Ask any member of The Raven clan which trail of the Triple Crown they enjoyed the most, the answer would be, without any hesitation, the Continental Divide Trail. It passes through some of the most gloriously beautiful, wildest, remote and wide open landscapes. Until I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I did not realize how much I loved a vast and limitless landscape. The beauty stretches on forever. In such places, I am filled with the same expansive euphoria as the land holds before me. Overwhelming joy fills the heart and soul. Whether it is a barren desert, rolling grasslands, a sublime alpine meadow or a breathtaking view from a mountain top, the feeling is the same. Vast scenic landscapes speak directly to human emotions. A raw, loving, and powerful sensation overcomes. As I always assert, my thoughts are far more complex than the ability to express them, thus I am uncertain how to put it in words and not sound silly. Nonetheless, I will do my best. A little me standing before and midst such an immense and powerful scene. An energy surrounds and engulfs. Utter peace abounds. In the moment, I sense loving arms hugging me as if Mother Nature is thanking me for appreciating her. The little me feels significant because I am part of all this. Like most forces of physics, such as gravity and magnetism, their energy output is invisible. I am convinced, there is energy to be found in beauty although the physicist of the world have not discovered this yet. One day they will. Meanwhile I just want to keep immersing myself in such places of magnificent grandeur.
Much of the CDT is not a trail but a swath of land that one walks through. Real quick, the CDT will cure a hiker from being a purist, which is somebody who desires to walk every inch of a long trail. Back in 1996, when Mama and Papa Raven first thru hiked of the Pacific Crest Trail, we set out to be purist. Stubbornly, we were in the mindset that this was the most ethical and righteous way to thru hike a long trail. To hike any other way, was politically incorrect. However, it really is not possible. There is always snow, fire re-routes, mud slides, downed trees that will force a hiker to take another path. Nowadays, The Raven’s goal is to connect every foot step to each other. If we take a detour or an alternate, as long as we walk, and not skip any sections, we are content. From the very beginning in New Mexico, the hiking is from post to post, with no true path in between. Off in the distance a post painted white stands tall, upon reaching that post you visually search for the next one. Numerous alternate routes await the hiker on the CDT. No two people will have walked the same path by the time they reach the other end. Because of this, there is no greater feeling of freedom as the CDT provides compared to the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails. On the latter trails, one is restricted to a two foot wide path that meanders through the country side. On the CDT, if one does not want to traverse through the snow bound San Jauns, they can take the lower Creede route that will be equally as grand. If one does not want to wade through the Gila River for several days, they can take the High route. On our CDT hike, a million acres of land burned in Montana forcing many trail closures. The only options where to road walk. At first this was disappointing, but with each road walk, we encountered breath taking land. We witnessed a slice of America’s farming and ranching communities. We were not robbed of anything by taking the roads, we just saw something different. In the long distance hiking community there is a common phrase: “Hike your own hike.” Of the three trails of the Triple Crown, the CDT truly embodies this phrase.
To make a list of our favorite areas on the CDT would be impossible because from the very beginning to the very end and everywhere in between would have to be noted. Nonetheless, when I close my eyes as I vision our CDT hike there are certain areas that are vividly clear in my mind. Some of the areas, I can even remember how they smell such as the Aspen tree grooves, fields of lupine flowers and fields of freshly harvested hay. The entire state of New Mexico is a favorite, especially the Gila river and the green meadows filled with dandelions. The bluest skies overhead with never ending rolling puffy clouds flowing across. Hikers quickly grow accustomed to the various shades of green and brown drinking water New Mexico provides, each with a unique flavor. Some flavors where less palatable than others. The greatest skill we learned in New Mexico was the art of crawling underneath barbed wire fencing. Each hiker develops their own technique of crawling through the dusty dirt. Some like scooting on their back, while others prefer their stomachs. The absolute worst condition to crawl under a barbed wire fence is on a rain day, the mud is horrible! The one word that comes to mind to describe our hiking days in New Mexico is “uncomplicated.” It was a simple trail where one’s mind could freely wonder. There were no extreme ups or downs. For the most, the weather we had was near perfect: not too hot, not too cold. However, we did experience a nasty wind storm that stung our legs as they were being sandblasted. Another day, we went to bed with clear skies and woke with four to five inches of snow on our tent. When we stuck our heads out, a thick layer of snow covered everything before us. It was absolutely beautiful!
