Imagine a path that stretches as far as the eye can see. It winds through sweeping deserts, scaling jagged mountain ranges, and twisting through lush forests. This is but a snapshot of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), the most rugged of North America’s Triple Crown of Hiking. Spanning a staggering 3,100 miles across the United States, the CDT runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican frontier. It’s what’s called a thru-hike: continuous, end-to-end hike of a long and established trail. The other thru-hikes that comprise the Triple Crown are the Appalachian and Pacific Crest.
For hardcore hikers, the trail promises more than just postcard worthy and Instagramable views. It’s a journey through the evolution of Earth’s topography, an experiential lesson in biodiversity, and a challenging test of physical and mental resilience. From the arid landscapes of New Mexico to the alpine heights of the Rocky Mountains, the CDT offers a comprehensive American wilderness experience that leaves an indelible imprint on all who traverse its expansive course.
Details of the Continental Divide Trail Termini
The Starting Point: Crazy Cook Monument
In New Mexico’s remote Big Hatchet Mountains, you’ll find the southern terminus of the CDT. It’s marked by the evocatively named Crazy Cook Monument. Far removed from urban civilization, this starting point is a nod to the trail’s penchant for solitude and challenge. Like the CDT itself, the terminus’ name origin is not for the faint of heart. It bears the grim legacy of a murder that occurred here in 1907, infusing the location with a sense of historical gravitas. For many hikers, the loneliness of Crazy Cook Monument sets the tone for the physically and emotionally demanding journey ahead. For sure, it brings to mind the tenacity needed to conquer the diverse landscapes that lie between two national borders.
The Grand Finale: Waterton Lake
In contrast to the stark isolation of the southern terminus, the trail’s northern point at Waterton Lake is a breathtaking finale. (Or inspirational starting vista, depending on your route.) This pristine mountain lake straddles the boundary between southern Alberta in Canada and northern Montana in the US. The lake is part of the Waterton Lakes National Park of Alberta. Stretching 7 miles, Waterton Lake meanders from the quaint Waterton Townsite in Canada. It crosses the International Boundary, and culminates in Glacier National Park’s stunning Goat Haunt region. The lake is often dotted with sailboats and sits surrounded by towering mountain peaks. It offers a serene contrast to the often rugged and desolate landscapes encountered along the trail.
How the Continental Divide Trail Got Its Name
The Geographical Inspiration
The Continental Divide Trail’s takes its name from the geological spine of the Americas it follows, the Continental Divide. This elongated geological feature runs predominantly north and south along the Rocky Mountains. In addition to being a chain of peaks, the Continental Divide is a hydrological boundary. Waters that fall on the eastern side of the Divide eventually find their way into the Atlantic Ocean, while those on the western side flow toward the Pacific. In this way, the Divide is not just a geographical landmark, but a linchpin in the continent’s natural plumbing.
The CDT treads closely along this geological demarcation, weaving its way through five US states. They are: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. By doing so, it offers hikers an opportunity to experience a diverse range of ecosystems. Each are shaped by the unique interactions between climate, altitude, and geography that the Divide influences.
The concept for a trail that parallels this geological feature is attributed to Benton MacKaye, one of the founding visionaries behind the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. MacKaye’s idea was not merely to mark a long stretch of wilderness for recreational hiking. His vision was far grander. He aspired to create a scenic trail that would let people experience the Continental Divide not as a line on a map, but as a living, breathing feature of the American landscape.
The National Parks and Recreational Land Act of 1978 made the CDT an officially recognized trail but did not allot funding for its development. It wasn’t until 2012 that meaningful work on the CDT go full boar.
What Direction The Continental Divide Trail is Usually Hiked and Why
The Traditional Route: South to North
For those dreaming of conquering the CDT, the journey typically begins at the lonely Crazy Cook Monument on the US-Mexico border. It concludes at Waterton Lake on the US-Canada boundary. This south-to-north trek has become the established route for one crucial reason. It’s a strategic alignment with the weather patterns and seasons along the trail’s length.
