A quick overview of the Continental Divide Trail for planning purposes.
Updated November 2016.
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
- Currently, 95% of the trail is on public land.
- 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 minimum of 2500 miles (using guidebooks and maps that are reported to be off) to a high of 3100 miles. Most people believe the standard 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. Note the CDTC now offers shuttle services for Crazy Cook.
Appalachian Trail vs. Pacific Crest Trail vs. Continental Divide Trail
- Needless to say, the AT and the CDT are not alike in any way. They are both long trails that go 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
- Fewer towns than the PCT (never mind the AT); the towns stops do tend to be more expensive (fewer hostels vs. motels, fewer trail angels and so on). Call it a wash.
- ~$1000/month to hike the CDT once on trail
- 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. End too late, and you hit snow in Montana
- A SoBo will begin 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 regarding 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 locations 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.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition is currently the leading advocacy group for the CDT. 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“. The CDTC works directly with government agencies, outdoor groups and communities to help protect the trail and helps provide a strong voice for the CDT community.
The Continental Divide Trail Society http://www.cdtsociety.org/ is the advocacy group for the CDT that is the older of two current trail orgs. The CDTS is an organization started by Jim Wolf. The CDTS typically defines a route that may be a bit more off the beaten path. The CDTS produces some guidebooks that are not used as often. The CDTS is now formally working with the CDTC.
And there are many other organizations that promote and protect the CDT, build the trail, organize fundraisers, lobby with the government and so on. Fittingly for the CDT, there is a broad range of groups and people with different ideas and methods who all love the trail and the community around it. The CDTC helps acts as a larger umbrella group for the CDT overall and does a fantastic job to help herd cats.
Primary 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:
The CDT is a work in progress. It is not a well-marked trail like the PCT, never mind the AT! A CDTer should 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 or, a GPS-enabled device such as a smart phone, is found to be useful for 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.
Note that in recent years, a smartphone has replaced a dedicated GPS unit in much the same way a smartphone has replaced point-and-shoot cameras for many people. See below for CDT GPS-based apps for smart devices.
An excellent little guide to GPS operations can be found at http://www.trimble.com/gps_tutorial/
More inclined to watch videos? This navigation series by the Columbia River Orientation Club is very nice! They cover smart phone navigation, too.
A thru-hike of the CDT needs LOTS of maps. Almost all thru-hikers use the Jonathan Ley maps (JLey). 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 Note that these maps may be printed with a purchase of Yogi’s book as well (see below). As of 2016, the JLey maps may be used with the popular PDF Maps app for smart devices.
As great as the Ley maps are, they are limited. They do not give the broad view sometimes need for taking alternate routes (such as when a fire occurs and/or a major snowstorm happens. Both incidents happened to me!)
Some 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 that smart devices and print maps may not have listed. 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 (~$12 ea.) and heavy, but they can make navigation easier esp. if you need to take alternate routes from your planned itinerary. Not used by those following the more popular routes or alternates. If you want to bag Colorado 14ers however, a good choice.
Earthwalk Press Wind River Range Maps: Some more adventurous CDT hikers take their own routes in Winds. The J Ley maps show some great routes. Th Earthwalk maps can also help make your route through this fantastic area.
Bear Creek Survey Map books: Creators of a similar Colorado Trail map book, 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 success 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. As of Sept 2014, they are also avail in electronic form and optimized for smart phones and tablets. Note that waypoints are avail for free that work in conjunction with Bear Creek’s map books. Note that Bear Creek and Yogi’s CDT book (see below) may be purchased together now for the discount price.
Jerry Brown of Bear Creek has some additional information I edited for brevity:
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.
Or you can go directly to the Lulu listings at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/bearcreek1035 if you want to get a book.
The Bear Creek/ J Ley hybrid approach – A 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 and databooks
Very few people take dedicated trail guidebooks anymore.
There are two options, once of which is no longer in print.
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. They show the CDTS and not necessarily the designated USFS route in some cases. They are not as widely used as previous years.
Additionally, these resources are available…
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. Many other useful links and resources found, here, too. Easily downloaded to a smart device.
ChiltonTippin has an excellent free town guide if you just want the basics.
Postholer now has a CDT databook and profile maps avail as well. Same data as Scott’s very good CDT planner. Postholer also has a neat little , and free, databook app that also has the weather and makes it easy to post journal entries on the Postholer site. For Android only at this time.
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. Reports are very good. As always, I would not rely 100% on any electronic guide. YMMV.
Offline Maps: Offline Maps done by Noam Gal for the AT, PCT and CDT that makes use of the Backcountry Navigator app.
Guide and Map Confusion?
Not sure what to take? Here’s a summary of the popular resources many people use.
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. The Wolf books are available for those who like a traditional guidebook but aren’t as popular at this point.
In brief, the popular resources are:
- The Bear Creek maps show the designated USFS route in excellent detail. An additional map book is needed for alt routes. Not everyone brings print maps at this point…
- 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. As of 2016, the popular Avenza PDF Maps app may be used with the J Ley maps for smart device use.
- Then there is Yogi’s guide aimed more at town and logistic info
- Beacon’s databook has proven to be useful, too.
