The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is one of the three major long trails in the U.S. It traverses the U.S. from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. To do this, it starts at the boot heal of New Mexico working its way north up towards the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. In that distance the CDT passes through the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico, up into the San Juans Mountains in southern Colorado and Rocky Mountains in Northern Colorado. It also passes through Wyoming’s Great Basin, Wind River Range, Yellowstone NP, Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier NP.
The CDT is different from the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail in that it is not complete. About 30% of the trail does not exist. Instead, thru-hikers have to walk on roads, which are either dirt or paved, and hike cross-country. This can be a challenge for many thru-hikers. Because the trail is not complete, there are many alternate routes. These are trails that deviate away from the continental divide and take different paths to get to the same location. Having choices gives the CDT thru-hikers many options on how to get from place to place. For example, at the southern end of the trail, there are three different locations to start hiking at the Mexican border and two ending points at the Canada border.
If every mile of the defined CDT were hiked, the trail would be over 3,100 miles. When someone hikes the alternates, that mileage can drop. In the end, most CDT thru-hikers take different routes to reach their goals. Each hiker will take their own individual path. Our current plan has us hiking roughly 2,900 miles. However, that number could change with re-routes. We are planning on hiking the Gila River Alternate, which will keep us near water through a very hot and dry section in New Mexico. Another alternate we are thinking about taking is the Creede cutoff. This alternate drops us down low into a set of valleys and would avoid miles of snow in the San Juan Mountains. We will decide which route to take when we get into southern Colorado.
The CDT’s altitude varies between 4193′ up to 14,275 (Grays Peak), which is higher than the PCT. A thru-hiker has the option to take a side trail to the second highest mountain in the continental U.S.
The Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico is a hard place to start the CDT. There are very few water sources and most of these are solar powered wells for cattle. The water sources in the first 500 miles of the trail can be very bad having a heavy mineral taste or they could be contaminated with dead animals. Water sources are much better as the trail moves into northern New Mexico and it stays that way until the Great Basin in Wyoming.
The CDT, like the PCT, is a race against winter. If we start too early, we will hit deep snow in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. If we hike to slow, winter will come upon us in northern Montana and make it difficult to finish. Unlike the PCT, the snow in Colorado is soft and fluffy, making post-holing more common. Most thru-hikers carry both MICRO spikes (a smaller form of crampon) and snowshoes. This lets them make better time walking through the snow. The mountains throughout Colorado are known for their thunderstorms. Hikers need to be aware of this, so they do not end up at high altitude when a thunderstorm occurs. Instead, it is imperative to head down. At times like this, the alternate trails can be very useful.
The wildlife along the CDT is very diverse. In the south, there are many different types of rattlesnakes, javelinas (a type of wild pig) and pronghorn antelope. If we’re lucky, jaguars inhabit the area near the Mexican border. As the trail goes north, hikers will encounter wild horses, bighorn sheep, badger, and deer. Up at the northern end of the CDT, mountain goats, moose, grizzly, elk, and bison can be seen.