Starting in the south, hikers can avoid the extreme heat of New Mexico’s desert. The heat there can be particularly brutal in the summer months. As hikers move north, they’ll likely encounter the high elevations of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. When timed right, the winter snows have largely retreated, rendering the terrain more navigable.
Moreover, this direction gives hikers a natural conditioning program. The southern stretches, while not easy by any measure, allow for a gradual acclimation to higher altitudes. Along with altitude, the mountains increase physical demands. By the time thru-hikers reach the more grueling stretches in the north, they are often better prepared, both physically and mentally, to tackle the challenges ahead.
The Road Less Traveled: North to South
That said, there’s a subset of hikers who opt for a north-to-south journey, sometimes colloquially referred to as hiking “backwards.” This alternative route isn’t without its merits. First, it often means fewer crowds, as most hikers are moving in the opposite direction. Secondly, the autumnal spectacle of fall colors in the northern states can be a sight to behold. They provide a different aesthetic experience altogether. Finally, hiking southward allows hikers a chance to enjoy some of the best the trail has to offer during a different season (more on seasonality below).
The Choice is Yours
Ultimately, the direction in which you choose to hike the CDT comes down to personal preferences and logistical considerations. Each direction offers its own unique challenges and rewards. Whether you’re marching northward from hot to cool, or the other way around, the CDT promises a transformative journey through the heart of America’s wilderness.
The Best Time of Year to Hike the Trail
When considering the optimum time to set out on the CDT, the direction you intend to hike is the key factor. Beyond personal preference, it’s a logistical choice that accedes to the climatic conditions you’re likely to encounter on your journey.
Northbound Timing: April to October
For northbound hikers, April to October offers a favorable window. Most northbound thru-hikers initiate their treks in April. They navigate New Mexico’s scorching desert vistas before ascending into the cooler climates of the northern states. Typically, they aim to reach the Canadian border by late August or September. This is when the weather is still relatively mild, and the threat of early snows is minimal.
Southbound Timing: June to November
If you’re considering a southbound trek, then you’ll want to consider a timeframe from June to November. In this case, hikers often confront lingering snow in Glacier National Park at the outset, making a June start more practicable. As they proceed southward, the weather tends to become more temperate. However, early snowfall in the northern regions can still pose challenges.
How Long It Takes to Complete the Continental Divide Trail
Hiking the CDT is not for the faint of heart or the impatient of action. Averaging a journey of five and half months, completing this long-distance trail is a Herculean task. It that demands meticulous planning, rigorous physical conditioning, and a resolute mindset. The five-month figure is a ballpark estimate only. Some may traverse the trail faster, while others might take their time to savor each vista, challenge, and moment of self-discovery.
How Much Money Do People Usually Spend to Complete the Trail?
Five months is a long time. Thus, in addition to forgoing a salary during that period, be ready to shell out a pretty penny or two for your hike of a lifetime. Available survey data from 2022 puts the average spent by those who completed the CDT at $9,221.
Dangers of the Continental Divide Trail: What Every Hiker Needs to Know
The ideals of freedom and exploration are tempered by the various threats dispersed throughout the CDT’s length. Knowing what to anticipate and how to prepare for everything from extreme heat to difficult river crossings is essential for a safe and successful tour.
The Scourge of Heat
One of the earliest trials northbound hikers encounter is the blistering heat of New Mexico’s desert. This arid section is not to be taken lightly. Dehydration and heatstroke are real threats. The key to navigating these parts safely lies in hydration, timing, and protective clothing. Consuming ample water, avoiding the sun during peak hours, and wearing hats and sunscreen are standard, yet essential, precautions.
The Cold Clutches of Snow
Conversely, northbound hikers may find themselves traversing snowy terrains in Northern New Mexico, Colorado, and occasionally Montana. Snow complicates the journey, making trails slippery, obscuring markers, and elevating the risk of avalanches. Proper gear like micro spikes, snowshoes, and ice axes are non-negotiable, as is the ability to navigate using maps and compasses.