- The Guthook app has a lot of information consolidated in electronic form and makes navigation much easier.
- However, The Trail Unites Us water report has information not listed in the Guthook App.
- Larger overview maps of some sort, such as a backcountry road atlas, are still suggested by a fair amount for bailing purposes or alternate routes when needed.
Most people take a mix of the above. The Grand Unification of CDT guides is still being sought. 😉
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. Also, new commercial enterprises are mailing out food to hikers. Quite a few. They regularly post on forums and Facebook advertising their services.. Some hikers are using Amazon Pantry Service or the Walmart equivalent, 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
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.
Personally, where allowed, I think the Ursack works best for those with bear and critter concerns. No hanging needed. Less bulky and lighter than a bear canister.
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.
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.
Cost of a Thru-Hike
As mentioned, an average thru-hike costs about $1000 a month once on the trail. If you take a longer hike, you will need more food, be out in the weather longer, probably incur more town costs and may need to replace more gear.
A good, rough equation for overall expenses is this idea:
COST OF GEAR TO START + TRANSPORTATION TO TRAIL + (MONTHS ON TRAIL * 1000) + TRANSPORTATION FROM TRAIL. = ROUGH COST ESTIMATE
The cost of your initial gear and transportation to and from trail will differ from hiker to hiker. Do you already have the gear? Or is this your first long hike and buying all new lightweight gear? Do you live in Denver with (relatively) easy and cheap transport up and down from either termini or are you coming from Boston and need to get some expensive flights to and from each terminus (or a long ass bus ride!)
I feel pretty comfortable on the $1000/mo figure once on the trail. This figure includes food, town stops, and some typical gear replacements (shoes and socks come immediately to mind).
These figures are for a middle of the road hike. People who want more luxurious accommodations vs hostels, take side trips with car rentals (Hey! Let’s check out the brew pubs in the Colorado ski country for a few days and/or check out Boulder and Bozeman), expensive restaurant meals vs a burger and beer, etc. will spend more.
Other people do avoid some of these costs by having family members ship food/finance part of the hike, do “work for stays” at some hostels (more common on the AT), depend on hiker boxes or depend on the charity of others.
More thrifty hikers, esp those with experience and know the CDT well and/or are disciplined, might be able to go more frugal at ~$800/mo. (And, as always, I am sure there are exceptions. )
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 walking 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. 🙂
Stoves and flame bans
Please see the guidebooks for places to pick up alcohol and canisters.
As an aside, land agencies are getting strict with the types of stoves being used in the increasingly fire prone west. In brief, a stove without an on/off valve is often not allowed. No alcohol, no Esbit or campfires basically. Please see this doc I wrote earlier for more information. Please pay attention to the stove bans. Really.
Courtesy of Jester…
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 the CDTS route) and a self-signed permit for various wilderness areas.
Though not as difficult in terms of logistics as the PCT concerning dogs due to legal reasons, there are similar challenges. The national parks do not allow dogs, and a kennel option or alternate route will need to be explored. Extremes in the environment also factor in.
Section-hiking with a dog and cherry-picking the sections may be easier for your dog overall.
Continental Divide Trail Society http://www.cdtsociety.org/ An organization started by Jim Wolf. The CDTS typically defines a route that is sometimes more hiker oriented (more scenic, sometimes off the beaten path, not always horse accessible) and produces a 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. The CDTC is now a full partner with the USFS, too.
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
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 sometimes valuable for answering questions and exchanging information. Being FB, the discussions can get ah..interesting at times…
The Trail Unites Us: http://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. The Water Report in particular is useful
CDT Reddit forum: http://www.reddit.com/r/cdt Some activity on this sub-Reddit for the CDT. Low use.
CDT-L http://mailman.backcountry.net/pipermail/cdt-l/ A list-serv for the CDT. Not used much at all.
Trail Forums www.trailforums.com This website has some CDT discussion
SpiritEagle http://www.spiriteaglehome.com/cdt.html Jim and Ginny Owen have hiked the CDT twice and many other trails. Their THRU-HIKING papers are a must read for any hiker on any trail in my opinion. The website is cached but still worth reading.
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 resources for the CDT esp if hiking with electronics.
Hiker Box –http://theuncalculatedlife.blogspot.com/2015/12/cdt-thoughts-and-advice-for-future.html Some good advice and alternate route information for the CDT.
Guidebooks and Planning Guides
CDTS Guidebooks aka “The Wolf Guides” : The only overall trail guidebooks still in print.. Not as popular as they used to be.
CDTA Guidebooks Were neant 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 friend in addition to fellow hikers). As of Dec 2014, Yogi and Bear Creek have a deal where both the maps and the book may be purchased together for a discounted price. Note Yogi has something similar for the J Ley maps, too.
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. 🙂
Sly’s SoRuck CDT links: Many useful links on the SoRuck CDT page
Of course, planning for the hike can be exciting. But sometimes it is inspiring to read other hikers stories or online journals:
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….
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.
The man who coined the phrase “EMBRACE THE BRUTALITY” for the CDT.
One of my favorite CDT journals
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.