A Quick and Dirty CDT Guide

A quick and dirty guide to get you pointed in the right direction for planning a hike of the Continental Divide Trail. Updated April 2014.

 

The Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail is the last of the “Big Three” trails that most thru-hikers tackle as part of the Triple Crown of long distance hiking. Raw, wild, remote and unfinished; it is a trail that will make use of all the skills of an experienced backpacker. It is also a trail that is beautiful, stunning and perhaps the most rewarding of the major long distance hiking trails.

This handout will help you prepare for the basics of a journey for this trail. It is not meant to be an exhaustive document. As always, you should consult with other resources before heading out on an extended trek in the mountains.

The Continental Divide Trail at a glance
  • Administered by US Forest Service
  • The trail is perhaps 70% done
  • No defined route for many of the places and has many alternate routes
  • The “trail” is a mixture of defined trail, cross country travel, dirt and paved road walking.
  • There is a designated route partially in place by the USFS, but most people take alternate routes in places
  • The CDT mileage estimates range from a low of 2500 miles (using guidebooks and maps that are reported to be off) to a high of 3100 miles (unlikely). Most people believe the typical route is ~2600-2700 miles with 2800 miles splitting the difference. Yeah, confusing. Either way, it is a long freakin’ walk. :)
  • Goes through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico along the spine of the Rockies (more or less)
  • The northern terminus is in Glacier National Park and ends at the Mexican border. Three southern termini: 1) Columbus, NM 2) Antelope Wells, NM or the 3)Crazy Cook Monument
Appalachian Trail vs. Pacific Crest Trail  vs. Continental Divide Trail
  • Needless to say the AT and the CDT are not alike in anyway. They are both long trails that goes through the mountains… and that is where the similarity ends
  • A better comparison is between the CDT and the PCT
  • Both are about the same length, go above treeline and in remote areas
  • As with the PCT, the CDT is open to horses. Currently parts of the CDT are also mountain bike accessible
  • The PCT is finished, is well marked and is relatively well used. The CDT is unfinished, is not well marked in many places and is very unused in places
  • Take most thru-hikers 4-5 months to hike the CDT
  • Logistics are similar to the PCT; about 5-7 days in between resupplies
  • A NoBo will start in late April and typically finish in September. Start too early and you hit much snow in the San Juans of Colorado. Finish too late and you hit snow in Montana
  • A SoBo will start in mid-June and typically finish in November. Start too early and you will see much snow in Montana. Dawdle too much and you may hit snow in the San Juans.
Two Trail Philosophies

There are two trail philosophies for the CDT: The designated route put forth by the USFS and more of a corridor approach taken by many CDT hikers.  I used to say that the concept of purity on the CDT is nearly non-existent. Often a choice of routes is made due to weather, desire for resupply, fires, trail closures, floods,  wanting to see certain highlights or “just because”.

However, due to a  multitude of resources now available in terms of maps, GPS tracks, additional  trail markings and so on, more people are *attempting* the designated USFS route vs previous years.

So now more people are attempting to hike the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail vs the Continental Divide Trail.

The CDNST is the designated trail put in place by the USFS. For those who prefer a more defined trail experience, hiking the CDNST holds a lot of appeal. The designated trail goes through some amazing places and will not be a disappointment.

Other hikers are hiking the CDT.  Sometimes it coincides with the CDNST; other times it does not. Sometimes the CDT is more remote and more difficult than the CDNST. The beauty of the CDT can rival or even surpass the designated CDNST in places. In other places the CDT is sometimes shorter, sometimes easier, a little less scenic and sometimes more straight forward than the designated route.

Which route is better?

That’s a silly question. You just have to decide for yourself. ;)

And so it goes.