Lightning Strikes: Don’t Risk It
The trail’s elevation often places hikers on exposed ridgelines, making them susceptible to lightning strikes. Yes, lightning does strike twice. Even thrice, and maybe more. A quick change in weather can transform a serene hike into a life-threatening situation. When the sky darkens and thunder rumbles, descending from high peaks and seeking sanctuary in low areas or forests is vital.
Navigating Treacherous Waters
The CDT is peppered with river crossings that can escalate from manageable to perilous during high-water periods. The stakes? Hypothermia, injuries, or even drowning. Hikers should scout for the safest crossing points and employ trekking poles or ropes for balance. Unbuckling your backpack can make it easier to shed weight in case you lose your footing.
Wildlife: Dances With Bears
Bears, both black and grizzly, are among the more daunting animals that hikers may encounter. Incorrect handling of these meetings can be fatal. Food storage in bear-resistant containers, making noise to signal your presence, and carrying bear spray are imperative. The trail is also home to cougars, rattlesnakes, moose, elk, and cattle, which all demand respect and caution.
The Invisible Threat: Altitude Sickness
Lastly, the trail’s elevated terrains can induce altitude sickness. This is a condition that can degrade into life-threatening pulmonary or cerebral edema (swelling caused by too much fluid). The symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and disorientation. Gradual acclimatization, ample water intake, and abstaining from alcohol and caffeine are essential. If symptoms persist or worsen, immediate descent is advised.
Highlights of the Trail: Some of America’s Most Stunning Backdrops
Of course, of the many reasons one would undertake such an arduous trek, the otherwise inaccessible scenery is often top of the list. After all, it’s 3,100 miles through the American West. Further, it covers diverse terrains that span the spectrum from arid desert to alpine heights. In between each footstep lies an opportunity for discovery. Even a rare moment to pause and soak in the unique beauty that each region has to offer. Here’s a closer look at some highlights that make the CDT a once-in-a-lifetime experience for hikers.
South San Juan Wilderness: A Haven of Solitude
Starting near the New Mexico border, the South San Juan Wilderness welcomes you with its vastness and silence. Surrounded by the San Juan Mountains, this area promises an undisturbed communion with nature. It serves as a serene prelude to the adventures ahead.
Time Travel: Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
As you trek further north, the distinctive horn of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad offers a whimsical contrast to the surrounding wilderness. Operating on a narrow-gauge track, this heritage train serves as a rolling museum, showcasing the bygone days of the region.
Wolf Creek Pass: The Sky’s the Limit
Ascending in elevation and heading north, Wolf Creek Pass appears as a gateway to the heavens. This pass marks your entrance to the Continental Divide and the Weminuche Wilderness. With its stunning vistas, it’s a landscape photographer’s dream come true.
Creede Cut-Off: A Historic Stop
Moving along, you’ll encounter the Creede cut-off, a historical detour for taking in the nostalgia of an old mining town. In addition to being a strategic rest stop, it’s a page from a different chapter of Colorado’s history.
San Juan Mountains and Weminuche Wilderness: Where Earth Meets Sky
As you journey deeper into the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, you come to the San Juan Mountains and the Weminuche Wilderness. High and rugged, the area figured prominently in Colorado’s early history of gold and silver mining.
Salida: A Small Town with a Big Heart
As you continue northward, the quaint town of Salida extends a warm hand of hospitality. Perfect for resupplying and resting, this township offers a gentle pause in your physically demanding journey. You may even want to consider treating your weary limbs to a long dip in one of the nearby hot springs.
Endeavor’s Summit: Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
Steering into an even more challenging terrain, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness offers a gauntlet of towering 14ers (peaks whose elevation is 4,000 feet or more from sea level). The optional Collegiate West route presents additional challenges for those looking to trek in extra-hard mode.
Lakeside Relaxation: Twin Lakes
Continuing northward, Twin Lakes welcomes you to a sanctuary of serenity. Flanked by Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert, this area is perfect for a moment of reflection.