Where does one begin when describing the CDT in Colorado. The words stunning, glorious, rugged, intense, a magnificent gem come to mind. This is where I will leave my description because I lack the skills of writing to do Colorado justice. However, I will say that while New Mexico is “uncomplicated,” Colorado is the complete opposite. First off, there is the daunting snow bound San Jauns one must face shortly after entering Colorado. They are the first high altitude mountains a north bound thru hiker crosses on the CDT. Hikers have to make a decision whether to travel through them or not. Most often, the decision comes down to that years winter snow levels. In 2017, Colorado had an average snow pack. Ninety percent of the CDT through these mountains was under snow when we came through in June. Apprehension, we decided to hike the San Jauns instead of the lower Creede cutoff. With ice axes, micro spikes, snow shoes and two companions, Treeman and Quicksilver, we entered the mountains and saw them till the end. The San Jauns physically and mentally exhausted and wore us out. All day long, we traversed steep snow covered mountainsides. With just one misstep, one would plummet straight down to the bottom of the valley. Everyday the thought that this could be the last day of my life went through my mind. Thinking about Bling and Whisper, I was second guessing our decision to hike this section. However, the two young Ravens thought it was absolutely a fantastic fun experience! Nonetheless, we made it through. The remainder of Colorado was sure bliss. It was not easy hiking because of the constant high altitude and rugged terrain. I have never seen so much water in a thunderstorm as we experienced in Colorado. However, Wyoming was equally wet. Colorado justly deserves best flowers. The alpine fields were absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful with flowers of every color and shape imaginable. God paid close attention to detail when he designed Colorado.
Another location we fondly remember is the Great Basin of Wyoming. Reading past journals of other hikers left us with much apprehension. Most people have negative views of this section of the CDT. It is said to be a tedious area and something CDT hikers just have to endure. Mundane is the most common complaint as a hiker walks for days through hills of dead brown grass and sage bushes. There is no tree cover for shade on hot days and limited water supply. Yes all this is true, however unlike most other thru-hikers, The Ravens loved the Great Basin. It has a unique beauty all of its own. Everyday was glorious as we hiked the vast grasslands. Often times I felt as if we were hiking through the Serengeti in Africa as pronghorn antelope dotted the landscape. We never grew tired of seeing the wild horses roaming free. Comfortable temperatures and blues sky filled our days. Slight breeze blew the clouds creating cloud shadows racing across the landscape. Delicate pastel hues of the sunsets and sunrises will never be forgotten. Miles past by quickly. There was nothing negative to endure, just another beautiful ecosystem that the Continental Divide Trail passes through.
Further north in Wyoming, the CDT enters the Wind River Range. These mountains are absolutely spectacular and are a true treasure to experience. They are a miniature version of the High Sierras in California that we love so much. We had planned an alternate route through the Cirque of the Towers, an area of high altitude craggy spires of rock in a semi-circle, however, weather did not permit this event to occur. As we came to the Cirque of the Towers cut off, the biggest blackest thunderstorm we have ever seen moved up into the valley. To avoid the high mountain passes with a thunderstorm raging about, we chose the lower route. For the next few hours, we slogged through a deluge of rain pouring down on us as thunder and lightening lit up the sky. The temperature was freezing. A light layer of snow was falling on the mountain peaks above us. By late afternoon, suddenly, it was all over and we had blue sky overhead. Onward north we hiked.
Another place in Wyoming we really enjoyed is Yellowstone National Park and its bubbling pools of hot springs, and geysers. We were there the day of the solar eclipse and the park was deserted. Sun coverage was 98% at Yellowstone. Not good enough for the tourist who wanted to experience 100% sun coverage. Thus we and a handful of other tourist who decided to stay put where rewarded with an unusually quite summer day in Yellowstone.
