A Guide to Hiking the Continental Divide

To the hearty few who attempt it each year, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a challenge to be met and conquered. See more national park pictures.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is a 3,100-mile (4,989-kilometer) hiking trail that passes from the border of Mexico to Canada through the Rocky Mountains. To most regular folks, traveling that sort of distance on foot with your possessions on your back sounds like a form of torture. But to the hearty few who attempt it each year, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a challenge to be met and conquered. Along with the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast and the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast, the CDT forms the "big three" or the "triple crown" of long-distance hikes in the U.S. It's also the newest, least well known and least popular of the three.

Why does the CDT play second -- or even third -- fiddle to the two more popular trails on the coasts? Mainly because the CDT still isn't completed. In 1978, Congress amended the National Trails Act of 1968 to form the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, but more than 30 years later the trail is still unfinished, forcing thru-hikers to take dirt roads and occasionally bushwhack through the wilderness in order to complete their journey. As of 2011, about 832 miles (1,339 kilometers) of the 3,100-mile trail still remained to be built.

It's not quite as bad as it sounds, though; the entire trail has been designated, and thru-hikers who take the trail these days only have to bushwhack small sections (however, we definitely recommend bringing a good map -- or several) [source: National Park Service].

So why would anyone choose to hike the CDT over its more popular brethren on the coasts? Because it just might be the most be most beautiful hike in all of North America. The trail weaves through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, passing through Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Glacier national parks. But that isn't the only reason that the CDT might be more appealing than the other long-distance hikes. Because it's unfinished, far fewer people thru-hike it each year -- so if you complete it, you'll be in elite company. And of course, it travels the length of the country, from Canada to Mexico, giving anyone who hikes a serious sense of accomplishment.

Want to take a hiatus from your job for a few months and get away from it all? Or maybe you want to get closer to nature and challenge yourself physically. People embark on long-distance hikes for all sorts of reasons. Only about 30 people are said to thru-hike the CDT each year, and many of them are probably doing so to achieve the "triple crown." Whether you're looking to add that feather in your cap, or simply want to go for a walk in the woods, the Continental Divide is one of North America's great treasures.

Continental Divide Hiking Guide: Guide Books and Trail Maps

Because it's still unfinished, there isn't one single route that all hikers follow; instead, each thru-hiker on the Continental Divide Trail tends to choose his or her own way. It should come as no surprise, then, that navigation is one of the most important skills required to hike the CDT. In other words, if you're planning to hike the CDT, you're definitely going to need to dust up your compass and map-reading skills, because unlike many shorter and more established trails, you won't be able rely on tree blazes to get from Mexico to Canada.

Guidebooks are a good place to start when planning your CDT hike, but they aren't the only thing you'll need. The official CDT guidebooks are the published by Westcliffe Publishers. Westcliffe's books follow the official CDT route, but because weather and unfinished trails can require some improvisation, the guides might not be useful for large portions of the hike.

The most popular unofficial set of guidebooks for the CDT are those written by Jim Wolf, director of the Continental Divide Trail Society, which are commonly known as the "the CDTS guides" or the "Wolf guides." Wolf's books are generally more detailed than Westcliffe's series of official guidebooks, and many hikers have reported them to be more accurate. However, because trail conditions are constantly changing, the best way to know what to expect is to subscribe to newsletters and other Web forums that are updated more frequently than printed guidebooks [source: Continental Divide Trail Society].

In addition to offering Wolf's guidebooks, the Continental Divide Trail Society also sells a complete set of waterproof National Geographic topographic maps for several portions of the CDT. Many hikers also recommend stocking up on regional maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management. And it's also a good idea to bring along roadmaps for the areas where you expect to leave the trail.

Like any tool, a map is only as good as the person using it, so you should make sure you know how to properly read both a trail map and a topographic map before heading out on the trail. And whether you're planning a weekend hike or a six-month thru-hike, it's always a good idea to trace your route and plan your rest and resupply points in advance.

Challenges of Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

Trying to chase a disappearing and often nonexistent trail isn't the only challenge that hikers will encounter on the Continental Divide Trail; they'll also face difficult and often forbidding weather conditions, steep terrain, dangerous wildlife and water shortages. Nobody said the CDT was a piece of cake, and that's partly what gives the few who complete the hike a true sense of accomplishment. Unlike more popular trails, like the Appalachian Trail, very few thru-hikers attempt to hike the entire CDT each year, so you might not encounter many other backpackers on some stretches. That means there is less room for error, because if you make a mistake and find yourself in trouble, there might not be anyone to come rescue you.