Trail Organizations

Currently the Continental Divide Trail Society http://www.cdtsociety.org/  is the  advocacy group for the CDT with an emphasis on hiking.  The CDTS is an organization started by Jim Wolf. The CDTS typically defines a route that is more hiker friendly (more scenic, sometimes off the beaten path, not always horse accessible) and produces a very popular set of guidebooks

Continental Divide Trail Alliance  A more recent organization that worked closely with the USFS to define a designated route for the CDT. In recent years they have worked closely with local outdoor groups to build and maintain the CDT (esp. in New Mexico).  Sadly, this organization has closed shop as of January 2012.

A newly created group is the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. The CDTC, to quote its website, is a coalition that “connects the community that supports the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail”  Their Facebook site says it quite nicely, too “We connect the community to protect, preserve and promote the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail“.

And there are many other organizations that promote and protect the CDT, build trail, organize fundraisers, lobby with the government and so on. Fittingly for the CDT, there is a wide range of groups and people with different ideas and methods who all love the trail and the community around it.

 

Major Concerns of CDT hikers

Most aspiring thru-hikers of the CDT have a few key concerns. A CDT hiker should have considerable backpacking experience and ideally have done a previous long hike on a Western trail such as the PCT. The CDT is *NOT* a beginners thru-hiking trail. It is assumed that an aspiring thru-hiker should know how to read a map, use a compass, manage resupplies and water issues. Having said that, the major concerns for most thru-hikers seem to be:

1) Navigation

The CDT is an work in progress. It is not a well marked trail like the PCT, never mind the AT! A CDTer MUST know how to use a map and compass.
A great link for learning to use a map and compass is found at: http://www.learn-orienteering.org/old/
Though not needed, a GPS device is found to be useful by many hikers. The GPS helps with what I politely call the WTF (Where The BLEEP) factor. A GPS will pinpoint your exact position on the map. Many GPS units also have software that allows to you load in maps. A GPS does have limitations, though and it is not a replacement for map and compass and knowledge of their use.
A nice little guide to GPS operations can be found at http://tinyurl.com/3xmqa

2) Maps

A thru-hike of the CDT needs LOTS of maps. Almost all thru-hikers use the Jonathan Ley maps. These maps show several routes for the CDT and have made hiking the CDT less daunting. A CD with the maps can be procured from http://www.phlumf.com/travels/cdt/cdtmaps.shtml

As great as the Ley maps are, they are limited. They do not give the wide view sometimes need for taking alternate routes (such as when a fire occurs and/or a major snowstorm happens. Both incidents happened to me!)

The popular alternate maps in brief are:

Delorme Gazetteers The Gazetteers give a large overview of the area where the trail goes through. Useful for finding out USFS roads, alternate routes and/or bail out points. You may want to trace/draw in your CDT route based on Ley Maps or other resources

Trails Illustrated Maps For Colorado and Glacier National Park, these maps show the CDT routes in excellent detail. A little expensive (~$10 ea.) and heavy, but they can make navigation easier esp. if you need to take alternate routes from your planned itinerary

Earthwalk Press Wind River Range Maps: Many CDT hikers take the designated route in the valley. The J Ley maps show some great routes. These maps can also help make your own route through this fantastic area.

USFS/BLM maps: Though there is new (and excellent!) tread being built all the time, there is still much dirt road walking in New Mexico in particular. These maps are found to be helpful for certain areas of the trail.

Bear Creek Survey Mapbooks: Creators of a similar Colorado Trail mapbook, these maps show the designated corridor of USFS route. They are excellent maps. A new map book called  “The Continental Divide Trail – Popular Alternates” is also available for taking some popular alternate routes. . Many hikers have reported good results using these maps for the designated CDT corridor and spoke highly of the maps.  Look on the forums below for occasional coupon codes from Lulu.com to save money. Note that waypoints are avail for free that work in conjunction with Bear Creek’s map books.

Jerry Brown of Bear Creek wrote this e-mail in Feb 2012:

CDT Mapbooks and Waypoint Data

After over two weeks of mind-numbing work, the waypoints for MT/ID are complete. They are now on the website. The entire official route is now available.

