Long Distance Trails

Hiking the Spine of North America: A Journey Along the Continental Divide Trail

POSTED ON September 13, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

If you’re a hiker or a trail runner who’s eager to take your experience to the next level, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to explore the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

For adventurers seeking a true expedition, thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail is an unforgettable experience. This trail is one of the most challenging long-distance hikes in the world, featuring extreme temperatures, high-altitude conditions, and rugged terrain. It takes an average of 6-7 months to complete and is divided into five sections: New Mexico, Southern Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Stretching about 3100 miles (4988 km), the CDT passes through some of North America’s most spectacular terrain – including the Rocky Mountains and the Wind River Range – as well as through seven National Parks: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Great Basin National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Arapaho National Forest. While much of the route is off-road, some sections require road walking or hiking on official CDT routes.

The CDT is part of the Triple Crown of long thru-hikes, which also includes the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. For many hikers, completing all three is a dream come true – but no matter what your goal is, traversing the CDT will be an adventure you won’t soon forget.

From the desert of Southern Colorado to Wyoming’s high San Juan Mountains, the miles and terrain vary as much as the amazing views on either side of the divide.

For those who are willing to take on the experience, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment like no other when you reach the other side of town for that well-deserved burger.

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So why not make this year’s tour something special? – Try the spine of North America, and discover just what you’re capable of.

continental Divide Trail Sign

History

The history of the CDT is a tale of collaboration between the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and other entities. Their efforts have transformed the CDT from a patchwork of trails and road walking into an official long trail.

In the early years, tackling the CDT was an audacious undertaking with few resources available. As the trail gained recognition, hikers established the “main CDT” and set the standard for what a long-distance trek entails. Town stops, strategically positioned along the route, offer resupplies and a chance to rest.

The CDT not only showcases the continent’s backbone but also provides an avenue for personal growth, as adventurous people find themselves facing challenges and redefining their limits. From the southern deserts to the northern peaks, the CDT promises an extraordinary long-distance adventure—an expedition of self-discovery amidst breathtaking landscapes.

Hiking the CDT is an adventure like no other. Comparable to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (ATl), completing the CDT is part of the Triple Crown of thru hiking and is also considered to be the most challenging of the three. Hikers tackle extreme challenges as they traverse the trail, from desert stretches to high alpine climbs. The CDT’s official route often diverges from marked trails, providing a unique and rewarding experience.

The trail passes through iconic spots such as Glacier National Park, offering unparalleled beauty. Hikers encounter remote sections where navigation skills are paramount.

The path often leads off the beaten path, requiring self-reliance and an indomitable spirit. It is recommended to tackle the AT or PCT first on your thru-hiking adventure to become a triple-crowner.

A section of the Continental Divide Trail near Glacier National park

Key Facts about The Continental Divide Trail

Total Length: Approximately 3,100 miles (4,988 kilometers)

Time required: 5-7 months

Establishment: Conceived in the 1970s, and officially designated as a National Scenic Trail in 1978.

Best Time to Visit: April – September (from North to South).

Overall elevation gain/loss: Around 917,470′ over 3029.3 mi (avg: 303’/mi) over the course of the entire trail

Lowest Point: Around 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) at the border of Mexico and New Mexico.

Highest Point: Grays Peak at 14,278 feet (4,352 meters) above sea level in Colorado.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Hiking the Continental Divide Trail is a thru hiker’s dream come true. With 3,100 miles (4,988 kilometers) spanning from Mexico to Canada, the CDT is an epic adventure that coincides with the Colorado Trail and crosses through seven national parks and four states: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Formed in 1978 by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC), it follows the backbone of North America and is part of the Triple Crown of long-thru hikes.

The CDT passes through some stunning landscapes. You’ll find yourself walking along dirt roads in the deserts, scaling high peaks in the Rocky Mountains, and meandering through peaceful forests in Colorado’s Grand Lake.

Depending on which section you tackle, the terrain and route options vary. Most hikers start in Mexico and move north towards Canada, though the opposite route is also possible.

The CDT is an experience that requires physical fitness and mental toughness. The elements of bad weather, long miles, and remote wilderness can make it difficult to complete the trail in one go. This usually means that most adventurous people choose to section hike the CDT, breaking it up into more manageable chunks. You can read more information about the challenges of mountain hiking in our guide to help you plan a successful trip.