The first and most important thing to think about when planning a hike, regardless of the length, is where you'll be able to get fresh drinking water, because out on the trail -- especially at high elevation -- you won't be able to get very far without water. Finding good water is one of the primary challenges that thru-hikers face on the CDT, and because of frequent drought conditions in the Rocky Mountains, the situation isn't likely to improve. Because much of the CDT passes through public lands that are grazed by livestock, experienced CDT hikers have reported difficulty finding water that hasn't been contaminated by farm animals. The best advice is to stock up on water whenever you can find it, and to carry more than you think you'll need [source: Bureau of Land Management].

The weather is always a major intangible when you go on any long-distance hike, especially on the CDT. If you hike the entire trail, you'll be passing through both desert and alpine zones, and you'll likely experience everything from extreme heat to heavy snow, with a few severe thunderstorms sprinkled in for good measure. The key to surviving on the trail is going equipped with the proper gear and knowing when to pack it in when conditions become too treacherous.

Another factor to take into account if you're thinking about tackling the CDT is altitude. Much of the trail is located about 7,000 feet (2,134 meters), and for long stretches of it you'll be hiking above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Big mountains are of course what makes this trail exciting, but hiking at high altitude, where the air is thinner and you're closer to the sun, brings a whole new set of challenges. Most people tire faster and need to drink more water at high altitudes. Winds are stronger, and weather systems can blow in swiftly and without warning. And worst of all, hiking at high elevations can also cause altitude sickness, which makes you feel lightheaded and disoriented.

If all of that isn't enough to scare you away from the CDT, maybe this one will: bears. And not those cuddly black bears found on the East Coast. Hikers on the northern stretches of the CDT have been known to encounter grizzly bears, which can be very dangerous. Part of the reason many people are drawn to the trail is the opportunity to view wildlife, but grizzlies are best viewed from a distance [source: AP].

Biking the Continental Divide Trail

In 2009, the U.S. Forestry Service decided to open parts of the Continental Divide Trail to mountain bikers.
In 2009, the U.S. Forestry Service decided to open parts of the Continental Divide Trail to mountain bikers.
Photos.com/Thinkstock

If the Continental Divide is such a spectacular hiking trail, it stands to reason that it would be a pretty excellent mountain biking trail also. But should a trail that is primarily meant for hikers be open to mountain bikers too? Trail purists, represented by the Continental Divide Trail Society, have long argued that the trail should be a "silent trail," open only to hikers and horsemen. However, the U.S. Forest Service doesn't share that view. In 2009, the U.S.F.S. decided to open parts of the Continental Divide Trail to mountain bikers [source: Repanshek].

The U.S. Forest Service isn't the only agency in charge of CDT, as the more than 3,000-mile trail also passes through three national parks and several Bureau of Land Management districts and wilderness areas. But the ruling still has significant implications for the trail's future. The Continental Divide Trail Society argues that mountain bikes can disrupt a hiker's enjoyment of nature, especially when bikers are permitted to ride at high speeds. It will be interesting to see if the ruling negatively affects the CDT's popularity among thru-hikers [source: Continental Divide Trail Society].

From the perspective of mountain bikers, though, it's pretty easy to understand why someone would be interested in biking the CDT. The Continental Divide passes through some of the most impressive landscape in the Rocky Mountains, and it attracts some of the most hardcore, adventure-seeking cyclists in the world.

If you want to bike from Canada to Mexico on a trail that is close to the Continental Divide, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is generally considered to be the world's longest mountain bike route, and because of the length and the rugged terrain it's also one of the toughest. Although it traces the same general course, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is different from the Continental Divide Trail. The route extends from Antelope Wells, New Mexico (just north of the Mexican border) to Banff, Alberta in Canada, whereas the northern terminus of the Continental Divide hiking trail is at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park.

Like the hiking trail, the mountain bike route traverses the beautiful grasslands, deserts and alpine terrain of the Rocky Mountains, but most of the ride is on doubletrack forest roads. Whereas walking the Continental Divide can take half of a year or more, the typical thru-biker can complete it in 10 weeks or less (and some extreme riders race it in two weeks or less) [source: Gorman and Earle Howells].

Cyclists typically start at the northern end of the trail and head south, beginning in late June or July. Any earlier, and you're likely to encounter a good amount of snow in the northern stretch of the trail.

The trail was developed by the Adventure Cycling Association, which scouted and mapped a route that would intentionally intersect with towns and resupply points roughly every day, so that cyclists don't have to carry too much in the way of food. Even still, water can be in very short supply on several stretches of trail, especially in parts of central Wyoming and New Mexico [source: ACA].