Soon after we left Yellowstone and entered what we affectionately call Montanaho. Literally the CDT follows the Idaho and Montana boarder. On any given day we never knew which state we were in. A dozen time or more each day, we would travel back and forth between the two. Shortly after hiking into this area, Montana’s big blue sky’s became thick and heavy with smoke. Millions of acres in the state were on fire. For weeks, our hiking was re-routed along numerous paths and roads as we worked our way around five different fire closures. Everyday we woke to a big orange ball rising in the sky. This was the sun obscured by dense smoke. It seemed as if the four of us and the big orange ball were walking together. As evening came, the ball would disappear as we would make camp. In the morning it would greet us and we would set out together once again. Because of trail closures, we missed some quintessential trail destinations like the Pintlers and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. One day we will come back and hike them properly. In our last two weeks on the trail, the snow started to fall, the fires where put out, our orange sun ball went away, and the temperatures plummeted. Being fall way up north, the snow kept falling. There would be a clear day or two, then more snow. Winter was coming and we needed to finish. We waited out a big storm in East Glacier. After it passed, we had a three day clear section before another weather front moved in. Under perfectly blue sky we left East Glacier. Those days were clear and cold. Day time temperatures were in the upper thirty’s but because the sun was out, we were comfortable enough. However night time was down right painfully cold! Our wet socks and shoes froze each night. Finally on October 5, we reached Canada.
My love of the CDT comes with a great concern for its welfare. More and more hikers are attempting long thru-hikes. Roughly three thousand attempt to thru-hike the PCT every year, while nearly 4,000 for the AT. Only three hundred set out on the CDT. On the PCT and AT, trying to find an evening camp site not inhabited by numerous other tents is a difficult task. Often times we would have to push on till dark even if we were exhausted because all possible camp sites were filled with tents. So many people leave everyday from the same terminus causing a huge impact on the land. The quantity of toilet paper is disgusting. If one is not tough enough to bury their waste properly, far away from camp and the trail, then one is not tough enough to be out there. The experienced thru-hiker is just as guilty as the novice. They feel they are too good to carry a trowel. If no trowel is being used, there is no way to dig a proper cat hole. Mother Nature deserves better than that. She baths the human heart and soul in utter beauty and tranquility. She takes away concerns and heavy hearts. Overwhelming joy is what she gives out. In return she is completely disrespected.
On the CDT, I felt like we were on a true grand adventure out in wilderness, far away from day to day life of society. The other trails do offer breath taking beauty, but they are becoming too crowded with tourist, day hikers, weekenders. The areas are easily accessible. I suppose this is actually a good thing that people are getting outside and leaving behind the hustle and bustle of their daily lives and experiencing true peace in mother nature. By going out, hopefully they realize how vital and important wild lands truly are for humans. Nonetheless, I sure did enjoy the uncrowded trails of the CDT. We hiked through areas of the most beautiful wilderness that most people have never heard of. Ridge walks have never been more grand! My deepest desire is that the CDT remains underpopulated with hikers. There is such a push to complete the CDT, and make one solid path from Mexico to Canada. I do not want it to become another amusement park. I say no, leave it just the way it is. It is perfect. **
**After I wrote this I thought about a few areas that were not so perfect. There are numerous sections, a CDT thru-hiker has to share the trail with not only bicyclist, but also motorcycles, ATV s and quads. You will be hiking along having a beautiful tranquil moment, pondering life issues, listening to birds sing, observing the Indian paint brush and lupine lining the trail and the Aspen trees leaves shaking in the breeze, and all of a sudden a loud motorcycle engine off in the distant is upon you. All peace is shattered. I am not a fan of this, but it is the way of the Colorado Trail. This is one area the PCT and AT out do the CDT. The PCT is for hikers and horses only while the AT is strictly for people, except in the Smokey Mountain National Park where horses are permitted.