A Guide to Hiking the Continental Divide

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.

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].