Continental Divide Hiking Guide: Hiking Trail Alliance

When you're hiking the Continental Divide Trail, your focus probably isn't on the trail itself -- it's on the surrounding landscape and views.
When you're hiking the Continental Divide Trail, your focus probably isn't on the trail itself -- it's on the surrounding landscape and views.
John Kieffer/Getty Images

When you're hiking on a good trail, your focus probably isn't on the trail itself -- it's on the surrounding landscape and views. But an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work and money goes into building trails, especially one that's as long as the Continental Divide Trail. Most national scenic trails depend on nonprofit organizations to blaze the trail, so to speak. These groups typically raise funds, pull together volunteers, provide support to government agencies and generally make sure that trails are safe and well cared for.

Unfortunately, in late 2011, the Continental Divide Trail Alliance -- the main nonprofit organization supporting the trail -- disbanded due to lack of funds. This is of course very bad news for the trail, especially considering that more than 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) of the trail still remain to be constructed. Prior to the formation of the CDTA, trail construction was moving at a sluggish pace because there wasn't a unifying force to help spearhead its development. In its 17 years, the CDTA helped to build 525 miles (844.9 kilometers) of new trail and to raise awareness.

"Increasing pressures from development in the West, rising land costs, and challenges with the longstanding down cycle in the economy threaten the completion of the Trail," wrote the CDTA in a statement [source: CDTA].

In 1995, Bruce Ward, the former president of the CDTA, founded the organization with his wife Paula. In its more than 30 year history, the trail regularly faced funding challenges, and Ward had to get creative with fundraising, getting corporate backing from big outdoor apparel brands. In a controversial move, the CDTA even allowed some sponsors permission to put corporate logos on signs along the trail. But ultimately, even creative funding strategies couldn't keep the CDTA afloat [source: Wilmsen].

With Continental Divide Trail Alliance out of the picture, the future looks somewhat uncertain for the CDT, but one thing remains almost certain: that people will continue to hike along America's backbone, through some of the most majestic natural scenery in North America. Despite the CDTA's surprise dissolution, work on the Continental Divide Trail continues. Various organizations in the five states the trail passes through are taking up the cause of completing trail. So far, groups like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and the Montana Wilderness Association have been mobilizing volunteers to help work on the trail. If you would like to volunteer to work on the trail, you can get in touch with the closest U.S. Forest Service ranger office or District Bureau of Land Management field office.

Author's Note

I haven't hiked the Continental Divide Trail, but given the challenges, I have an immense respect for anyone who has. Heck, I'd be proud to even hike 100 miles of the trail. I find it kind of amazing that the CDT still flies under the radar compared to some of the other, more popular trails in the U.S. But Americans have always loved an underdog, so it's easy to root for the CDT to be completed.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Adventure Cycling Association. "Great Divide Mountain Bike Route." (May 29, 2012) http://www.adventurecycling.org/routes/greatdivide.cfm?pg=more
  • Associated Press. "750-pound bear is captured in Montana." June 20, 2007. (June 1, 2012) http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-20-big-bear_N.htm
  • Bureau of Land Management. "Continental Divide National Scenic Trail." (June 1, 2012) http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/recreation/continental_divide_nst.html
  • Continental Divide Society. (May 31, 2012) http://www.cdtsociety.org/
  • Continental Divide Trail Association. (May 28, 2012) http://www.cdtrail.org/
  • Gardner, James Ross. "No. 32: The Continental Divide Trail." Esquire. Sept. 18, 2007. (May 30, 2012) http://www.esquire.com/features/esquire-100/continental1007
  • Gorman, Jim and Earle Howells, Robert. "Bike the Continental Divide Trail, Multistate." National Geographic Adventure. March 2009. (May 29, 2012) http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/americas-best-adventures/bike-continental-divide-trail/
  • National Park Service. "Continental Divide National Scenic Trail." (May 30, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/divide.htm
  • Repanshek, Kurt. "Forest Service Open to Allowing Mountain Bikes on Continental Divide Trail, But What About Park Service?" National Parks Traveler. Nov. 17, 2009. (June 1, 2012) http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2009/11/forest-service-open-allowing-mountain-bikes-continental-divide-trail-what-about-park-service4938
  • Thomson, Candus. "Two Paths To One Goal: Continental Divide Trail." The Seattle Times. May 13, 1997. (May 27, 2012) http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970513&slug=2538889
  • Warner, Ryan. "Continental Divide Trail Still Unfinished After 30 Years." Colorado Public Radio. Nov 28, 2008. (May 31, 2012) http://www.cpr.org/article/legacy-archive-4516
  • Wilmsen, Steven. "Continental Divide Trail Defends Creative Funding." Denver Post. (May 31, 2012) http://www.americantrails.org/resources/funding/FundCDNSTadvert.html