To complete the trail in full, you’ll need to plan your route carefully and prepare for long distances between supply points. You also need to be well stocked up on food carries – this is especially true if you’re venturing off official CDT routes onto trails or gravel roads.

For those who are willing to take on the challenge, there is an amazing sense of accomplishment when you reach the other side. Hiking the entire Trail will be a life-changing experience that you’ll never forget. The pain, exhaustion, and joy of reaching a new peak will stay with you forever.

The CDT allows thru hikers to immerse themselves in a completely new environment and experience the beauty of nature in its rawest form. You’ll build relationships with fellow hikers, share stories, and make memories that will last for years to come. Every day brings fresh opportunities to explore the mountains and uncover hidden gems you couldn’t have hoped to find any other way.

With preparation, a lot of drive, and dedication, you can make your dreams of hiking the CDT a reality. However, it is recommended to gain some thru-hiking experience before attempting a CDT thru-hike.

Gravel road along a section of the continental divide Trail

Preparing for the Trail: Physical and Mental Fitness

Preparing for the Continental Divide Trail is essential to ensuring a safe and successful hiking experience. Not only are you required to have an adequate level of physical fitness, but also mental readiness – as pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in terms of landscape, weather conditions, altitude change, and isolation from society can be daunting. Here’s a guide to help you prepare for the challenges of desert hiking and hiking in the rain.

The most important aspect of preparing for the CDT and other long-distance hiking is getting your body used to high-altitude trekking. Altitudes can range from 4,200 feet (1280 meters) at the border of Mexico and New Mexico up to 14,278 feet (4351) at Grays Peak in Colorado – so it’s essential that you train your body accordingly. You can check out how to get in shape for hiking.

Additionally, the cost of thru-hiking the CDT should not be overlooked. The cost of food, gear, and accommodation needs to be factored into your budget. To help you plan ahead, make sure to check out our guide on the cost of thru-hiking for an idea of how much you should budget.

Microclimates on the trail will vary drastically, from desert landscapes with sweltering heat to snow-covered mountains with freezing temperatures. Training your body for the conditions you will face on the CDT is of utmost importance, as altitude affects your heart rate and breathing – not only slowing down your pace but also making you feel weak when exerting yourself.

Mental preparation is even more important than physical training for long thru-hikes like the CDT. As the trail is so remote, you will spend a lot of time alone and in solitude – so it’s important to have a plan to cope with such scenarios. Many people find that keeping a journal or writing blog posts helps them stay focused throughout their trek. Additionally, having regular contact with friends and family can provide a sense of reassurance while on the trail.

The CDT is not for the faint of heart – but with plenty of physical and mental preparation, you can embark on a tour of self-discovery like no other. The rewards will be plentiful – as pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and conquering ever-changing landscapes will be an unforgettable experience.

  • You can read books about the CDT, and check out resources from the CDTC. Here are two helpful guides [1] [2]
  • Leave yourself plenty of time so you can savor each and every moment
  • Choose the right gear for your trek: You’ll need to understand what to pack for a multi-day hike. But lightweight is key.
  • Have an emergency plan in place – know what to do if something goes wrong to avoid some common hiking injuries.
  • Choose the official route or other trails; it’s up to you: Discover what works best for you
  • Select supply points and towns where you can restock food and supplies along the way. You can find the best places to resupply here.

Make sure your trip is one to remember by preparing properly. Make your dreams memorable with a bit of effort and the right attitude.

Preparing for a long distance hike

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike The Continental Divide Trail and Weather Conditions

Hiking the full length of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a remarkable thru-hike that takes you through a diverse range of climate conditions. With support from the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, the National Park Service, and other entities, the CDT offers an incredible cruise, much like the more accessible and popular Appalachian Trail.

Here are the seasonal considerations and best times to visit.

Spring (March-May)

As thru-hikers begin their trek, they’ll experience the transition from winter to spring. Days in the wilderness can be warm, ranging from 15-25°C (59-77°F), but nights can still be chilly, dropping to 0-10°C (32-50°F).

As you head north, temperatures can be unpredictable, with sudden snowstorms and rapidly changing conditions in the Rocky Mountains.

