Continental Divide Trail
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Continental Divide Trail
United States

A ‘Continental Divide’ is the point of high ground on a continent, from which water sheds one direction to the sea on one side, and the other direction to the sea on the other.

The continental divide runs along the heart of the Rocky Mountains from Alaska, through Canada, and down through the continental United States to Mexico.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) follows along this line, passing over, and providing amazing views of, the divide as it crosses the continental United States.

The CDT is one of the largest conservation efforts in the history of the United States.

Since 2012 the project has been led by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC), which continues the work of planning, constructing and maintaining the trail.

The CDT stretches 4989 km between Canada and Mexico, slicing the United States from top to bottom, crossing New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

It crosses tundra, rain forest, desert, and almost two thousand sites that are considered national treasures – natural, cultural and/or historical.

It is still under development, with approximately 76% of non-motorized trail complete, and so some of the sections are still unmarked wilderness or pass through more developed areas along roads.

Some hikers cross through these areas, and others hike around them.

It is the country’s highest national scenic trail and takes hikers up and down through 3048m of altitude, from 1220m to 4267m above sea level.

The route takes visitors though some of the most remote and stunning scenery in the United States.

The trail can be expensive when done in its entirety, mostly because of the time required to complete it, and the varied technical gear necessary. It is necessary to restock along the way, either at shops, or by arranging drop-offs of food, water and/or other necessary gear.

Highlights
  • Part of the thru-hike “Triple Crown” (perhaps the most difficult of the three)
  • Transect the United Stated, following one of the Earth’s prominent topographical features
  • Experience a wide range of ecosystems and scenery on a single hike
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About the route
  • Travel

Depending on which way you are planning to hike the trail, you will start in either New Mexico, or Montana.

The CDT’s southern terminus is just north of the Crazy Cook Monument in New Mexico. Travel to this point requires a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, and will take up to two hours from the nearest paved road, assuming all goes well.

You can try to get there on your own (directions are available from CDTC), but there is a shuttle, run by the CDTC, that runs on a schedule from early March to mid-May, and is ‘on-demand’ in the fall.

We recommend taking advantage of that service if you wish to start from the southern terminus.

The northern terminus, in Glacier National Park, Montana, is by far the easiest to get to and the closest to more developed areas and services.

For this reason, hikers who plan to complete the whole trail tend to start at the southern terminus, as it makes pick-up at the end of the trail much more practical.

  • Length

Most people take four to five months to cover the entirety of the 4989km route.

With a route that long, and one which takes visitors through such a wide range of ecosystems, often a high altitude, the speed of progress can vary greatly.

Factors that can slow a hiker include the weather, difficult terrain, securing water in dry areas, adapting to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (Altitude Sickness), and the physical condition and fitness of the hiker.

  • Grade and difficulty of the walk

The Continental Divide Trail is, as a whole, difficult.

The length of it is one factor of course, but along with that length comes a wide variety of terrain, altitude and weather-related obstacles.

Finally, don’t forget that this is the North American wilderness – you won’t be alone out there. Bears and other potentially-dangerous wildlife mean you won’t go amiss with a little expertise in that area.

If you don’t have it yourself, use a guide.

  • Experience

It is recommended that only experienced hikers, or hikers in good physical shape and with a guide, take on the more difficult sections of the hike (this includes, of course, taking on the trail as a whole).

Hikers will need specialist equipment for everything from snow to forest to desert; four-to-five months’ worth of food; the ability to find and carry substantial amounts of water; and the knowledge of how to avoid, deal with, and defend against potentially-dangerous wildlife.

There are portions of the trail that have not yet been completed and are therefore not clearly marked, so orienteering experience and the ability to read maps and terrain to a significant skill level is also recommended.

  • Permits

There is no single permit that allows hikers to do the entire trail.

Due to the length of it, and the many jurisdictions through which it passes, anyone using the trail needs to secure a variety of permits, depending on where, and for what purpose, the visitor intends to use the trail.

Travellers are required to obtain permits for any kind of recreation on New Mexico State Trust Lands and on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana; camping permits are required in Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado.

There are also self-service permits for some areas, which travellers fill out at the trailhead.

  • Guided or Self-Guided

This trail can be hiked without a guide, though many people prefer to use one.

Guides can provide valuable services, such as expertise regarding certain difficult sections of the trail, dealing with wildlife, and a knowledge of the best places to find water – which can be an issue on certain portions of the CDT.

best time to walk

The thru-hike takes most hikers four to five months, so those who begin at the Mexican border to trek northbound (NOBO), tend to begin in late April or early May, arriving at the northern end around September, before the very cold weather rolls in.

Those heading southbound (SOBO) from the Canadian border, start in Glacier National Park in mid-June to early July, arriving at the Mexican border around October.

We recommend arriving at your start point the day before you plan to begin your trek. This gives time to rest, take care of any final preparations, and to start with as much rest as possible.

Accommodation

There are several places to resupply along the trail – including hotels and other facilities that allow weary feet a bed for the night, some hot food delivered to your door, and some engagement with that little glowing box you haven’t stared at for days, weeks, or months.

Hikers don’t carry five months’ worth of food with them, but instead refill packs at one of the many stops along or near the trail.

Estimates of suitable stops, as of the time of this writing, include 14 in New Mexico, 24 in Colorado, 13 in Wyoming, 9 in Idaho and Southern Montana, and 12 in Northern Montana. In case that sounds like a lot, it is a total of 72 over 4989km route that takes four to five months to complete. Seen that way, it is a modest, though welcome, offering.

Not all hikers stop at all of these locations, and some are better than others, so a resupply plan is essential before starting out on a thru-hike.

Published: December 6, 2019 Modified: February 20, 2020

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At a glance
Skills RequiredHiking, Walking
Difficulty 4/5 - 5/5
Starts at Hachita, NM 88040, USA
Finishes at Montana, USA
Length of route 4989 Km
Average time to complete 120 - 150 Days
Possible to complete sub-sectionsYes
Highest point 4267 metres
Permit requiredYes
Equipment neededCamping equipment, Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots
Countries visited United States