I apologize if I have seemed evasive to those who have been contacting me about the future of the Mapbooks. It was not until this morning that I knew what was going to happen. I have managed to acquire the rights to continue publishing the Mapbooks for New Mexico and Colorado under the Bearcreek umbrella. This means I will spend the rest of this winter producing new Mapbooks for Wyoming and Montana/Idaho. The NM and CO Mapbooks are being moved to the Bearcreek site at Lulu where I currently sell my Mexico Silver Trail book.

There are links to the books at www.bearcreeksurvey.com which is also where the waypoints are. The waypoints are free.

Or you can go directly to the Lulu listings at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/bearcreek1035 if you want to get a book.

Guides become obsolete as trail development continues. The closure of CDTA will probably slow development a bit, but regardless, I intend to spend time each summer gathering gps data for any and all changes. I intend to re-publish the books in a timely manner each winter so they remain current and correct.

The New Mexico and Colorado books will be re-published first (next winter) so if you find notable changes or errors in those please let me know. The USFS has indicated that they will keep me informed of changes, but we found considerable amounts of unreported activity and changes on our original survey so it would be great to get field reports from thru-hikers.

best wishes,

Jerry Brown (bearcreek)
mailto:bcss@bresnan.net
www.bearcreeksurvey.com

Speaking of waypoints, I also received this information from Frank “Starman” Gilland:

Website: https://sites.google.com/site/frankgilliland/cdt

Would you be open to add my CDT – GPS file share site to your CDT guide.

Another great new site for “Technoids” is:

http://www.bearcreeksurvey.com/

Jerry Brown has freely posted the waypoint and POI files for all to use. It also matches his published Atlas. It is NEW, ACCURATE and based on REAL field data.

I have taken the waypoint file and created a track file that follows his data and also show several alternates per Jonathan Ley and the “Out of Order” track set. My file share site is:

https://sites.google.com/site/frankgilliland/cdt

Waypoints of JLey Maps; 

I created tracks and waypoints that match the Ley maps to help those who are using GPS. This is intended as a complement for the Ley and/or Bear Creek maps.  Please use at your own risk and use common sense out on the trail!  These currently match the 2014 Bear Creek Data and 2013 Ley maps.  I will update the files to match the 2014 Ley maps as soon as I get the new maps.  ~Drop-N-Roll

http://www.drop-n-roll.com/map/

 

The Bear Creek/ J Ley hybrid approach – An increasingly popular approach for maps is to take the Bear Creek maps for the designated CDT and use select Ley alternates for such places as The Wind River Range,  James Peak area, the Gila and so on.  Best of both worlds! A lot of maps…but this is the CDT. Why not make the best of the journey? :) Please note that as of 2014, Bear Creek has an alternate route map book avail as well.

3) Guidebooks

There are two sets of guidebooks. The Continental Divide Trail Alliance published guidebooks that are aimed more the weekend or short distance backpacker. They provide trail access info, colorful pictures and trivia. They are of limited use for the long distance hiker, however. With the closing of the CDTA, these books may be harder to get and/or become outdated. They are already a decade or more old as well.

The Continental Divide Trail Society puts out guidebooks as well. Popularly known as the “Wolf Guides”, the books by Jim Wolf are very descriptive and accurate. Most long distance hikers prefer these guidebooks. They show the CDTS and not necessarily the designated USFS route in some cases.

Continental Divide Trail Databook   Thanks to Beacon, there is now a free and downloadable CDT databook. Making use of J Ley and Bear Creek data, and based on work previous done by Al H. ,  it is a resource that should prove to be useful for any CDT long distance hiker. Check it out. 

Guthook’s CDT App  From the makers of the well-known PCT and AT apps, these apps for the  Android and iOS platforms make use of Bear Creek’s maps along with trail information. Currently (April 2014) avail for the New Mexico portion of the CDT. Guthook hopes to phase in the rest of the trail over the course of summer 2014.   Initial reports are very good. As always, I would not rely 100% on any electronic guide. YMMV.