Summer (June – August)

Thru-hikers reach high altitudes and encounter various microclimates. In areas like the San Juans, the temperatures can range from a comfortable 10-20°C (50-68°F) during the day, but they can drop dramatically at night.

The Northern Rockies, including Glacier National Park, offer milder daytime temperatures around 15-25°C (59-77°F), but nights can still get quite cold.

Fall (September – November)

As fall arrives, hikers heading toward the Canadian border can face dropping temperatures, especially in high alpine areas. Expect daytime temperatures around 10-20°C (50-68°F), but prepare for colder nights ranging from -5 to 5°C (23-41°F).

In Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and Wyoming’s Wind River Range (location), snowstorms are a possibility.

Winter (December – February)

Winter hiking on the CDT is a serious challenge and not recommended for most beginner hikers. The route is often covered in deep snow, and conditions can be treacherous. Temperatures can plummet well below freezing, ranging from -20 to -5°C (-4 to 23°F), making even short sections extremely dangerous and should only be attempted by groups of people with a lot of experience in similar conditions. 

Thru-hiking the CDT demands careful planning. Always be prepared for sudden changes and bad weather, especially at high elevations. Fortunately, there are rest towns along the way that can provide a break from challenging conditions.

River along the Continental Divide Trail

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful Continental Divide Hike

Thru-hiking along the CDT  requires careful consideration of your gear. Whether you’re hiking solo, with friends, or seeking the support of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service, having the right equipment can make your trip more enjoyable and safe.

Thru Hiking gear

Footwear: Your choice of footwear is crucial for a successful hike. Invest in high-quality hiking boots or trail shoes that provide ankle support and comfort for the miles ahead. These two guides can help you choose the correct hiking boots and compression Silverlight hiking socks.

Backpack: A well-fitting backpack is your lifeline on the trail. Look for one that distributes weight evenly and offers ample storage for your gear. You can read about how to choose an ideal pack here.

Sleeping Gear: A reliable sleeping bag and lightweight, compact sleeping pad are essential for restful nights after long days of hiking. Get one here.

Shelter: Depending on your preference, choose a lightweight tent or shelter that provides protection from the elements. This is your home away from home. Get the best selection here.

Clothing: Layering is key for changing weather. Pack moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layers, a waterproof outer layer, and spare socks.

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Navigation Tools: Carry a detailed map, compass, and GPS device to navigate through the varying terrains and ensure you stay on the right path.

Cooking Equipment: A compact stove, cookware, and lightweight utensils are essential for preparing meals and staying fueled. Get the best selection here.

Water Filtration: Reliable water purification methods are a must. Consider carrying a lightweight filter or purification tablets to ensure access to clean water.

First Aid Kit: Accidents happen, so having a well-equipped first aid kit is vital for treating minor injuries such as blisters and illnesses on the trail.

Hiking Poles: Hiking poles provide extra stability, especially during steep climbs and descents.

Sun Protection: Don’t underestimate the power of the sun at high altitudes. Pack a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

Emergency Gear: Carry a whistle, signaling mirror, and emergency blanket for unexpected situations. You can purchase the best emergency blanket for survival here.

Before hitting the trail, research the specific challenges of each section, from the desert stretches to the high peaks and rugged terrain of Wyoming and Colorado.

Plan your gear based on the conditions you’re likely to encounter, and consider past summer conditions, especially if you’re aiming for a thru-hike starting from the southern terminus.

Here’s more information on the backpacking checklist

Camping and Overnight Stays Near Continental Divide Trail

Camping and finding suitable overnight accommodations are integral aspects of your visit along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Understanding the camping options and guidelines is essential for a safe and enjoyable thru-hike as you traverse diverse landscapes and ecosystems.

Backcountry Camping

Wild Camping: One of the unique features of the CDT is the opportunity for dispersed camping. In most areas, hikers can set up wild camps away from established campgrounds, allowing them to truly immerse themselves in the wilderness.

Established Campgrounds: You’ll encounter established campgrounds in certain areas and national park trails along the CDT. Most of these campgrounds provide amenities like water sources, restrooms, and sometimes even showers. These campgrounds are great for a more comfortable camping experience and for refilling your water supply.

Backcountry Zones: Some sections of the CDT, particularly in the national parks and wilderness areas, may have designated backcountry camping zones. Research these zones and obtain any necessary permits to camp before you begin your journey.

