles, the current route traverses as much public land as possible as it meanders north from the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas, across the Oklahoma Panhandle, through eastern Colorado and western Nebraska, across South and North Dakota, to finish at the Canada border in Montana.
As a new trail, much of the route as currently mapped follows back roads rather than trails. However, one man, Luke “Strider” Jordan, has thru-hiked the entire route and the alliance has just announced the opening of a marked 250-mile pilot trail in western Nebraska and South Dakota.
The alliance is currently raising funds and awareness with an eye toward future easements to fully connect the trail with minimal road-walking.
Meet Steve Myers
Steve Myers grew up amid the lakes and prairies of southern Minnesota playing basketball and baseball, but outside of a few brief camping trips with his family, spent little time outdoors. Then, at age 20, he saw an image of Wyoming’s towering Teton Range.
“I was going to college and I saw a flyer in the lobby,” he says. “I thought, ‘That looks good, I want to go there.’ ”
A few months later, he was working at the storied Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Parkand, in his words, “fell in love with the outdoors.” He marveled at the area’s culture of climbing, hiking, camping, and more. But increasingly, he found himself drawn toward routes less taken.
“There’s a mountain north of Moran (WY) called Bivouac (Peak). There’s no trail up there; no one goes there,” he recalls. “Not many people knock that one off, but it’s one of the most fun mountains I’ve ever done in terms of adventure.
Now smitten with the mountains, Myers returned to work at the lodge the following summer. This time, he drove from Minnesota, and just after crossing the Missouri River on I-90 found himself smitten by an entirely new landscape.
“The eastern part of South Dakota looks like Minnesota. It’s farm country, and it’s fine,” says Myers, 48. “But you hit the Missouri, and suddenly on the other side it’s 100 percent different. There are huge bluffs, 500 or 600 feet, along the river, the farms are gone, and now it’s wide-open ranch country, and there are buttes in the distance. There was this way-bigger topography going on, absolutely wide open out to the horizon.”
It wasn’t mountains, and it wasn’t Minnesota, with its trees and lakes and farms.
“It was completely different,” Myers says, “and I was endlessly fascinated by it.”
That moment of fascination was the seed that has grown into his passion more than two decades later: the Great Plains Trail, a nascent 2,100-mile long route that traverses America’s great middle roughly along the 105th meridian, from the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas to the Montana-Saskatchewan border.
Although the route is still in its infancy, the nonprofit Great Plains Trail Alliance (started by Myers in 2012) is now promoting the completion of a marked, 250-mile pilot trail that traverses mostly public land from Scottsbluff, NE. to Bear Butte, SD.
“You won’t have to stealth camp and you don’t have to have a vehicle,” says Myers. “In theory, somebody could self-support the whole stretch, doing 20- to 25-mile days.”
The alliance plans to post an “early version of a databook” in February or March to show the way for prospective pilot-trail hikers, and may set up an interactive site where hikers can post updates and information about the route.
“It won’t be a guidebook. It will be more like, ‘Take a left here, go six miles this way, look for this landmark.’ Hopefully, it will help people get out and use” the pilot trail, Myers says.
And while it might be hard for those who cling to “flyover” stereotypes of Nebraska (flat, corn, boring) to believe, the pilot trail encompasses some of the most eye-popping landscapes of the entire route, including not just South Dakota’s Black Hills, but also the Wildcat Hills, Ogallala National Grassland, and Toadstool Geologic Park in Nebraska.
Beauty and Hospitality
And that’s according to no less an authority than the only person to thru-hike the GPT to date.
“The beauty there and the scenery was so unexpected,” says Luke Jordan, aka Strider, 28, who followed up his 2012 thru-hike of the 4,600-mile North Country Trail with an 85-day GPT thru-hike in 2016.
Even more surprising to Jordan was the warm welcome he received.
“When I got to the Nebraska state line, people were instantly enthusiastic,” he says. “I had trail magic every day.”
Hiking in winter (he originally planned to attach the GPT to a hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail, but changed course when he was offered a full-time position with the National Park Service) Jordan encountered extreme weather, from 60-mph winds “blowing tumbleweeds over your head,” to blowing snow and, on the trail’s southern reaches, blistering heat with no shade, even in the dead of winter.
But, he noted, all long trails have their challenges, and for him, the GPT was exactly the kind of “road less traveled” experience he was seeking.
“On the prairie, it feels like the world is so much bigger. Every tiny rise is a scenic overlook, it really is. If you are 30 feet higher than everything around you, you can see endlessly,” he says. “One day you are on a backcountry road, seeing all farms, and the very next day you are walking through a canyon in the middle of nowhere. The day after that you see Pawnee Buttes (in northern Colorado), huge cliffs sticking up out of nowhere.
A Vast and Varied Landscape
Myers began pondering the idea of a trail traversing the plains almost from the moment he crossed the Missouri in 1991. In the ensuing years, he married, earned a college degree and teaching certificate, and moved to Wisconsin and California before finally settling in Longmont, CO. All the while, he dreamed of creating a trail that would showcase the vast, variegated, and often dismissed, ignored, or even mocked landscapes of the country’s supposedly “boring” middle.
“I’d research it, dive into it a little deeper, run my ideas by people smarter than me, to see where it might go,” he says. “Then in 2010 I finally decided to really give it a good run.”
Among his early correspondents was Steve Elkinton, then program coordinator for the National Trails System in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Park Service.
“He gave me good advice. He said, ‘You can’t wave a magic wand’ and have a trail,” Myers says. “You need to build the trail first, then start going after a designation.”
So he began looking at maps to piece together a potential route that would make use of public lands as much as possible. He began driving the routes and locating back roads that might make for decent walking. He’s now driven or walked 90 percent of the route and “knows every inch of it, at least on a map.”
“I didn’t want people to have to use highways,” he says. “Everyone is willing to suck it up for a little while, but nobody wants to walk the whole country on a busy highway.”
Myers wondered at first how he would be received, especially in rural areas where private-property rights reign supreme, but has been pleasantly surprised.
“I’ve been pretty amazed at either how excited people are about it, or at worst sort of, ‘Well, whatever.’ Not excited necessarily, but not hostile at all,” he says.
If You Build It…
And in some places, he has found outright enthusiasm, including western Nebraska, home to about half of the pilot trail.
“That’s exactly the part of the state they want to shine a light on. For them, the eastern part of the state, it’s cool, but it’s mostly farm fields. This is the part of the state where there are state parks, trails, recreation areas and where they want people to go,” Myers says. “That’s in contrast to Colorado, where there might be a sentence in a tourist brochure, ‘Oh, by the way, the eastern third of the state is out there, too.’ ”
But will the old adage, “if you build it, they will come,” apply to a 2,100-mile trail across the high prairie? Both Myers and Jordan think it will.
“I think we are on the verge of a second backpacking boom,” Jordan says. “People are running out of places to go, and avoiding the AT and PCT because of crowds. They are looking for alternatives.”
“There should be a way to go big in any unique landscape, to actually, really, truly experience it,” Myers says. “One of my goals is to get more people to understand that there are other cool things out there in the country that might not make the big splash and aren’t the usual ‘sexy’ things, but are still just incredible.”