Guide and Map Confusion? 

To sum all this info up, here is an edited version of a post I wrote on a forum:

The ‘official’ guides are way out of date and haven’t been updated in 10 years or more. They are also from an org that no longer exists.

In brief, 

  • the Wolf guides have supplements regularly to update the existing guidebooks. The Wolf Guides describes the CDTS route (with few alternates).
  • the Bear Creek maps show the designated USFS route in excellent detail. An additional map book is needed for alt routes.
  • The J Ley maps show alt routes and the official route (if not as good detail as the above maps and guidebooks), Many annotations from previous hikers on the maps.
  • The there is Yogi’s guide aimed more at town and logistic info
  • Al H’ s newer databook should prove to be useful, too
  • The new Guthook app has a lot of information consolidated in electronic form

Most people take a mix of the above. The Grand Unification of CDT guides is still being sought. ;)

4)Resupplying

The challenges of re-supply are about as difficult as the PCT. About 5-7 days between re-supply. If you are not overly picky, you can re-supply just about anywhere. The hybrid approach (buy groceries in a large town and ship out to a smaller town) works well, too.

This link will assist in printing out mailing labels for stops along the CDT:  http://www.soruck.net/cdt/

Cool map of the above with postal info: http://www.soruck.net/cdt/postalmap.html

5)Grizzly Bears

In Glacier, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Yellowstone, grizzlies roam. You are not at top of the food chain! Luckily, grizzly bears will not bother you for the most part . In Glacier and Yellowstone, bear poles are set up for your use. In “The Bob”, you’ll want to use normal precautions for bear country. Because hunting is allowed in “The Bob”, bears tend to be wary of humans.
Some hiker take bear spray as a precaution. Whether you take bear spray or not is an individual decision.

6)Water

In the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming and New Mexico, water can be scarce. But, again, no worse than parts of the PCT. Use your guidebooks and maps, pay attention, and you’ll be fine.

7)Snow Travel

In a heavy snow year and/or with an early start, an ice axe (and possibly crampons) may be needed in the San Juans if going northbound. If going southbound, an ice axe (and possibly crampons) may be needed for similar reasons if attempting the High Line trail in Glacier National Park. Please note that there are lower, if less scenic, alternatives for the high routes.

This link is useful for overall snowpack in the Western US. Should help with planning.

8)Northbound vs. Southbound vs. Flipping

There is no such thing as an easy hike of the CDT! When going NoBo, there may be a lot of snow in the San Juans and winter may come early to Montana. When going SoBo, you may run into too much snow in Glacier and winter can come early to the San Juans. In some years, as much as  three feet of snow was dumped in the San Juans by mid-September. A good two weeks early!   In other years?  No major snowstorms have come to the Colorado Rockies even by November.

Every year is different.

Another option is to flip. My fellow Coloradoan Sidewinder chose to flip. He hiked up to Berthoud Pass near Winter Park, flipped up to Glacier and hiked south to finish back at Berthoud Pass. He missed much of the snow the SoBos ran into in Fall 2006. The disadvantage of this method is that you lose the feel of continuous journey.

Section Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

As the CDT is becoming more of a well known trail,  section hiking the trail is becoming a more popular option.

A thru-hike can be a wonderful journey.  Something romantic about putting on a pack, and walking the length of the country on your own power, grit and resolve.

But, that is not an option for everyone.  Financial obligations, family, job, etc. makes taking off ~5 months to walk a long trail difficult.

So, much like hiking on the Appalachian Trail, section hiking the Continental Divide Trail can be a viable option.  Unlike the Appalachian Trail, section hiking the Continental Divide Trail is logistically more difficult. Most hikers who section hike the CDT, hike in larger chunks of 2 or 3 months each rather than say the 2-3 weeks of section hiking the AT. I’ve heard this method of larger blocks of time called “chunk hiking”.