Water Sources: Consider proximity to reliable water sources when planning your camping spots. Being close to water is important for cooking, staying hydrated, and cleaning up.

High-Alpine Camping: Conditions can change rapidly in the higher elevations. So, be prepared for colder temperatures and potential storms. Camp in well-sheltered areas, and choose sites that are least likely to impact fragile alpine vegetation.

Trail Towns and Hostels: Many trail towns along the CDT, like Salida (location), Pie Town (location), Grand Lake (location), and Steamboat Springs (location) offer hiker-friendly accommodations such as hostels, motels, and campgrounds. These are great opportunities for a comfortable night’s rest, a shower, and resupplying.

Safety Considerations: Always prioritize safety when selecting your camping spot. Choose areas that are well-drained to avoid flooding during rain. Keep a safe distance from wildlife, and be cautious about camping near dead trees or unstable terrain. We have a guide to wildlife safety on the trail.

Permits and Regulations: Before starting your CDT thru-hike, research the specific requirements and obtain the necessary permits well in advance. Some permits may have limited availability or application deadlines, so plan accordingly to ensure a smooth and responsible journey along this iconic long-distance trail.

Here is a list of the permits you’ll need.

  1. Southern Terminus Permit: If you begin your thru-hike at the southern terminus near Crazy Cook Monument in New Mexico, you may need a permit for access to this remote area. Check with the appropriate land management agency for current requirements.
  1. National Park Permits: The CDT passes through several national parks, including Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Each park may have its own permitting process and fees for backcountry camping.
  • Resources:
  1. Wilderness Area Permits: The CDT traverses numerous wilderness areas, such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana or the San Pedro Parks Wilderness in New Mexico. Check with the managing agencies for specific permit requirements.
  • Resources:
  1. State Lands: Some sections of the CDT pass through state lands, which may have their own regulations and permitting requirements. Be sure to research and comply with state-specific rules.
  1. Waterway Crossings: If you need to cross rivers or streams, inquire about necessary permits for watercraft (e.g., pack rafts, canoes) from state agencies or land managers.
  • Resource: Check with relevant state agencies for watercraft regulations and permits.
  1. Campfire and Stove Regulations: Be aware of local fire regulations and restrictions, which can vary based on climatic conditions and fire danger levels.
  • Resources: The official local land management agencies and Forest Service websites (in each section of the Trail) should provide up-to-date information.

Resupplying and Refueling: Surviving the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada

Proper resupply planning ensures you have the sustenance and support you need to conquer the trail through each section. Each resupply point is an opportunity to rest, replenish, and connect with fellow hikers.

Continental Divide Trail

Let’s dive into key resupply sections and notable points, along with must-see scenic highlights that will leave you in awe.

Southern Terminus to Colorado

Starting from the Mexican border, the initial weeks take you through desolate landscapes and vast expanses. Supply points like Silver City (location), 7.7 miles (12 km) away offer essential restocking points. The Gila River area offers refreshing water and stunning canyon views, while the San Pedro Parks Wilderness offers a lush oasis.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Majesty

As you enter Colorado, supply points like Salida (location), Grand Lake (location), and Steamboat Springs via Rabbit Ears Pass come into play. The high alpine terrain of the San Juans presents a challenge but rewards you with breathtaking vistas.

Wyoming’s Rugged Wilderness

Wyoming is wild and remote. Dubois via Togwotee Pass, Old Faithful Village in Yellowstone, and Encampment via Battle Pass serve as resupply hubs. The Wind River Range showcases towering peaks and pristine lakes, while the Great Divide Basin offers a unique desert-like experience in the middle of the trail.

Montana’s Alpine Wonder

As you continue north, Darby via Chief Joseph Pass and Leadore via Bannock Pass offer resupply options. Glacier National Park is a highlight with its glaciers, lakes, and rugged landscapes. The Bob Marshall Wilderness provides a pristine escape into an untouched wilderness.

Glacier National Park on the Continental Divide Trail

Heading to the Canadian Border

In Montana, the towns of Lincoln and Helena are essential for resupplying. The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness showcases alpine lakes and meadows. As you head into the final stretch, the trail nears the Canadian border, with Waterton Lakes National Park as the iconic northern terminus.

Check out this link for more resupply information.

