Lyle Gomm, a former Intermountain Region Trail Coordinator, is the “father” of the Great Western Trail. His idea to create a long distance trail open to a variety of users began in Utah during the 1970s, and in 1985 he organized an inter-agency team including the Forest Service, Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service to create the Bonneville Rim Trail to connect the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks. In 1986, Dale Sheewalter, a volunteer promoter of the Arizona Trail (Grand Canyon National Park to Nogales, Mexico), suggested the Arizona and Bonneville Rim Trails be renamed the “Great Western Trail.” Simon Cordial from England, and James Priest Lake from New York, hiked the proposed trail from Idaho at the Canadian border to Nogales, Mexico from May to October 1986. In 1990, the Great Western Trail Association was incorporated under the provisions of the Utah Nonprofit Corporation and Cooperative Association Act. The Great Western Trail joins preexisting backcountry trails, dirt or gravel roads, and high speed highways, to create a system of routes that terminate independently or rejoin a main route. It was conceived as a 4,500-mile long network of trails that would traverse central Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming, ending at the Idaho-Montana border with Canada.
It was designed to serve all-terrain vehicles, 4×4 enthusiasts, motorcyclists, horseback riders, hikers, and in the high country, snowmobile riders. In Arizona the Trail, with its “Points of Discovery” or historic and instructive sites, begins in Phoenix in the southern Basin and Range (desert) Region where vegetation is sparse, but cacti, mixed grasses, chaparral, and sagebrush thrive in the alkali soil. Next it travels through the Central Highlands (mountainous) Region in the middle of the state. Here, at elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, temperatures remain high throughout the year, and piñon trees, Apache fir, aspen, and bristlecone pine abound. It ends in the northern Colorado Plateau Region where tablelands range from 5,000 to 7 ,000 feet. Winters are cold, but summers are warm. Rain is common, and Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine grow on these high plateaus of the Kaibab National Forest.
So far the Great Western Trail Association and the Arizona State Association of 4- Wheel Drive Clubs have designated 350 miles of trail from Phoenix to the Utah border, but there is still work to do. The completed northern two-thirds is on federal land, but in southern Arizona the proposed route is on state and private land. The projected route near the Mexican border may access Sky Islands. Weldon Heald coined the term in 1967 to denote mountain ranges isolated from each other by intervening valleys of grassland or desert which inhibit the movement of various species, as seas isolate plants and animals on islands. Near Tucson, 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the proposed trail would transect the Butterfield Road, a wagon route between Yuma, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, later used as the Mormon Battalion Trail.