The advantages of “chunk hiking” the CDT are as follows:

  • Fire and flood closures are now an annual occurrence of the CDT. It is no longer IF a section is going to be closed due to fire or floods, but WHEN. (Sigh) Chunk hiking lets you avoid these closures a bit easier. Hike the sections when a fire is less likely to happen.
  • Pick and choose choose the sections at optimal times. Glacier or the San Juans when the wild flowers are in full bloom? Fall in New Mexico?  Good stuff!
  • Less of a time crunch to “beat the snow”.  A more leisurely hike can be had. Take that extra day off to see Logger Days in Darby!
  • Do all those alternates you wanted to try out but could not see if on a tighter thru-hike schedule.
  • Sure there are others, too…

There are more logistical challenges, but not as bad as it may seem if hiking larger chunks. For example, if you hike from Glacier NP to Rawlins, WY, there is public transit avail to get to Denver.  Likewise if you were to hike from Rawlins, WY to Cumbres Pass (Chama) you can take public transit to Santa Fe and then Albuquerque.  

Thru-hiking the CDT has its own rewards, but so does chunk hiking. :)

Permits

There is no master permit such as the one for the Pacific Crest Trail. A backpacker needs to have a permit for each of the National Parks and certain wilderness areas.

Permits are required for Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park (if you choose that route), Indian Peaks Wilderness (if you choose that route) and a self signed permit for various wilderness areas.

Resources

Groups

Continental Divide Trail Society http://www.cdtsociety.org/ An organization started by Jim Wolf. The CDTS typically defines a route that is more hiker friendly (more scenic, sometimes off the beaten path, not always horse accessible) and produces a very popular set of guidebooks

Continental Divdie Trail Coalition –    http://www.continentaldividetrail.org  An umbrella group to help organize the many supporters, trail orgs and such that help support the CDT.  More grass roots oriented than the former CDTA.  The group is reaching out to all people and groups that love the CDT.

ALDHA – East www.aldha.org Though primarily for Eastern hiking, there are many people in the organization who have also hiked the CDT

ALDHA – West http://www.aldhawest.org/ This org focuses on Western hiking and hands out the Triple Crowner awards

Discussion Boards/Lists

CDT-L http://mailman.backcountry.net/pipermail/cdt-l/ A list-serv for the CDT. Many CDTers are active on this list

Trail Forums www.trailforums.com This website has some CDT discussion

Whiteblaze.net www.whiteblaze.net Though AT focused, the OTHER TRAILS section is getting more and more popular. The CDT forum has a fair amount of use.

Facebook: Various “classes” typically have their own Facebook group (e.g. class of 2013, class of 2014) and are valuable for answering questions and exchanging information

The Trail Unites Ushttp://thetrailunitesus.com/  Not a discussion group per se, but a great web page for finding who is your “class”, their journals and other ways of discussing the trail with others.

On-line Resouces

SpiritEagle http://www.spiriteaglehome.com/cdt.html Jim and Ginny Owen have hiked the CDT twice and many other trails. Their site has an excellent overview of the CDT and resources available for this trail. Their THRU-HIKING papers are a must read for any hiker on any trail in my opinion.

Postholer: www.postholer.com A site with journals, forums, a Google map  and a regularly updated snow percentage level along the divide

Walking With Wired: http://www.walkingwithwired.com/p/cdt-2013.html  Erin “Wired” Saver had some excellent info and resourced for the CDT.

Guidebooks and Planning Guides

CDTS Guidebooks aka “The Wolf Guides” The preferred guidebooks for most thru-hikers on the CDT. Very accurate and concise info for the Wolf route of the CDT. If you take a different route, be sure to pay attention to your maps!

CDTA Guidebooks Meant more for short weekend or so type adventures. Really not suggested for a long distance hiker. Pretty pictures, though!  As mentioned, these are a decade or more old and from a group that is now defunct.

Yogi’s CDT Handbook http://pcthandbook.com/ My good friend Yogi has put out a leaner version of her popular PCT handbook for the CDT. Great information, thoroughly researched and meant for the experienced long distance hiker on the CDT. Very useful! (Full disclosure: I contributed to both the PCT and CDT handbooks. I receive no compensation other than satisfaction in helping out a dear friend in addition to fellow hikers).