Expert Tips from Pro Hikers

  • Mail Drops: Send packages ahead to specific resupply points, especially in more remote sections where options are limited. This ensures you have the exact items you need, but it requires precise planning and reliable mail service.
  • Hybrid Resupply: Combine mail drops with in-town resupplies. This gives you flexibility while still having essential items available. Plan key supply points for mail drops and rely on local stores for other sections.
  • Local Stores: Take advantage of stores and markets in trail towns to restock food, fuel, and other essentials. Check guides and trail forums for information about available stores and their offerings. You can get good information from these two links [1] [2]
  • Trail Angels and Hostels: Some trail angels and hostels offer hiker boxes with extra food and supplies left behind by other hikers. Be sure to leave something behind if you take it from a hiker’s box.
  • Online Resources: Utilize reliable online resources and hiking apps to get updated information about resupply options, water sources, and trail conditions from hikers who have recently passed through.
  • Community Support: Local communities offer support to hikers, such as free meals or transportation to stores in some towns. Hence, engaging with locals can provide unexpected assistance.
  • Calculate Caloric Needs: Estimate your daily caloric needs based on your hiking pace and terrain, thru-hikers can consume up to 6000 calories per day. Ensure your resupply includes enough calories to keep you energized. We have a guide to 25 delicious backpacking food ideas to help you plan a successful visit.
  • Water Planning: Research water sources along the trail and plan your days around these sources. Carry enough water capacity for dry stretches.
  • Check Trail Conditions: Stay updated through trail associations, websites, and fellow hikers because Track conditions, weather, and fire closures can impact your resupply strategy.
  • Be Flexible: Unexpected events can occur, such as trail closures or personal changes in plans. So, being adaptable and having a backup plan is essential.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Embarking on a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) requires careful planning not only for the trail itself but also for the logistics of getting to and from the trailhead.

Here’s a guide on how to reach the trail and navigate transportation to ensure a smooth start to your CDT adventure.

Nearest Airports

  1. El Paso International Airport (ELP), Texas: If you’re beginning at the southern terminus in New Mexico, El Paso is the closest major airport, about a 2-hour drive to the trailhead at Crazy Cook Monument.
  2. Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), New Mexico: For those starting from the southern part of the state, Albuquerque provides a larger airport option. However, you’ll need to arrange transportation to the trailhead.
  3. Denver International Airport (DEN), Colorado: If you’re beginning in Colorado or further north, Denver is a major airport that provides easy access to various trailheads.
  4. Missoula International Airport (MSO), Montana: For hikers aiming for the northern stretches of the trail, Missoula is a good option, particularly if you’re heading toward Glacier National Park.

Transportation from Airports to Trailheads

  • El Paso to Crazy Cook Monument: Arrange transportation (e.g., shuttle service, rental car) from El Paso to the Crazy Cook Monument trailhead. Shuttle services specifically catering to CDT hikers can often be found online.
  • Albuquerque to Southern Terminus: From Albuquerque, you can take a bus or shuttle to Lordsburg. From Lordsburg, you can arrange a shuttle to Crazy Cook Monument.
  • Denver to Colorado Trailheads: Denver is well-connected with various trailheads in Colorado. You can take a bus, shuttle, or rental car to reach your chosen trailhead, depending on your starting point.
  • Missoula to Northern Terminus: After arriving in Missoula, you can take a shuttle or public transportation to trail towns along the Montana portion of the CDT.

Additional Tips

  • Shuttle Services: Many shuttle services cater specifically to thru-hikers on the CDT. These services can often be found online or through forums. You can get good information from these two links [1] [2]
  • Local Transportation: Local transportation options might be available from trail towns to trailheads in some cases. Thus, check with visitor centers or local transportation services.
  • Flexibility: Be prepared for changes in transportation plans, and allow for extra time in case of delays.

Conclusion

The CDT is a true adventure through the heart of America’s wilderness, part of the triple crown long hikes. It tests most hikers and thru-hiker’s physical and mental strength from the Mexican border in New Mexico to the Canadian border in Montana. It challenges you to conquer high peaks, navigate remote sections, alpine meadows, dense forests, and rugged mountain ranges, and embrace the unpredictability of weather. But within these challenges lies an opportunity for profound self-discovery and personal growth.

Embark on this historic hike, an unforgettable experience that should be on every outdoor enthusiast’s bucket list.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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