Glacier National Park: A Gem on the CDT
Of the CDT’s 3,100 miles, 110 cuts through Glacier National Park in Montana. It’s a section many thru-hikers eagerly anticipate. Some of the many highlights from this stretch include:
Swiftcurrent Pass and Granite Park Chalet
Reached from Many Glacier, this spectacular pass offers panoramic views that make the climb wholly worthwhile. If you plan well, you can book a night at the historic Granite Park Chalet, a rustic yet welcoming stone lodge that requires reservations. Here, you can rest your weary legs and take in the natural splendor from a comfortable vantage point.
The Highline Trail
From Granite Park Chalet, the CDT merges with the Highline Trail, leading hikers through some of the park’s most isolated terrain. Along this stretch, you’ll find yourself in awe of the glaciers adorning the ridgelines and peaks overhead. It’s a vivid reminder of the ancient forces that shaped these mountains.
Waterton Valley Trail
Upon reaching Fifty Mountain, the trail adopts a new name: the Waterton Valley Trail. From here, the route mostly follows the Waterton River, culminating at Goat Haunt on the southern shores of Waterton Lake. This area serves as a stunning finale to Glacier’s section of the CDT at the US-Canada border.
The Triple Crown of Hiking: Understanding the Continental Divide Trail
The CDT shares its elevated status with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the Triple Crown of Hiking. Each trail has unique features that distinguish it from the others. Here’s a concise guide to these iconic trails and the CDT’s unique role.
Appalachian Trail (AT): Hiking’s Historic Heart
The AT, America’s first long-distance trail, like the CDT, was also founded by Benton MacKaye. It winds through 14 states over 2,190 miles, from Georgia to Maine. For serious hikers, it’s a rite of passage through dense forests and challenging terrains. Its standout quality is its robust trail community, making it ideal for hikers who thrive on social interaction.
Pacific Crest Trail (PCT): A Panoramic Adventure
Spanning 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, the PCT is a visual spectacle. It journeys through California’s deserts, Oregon’s lush forests, and Washington’s jagged peaks. Designed for both hikers and horse travel, its well-graded paths offer a strenuous yet visually stunning experience.
Continental Divide Trail (CDT): The Untamed Frontier
At about 3,100 miles, the CDT is the longest and most remote of the three. Additionally, it’s considered the most challenging due to its high elevations and sparse trail markings. With its myriad of landscapes, from deserts to mountains, and their attendant challenges, the CDT is the pinnacle of US wilderness hiking. In fact, it’s arguably America’s most difficult hike.
The Exclusive Club: CDT’s Low Completion Rates
Completing the CDT is a monumental feat, on par with scaling towering peaks or crossing vast oceans. Yet, the CDT sees far fewer annual completions compared to its Triple Crown counterparts, due to its daunting challenges.
Elusive Numbers: No Official Tally
There’s no official count of CDT completions. Instead of a formal permit system, information comes from a mix of surveys, reports, and anecdotal evidence. This lack of data only deepens the trail’s mystique.
Inferred Estimates: Piecing Together Clues
Even without concrete data, some estimates offer insights into the trail’s exclusivity. One source suggests that only 50 to 100 hikers completed the trail annually between 2015 and 2022. Another puts the number closer to 150. In contrast, over 1,000 hikers finished either the AT or PCT in 2019. This is nearly a tenfold difference.
Why So Few? Key Challenges
Several factors deter CDT completions. Its high elevations, technical terrain, and complex navigation make it a route only for the most committed. The trail’s length and isolation require significant planning and self-reliance. Variable weather and fewer resupply points compared to the AT and PCT also pose logistical hurdles.
The Continental Divide Trail is an invitation to a transformative experience. It doesn’t offer easy categorization, with its diverse landscapes, from the arid stretches of New Mexico to the rocky peaks of Colorado.
More so than its sister trails, the CDT is a trail that asks more of thru-hikers, and thus offers more. Along with its breathtaking vistas, it serves as a catalyst for a deep, solitary communion with nature. Each climbed summit and crossed river become not just a personal achievement. It also becomes a meditation on the expansive, wild landscapes that still define much of America. The newness of the trail and the absence of concrete data on its completion rates makes every step on the trail a venture into the relative unknown. We are often too aware of how transportation and communications technology render our planet smaller and smaller. The CDT is a reminder of how big the Earth really is, and how grand hiking its lands can be.
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