Classic Treks: The Continental Divide Trail

When it comes to long distance treks, the U.S. is blessed with not one great hike, but three. Most people already know about the Appalachian Trail in the eastern part of the country and the Pacific Crest Trail in the west, but the third jewel of the trekking Triple Crown is the Continental Divide Trail, which just might be the most scenic and challenging of all.

The CDT stretches for more than 3100 miles from the border of Canada at the northern end to the Mexican border in the south. In between, it runs through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, as it winds its way through some of the most rugged and remote mountain regions in the United States, including the San Juans, the Sawatch Range, and the Tetons, amongst others.

The trail derives its name because it runs directly along the Continental Divide, which marks the barrier between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean drainage basins. To one side, all the rivers run west to the Pacific, while on the other, they turn east toward the Atlantic. The Rocky Mountains, running from northern Canada, down through the U.S. create this effect, and serve as a dramatic backdrop to this long distance hike.Unlike the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest, the CDT is not quite complete yet. Right now it is constructed of a number of smaller trails and roads that are interconnected, and while hiking those paths, the difficult can range from a moderate to strenuous hike, with altitude playing a role in the challenge. There are some areas however where the trails do not meet, forcing trekkers to bushwhack their way through rugged backcountry. The CDT also happens to be longer than those other two trails, stretching nearly a thousand miles further in length than the Appalachian, and more than 450 miles longer than the Pacific Crest. Add more elevation gain to the mix, and you’ll begin understand why this trail is held in such high regard.

Due to the very rugged, and remote nature of the CDT, there are fewer thru-hikers then there are on the other long distance trails in the U.S. It takes roughly six months to cover the entire distance, and various segments provide different, and very unique challenges. For example, in the south, along the leg that runs through New Mexico, there is little water to be found, forcing hikers to bring plenty of their own, although local hiking groups do supply water caches at strategic points along the way. In contrast, at the northern end, in Montana and Idaho, trekkers may find plenty to drink, but will instead be dodging grizzly bears and gray wolves.

While the Continental Divide Trail may be the forgotten leg of hiking’s Triple Crown, it is spectacular none the less. The trail is less crowded than its companions, offers more challenges, and is more rugged and remote too. For those that have already completed the AT and the PCT, the lure of the CDT is too much to pass up, and they find that it is worth the hike, and quite possibly surpasses those other two trails in nearly every way.