Peanut Eater’s CDT spreadsheet: Valuable tool for planning your CDT hike. Save your own copy first otherwise the whole world will know your planning info. :)

Books, journals and videos

Of course, planning for the hike can be exciting. But sometimes it is inspiring to read other hikers stories or online journals:

Books:

Where the Waters Divide by Karen Berger A good account of thru-hiking the CDT

Westcliffe “coffee table” CDT books Glorious pictures and good writing for each of the states the CDT passes through

Scraping Heaven by Cindy Ross A an account of a family section hiking (and biking) the CDT.

The Backbone of the World by Frank Clifford An excellent account of the land, the culture and the politics of where the CDT passes

The Journals of Lewis and Clark Vivid account of what it was like to travel along and on the divide without guidebooks, lightweight gear or a microbrew in sight. Call it deep background reading….

Journals:

www.trailjournals.com
Links to many on-line journals for the CDT. If you are curious about what a flip-flop hike of the CDT may be like, read Sidewinders CDT 2006 journal.

www.d-low.com
The man who coined the phrase “EMBRACE THE BRUTALITY” for the CDT.

www.phlumf.com
One of my favorite CDT journals

www.pmags.com
I have my journal online along with many photos

Videos:

The Walkumentary http://www.thewalkumentary.com/ A video done by my buddy Disco. A funny, heartfelt and true-to-life account of hiking SoBo on the CDT in 2006. The fact I’m in this video does not in any way make me give it a glowing review. ;)

Walking the Great Divide  http://www.flaglerfilms.com/ Mark Flagler came out with a professional grade documentary about the CDT. It is not only about the thru-hiking community, but also about the trail and the land around the CDT. Mark has previously come out with Appalachian Impressions.

Scarlet and Wildflower’s 2007 CDT Adventure http://www.scarletandwildflower.com/ A  documentary from Jessica “Wildflower” Winters about a CDT thru-hike.

How to Hike the CDT by Lynn Wheldon www.lwgear.com A very thorough (7 hrs!) video on how to hike the CDT. A little dry at times, but informative

Cookie and Paul’s CDT Documentary: http://www.made-in-england.org/videos/cdt/ Two Brits take a (very funny) long walk! The journal is also well worth the good read. Beautiful scenery, steak, booze, and fun. What’s not to like?
Overexposed by Lynn Wheldon:  http://www.lwgear.com/lwp.html A three hour+ CDT documentary of Lynn Wheldon’s CDT hike.

Embrace The Brutality by Shane “Jester” O’Donnell http://www.tbwproductions.com/  Embrace this comical and thoughtful look at hiking the CDT!

 

Best of luck on your CDT journey! All thru-hikes demand an odd mixture of flexibility and stubbornness..more so on the CDT!

As my buddy d-low (CDT2005) likes to say about the CDT: “EMBRACE THE BRUTALITY!!!!” Embrace the challenges. Embrace the beauty. Embrace the wildness. Embrace all that is so great about the CDT!

If you have any additional questions about this document or the CDT in general, please feel free to e-mail me.

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8 thoughts on “A Quick and Dirty CDT Guide

  1. Nice summary…I’d say a GPS with CDT tracks (“Out of Orders”) or others is a HUGE asset..I was lost in much of Montana (with a mapped but trailess GPS) until I was enlightened…if you like to press on in uncertainty bull it out with map and compass
    CDT-‘09,10;PCT ’07:AT’88,89

    • A GPS can be handy, but I don’t think it is absolutely needed. I was misplaced here and there..but never enough where I felt I absolutely needed the GPS. But I can be a cranky old school guy at times. ;-) If anything, I had more trouble in New Mexico with all those ranch roads!!! :)

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  3. Pingback: Pmags- Interview with a thru hiker « CouchtoCDT

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