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Continental Divide Trail: America’s Most Challenging Hike?

Location review

The CDT took me deeper into the wilderness than I’d ever gone before. There was more exploration, more solitude, and more consequences. I loved it so much I did it twice.

I unscrewed the cap and drank the last small sip of water, barely enough to wet my mouth. Three hours of dry ridgeline hiking separated me from the next source and I had bypassed the last one miles ago. A momentary lapse in concentration was all it took. Damn! It was going to be an uncomfortable afternoon.

The Continental Divide Trail had been unforgiving. Three-hundred miles in and I had already raced storms across mountain passes, been charged by a grizzly, and now was out of agua. This was exactly the thru-hike I was looking for.

A high alpine ridge on the Continental Divide Trail
Passing through a high alpine ridge on the Continental Divide Trail, it’s just you and the mountains for miles.

Pros and Cons of Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

Travel through some of the most beautiful places in the lower 48
Long sections of disconnecting (no cell service!) and immersion in nature
Fewer crowds than the longer trails on both coasts
Can be extremely remote
Difficult to access and resupply in places
Small weather window

How long is the Continental Divide Trail?

Established in 1978, the 3,100-mile (4,989 km) Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (often shortened for the less-of-a-mouthful, CDT) begins at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park. From there it winds its way through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico to the border with our southern neighbor – Mexico.

Much of the trail is above tree line, and its northern miles are in the heart of moose, grizzly, and mountain goat territory. Along the way, the CDT passes through 25 National Forests, 21 Wilderness Areas, and 3 National Parks, offering sweeping views and continuous mountains throughout.

For most thru-hikers, it takes about six months to finish; any longer and weather is likely to play a factor in the success. Of all those who set out, an estimated 30-50% complete it. Word to the wise: this is a challenging trail!

Why I Wanted to Hike the Continental Divide Trail?

After successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT was the natural next step in completing the Triple Crown of Hiking.

Hiking the cdt, often along ridgelines, helps put you in a meditative rhythm
The undulating terrain, often along ridgelines, helps put you in a meditative rhythm.

I knew it was considered one of the best hikes in the world, for its wild landscape that challenges the experienced backpacker, but more than the accolades, it was the difficulty, ruggedness, and remoteness that most intrigued me. In particular, the long distances between resupplies and water sources, and cell service that is sporadic at best, piqued my interest for preparation and disconnection.

I’m a bit of a planner—despite what you may think from the course of events above—and many of the wilderness areas were on my bucket list. Being in the backcountry for 3,000-plus miles and seeing some of the most striking terrain along the backbone of America, well, what could beat that?

Tips to Help you Prepare for Hiking the CDT, From a 2x Thru-Hiker

Don’t let me scare you out of a thru-hike. If you’re prepared and with a little luck from Mother Nature, this can be well within your wheelhouse. Let’s set you up for success.

When should you start the CDT?

Most hikers start the trail northbound in April or southbound in June or July, depending on the snow year. The CDT is distinct among the Triple Crown because hikers are almost evenly split for which direction they choose to attempt (whereas a majority of thru-hikers travel northbound on the PCT and AT).

Planning is key

If I haven’t been abundantly clear, you need to be prepared. In fact, many hikers quit their CDT attempt because of a lack of experience.

For starters, the season on the CDT is short due to the high altitude and maintaining an average of 20+ miles a day is essential. Next, access points are hard to reach and sporadic. Most resupplies on the CDT require a hitch into town from the occasional road intersection. Back in civilization, hikers can pick up a pre-planned resupply box or make out like a bandit at the grocery store.

Water is tricky. Often, the distance between sources can stretch an uncomfortable number of miles. You need to plan ahead or plan on being thirsty. (Guilty!). Now, while much of the landscape is remote, you’ll be surprised to know that the water sources are typically shared with cows. This is because the mountain ranges that the CDT follows separates watersheds that feed sweeping grasslands used by ranchers and farmers.

No surprise, camping is more challenging too. Locating an acceptable spot that’s close to clean water is hard after a long day on the trail. Don’t expect many creature comforts either; there are no shelters like on the Appalachian Trail, and the number of easily accessible towns is sparse compared to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Who should attempt the trail?

I was surprised by how few hikers there were on the CDT. Despite the explosion of thru-hiking in recent years, few hikers attempt the longest of the Triple Crown trails.

Frankly, it takes a persistent, fit, and rugged backpacker to succeed—and most of the hikers I did meet had done at least one other thru-hikel. But, if you’re into suffering in solitude, the CDT is a perfect match.

Anyway, now that you know what you’re getting into, let’s get to the goods!

North to South: Highlights Along the Continental Divide Trail

The CDT is full of alternates, continual reroutes, and added bits along the way, but the general segmentation includes northern Montana, the border of Idaho and Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Below I’m going to share an overview of each section.

Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park at Waterton Lake
At the Northern Terminus of the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park with Waterton Lake in the Background.

Montana: “M” as in Most remote

575 miles in northern Montana, down to the border of Idaho and Montana

Massive high mountain passes, raging rivers, remote backcountry granite peaks, and pristine wilderness mark the northernmost section of the CDT—and aids in the escape and immersion into some of the most remote areas of continental America.

Around here, snow sticks late into June and begins to fall again in September. For this reason, Montana is often the most difficult for hikers to plan for and navigate on a traditional thru-hike. For example, see my water mishap. The rude awakening—only 300 miles in—set the tone for the remaining 2,700.

Northbound hikers hit Big Sky Country in September and often find themselves in the midst of the first snowfall of the year. On the contrary, southbounders often have to wait until the snow finally melts enough to hike through. Despite the challenges, because of areas such as Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, this is also arguably the most captivating section of the entire trail.

Idaho-Montana border: Truly wild

504 miles straddling the Idaho and Montana Border lead straight into Yellowstone National Park

In this section you follow the spine that forms the border of Idaho and Montana. Defined by alpine lakes, vast tracts of untouched woodlands, and a throughline of mountain passes, the views are impeccable.

However, you have to earn your wilderness time. In part, this section poses serious resupply difficulties, requiring a 4WD vehicle or a long hike to many of the trailheads (and access to town). The hiking ain’t easy either.

I’ll always remember Elk Mountain as the never-ending climb. Fresh off a resupply, each switchback and turn led to another false summit. Hot, dry, and exposed, the ascent lasted for hours. Once I did get to the top I immediately lost all my hard-earned elevation dropping back down the other side.

Wyoming: From mountains to plains

508 miles through Yellowstone, Mountains, and the Great Divide Basin

The CDT enters Wyoming at one of the most photo-worthy national parks in the country, Yellowstone. Here the trail shines because you are able to see things that few tourists experience. For example, while Old Faithful is the most well-known geyser in the country, many other super-heated hot springs dot the route.

It was my first experience in America’s oldest national park and exploring the wide open backcountry was thrilling. However, I didn’t realize it only gets better heading through the Tetons and the Wind River Range.

Thru-hikers that choose to take the Cirque the Towers alternate or climb over Knapsack Col will find themselves surrounded by spectacular granite spires—simply, if you’re planning a CDT hike you shouldn’t miss this opportunity. Many people I’ve spoken with describe the Wind River Range as the highlight of their entire trip!

Lesser-known geysers in Yellowstone National Park
One of the many lesser-visited geysers in Yellowstone National Park that you’ll encounter along the Continental Divide Trail. These eruptions are the result of extremely hot water below-ground that are trapped in channels and emerge, forcefully, at the surface.

Colorado: The spine along the divide

722 miles of endless mountains through the mile high state

Colorado is the most populous, explored, and accessible state on the CDT. The beauty of CO is the Rocky Mountain National Park lies directly next to the trail and offers hikers the opportunity to travel through it or avoid the crowds by staying just east. Here you’ll encounter Grays Peak, the high point of the Continental Divide Trail at 14,278’, though many hikers also complete the quick 3-mile side trip up to the tallest peak in Colorado, Mt. Elbert.

Thru-hikers conclude their journey through the Centennial State with a difficult section in the San Juan Mountains. This sub-range of the Rockies is one of the most beautiful in America, but also presents backpackers with late spring and early fall snow. Views of sweeping meadows, alpine lakes, and rugged passes make the journey well worth the weather complications, though.

New Mexico: From desert to mountains

773 miles from Mexico to the top of the true divide

New Mexico marks the driest, and often the hottest, state along the CDT. In this high-altitude desert, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition provides water caches along the southernmost portion to aid hikers in crossing the arid landscape. The highlights of the region include the Gila River and the marauding elk herds that occupy much of northern New Mexico.

The San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado
The San Juan Mountains are highly mineralized and were prominent during the gold and silver rushes that helped settle much of Colorado.

You can spot Border Patrol posted up on many of the roads intersecting the last 150 miles of the trail, and the barbed wire fence makes for an anticlimactic ending (or beginning) for thru-hikers.

Day and Section Hikes on the Continental Divide Trail

There are some excellent section hiking opportunities along the Continental Divide Trail. With a multitude of bucket list hikes along its length, many people opt to explore on and around the CDT instead of hiking its entire length. Monotonous terrain, desolate cow pastures, and high altitude plains fraught with salinated water separate many sections along the CDT, adding to the appeal of section hiking.

A few of the most notable and explored sections (from north to south) are Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yellowstone National Park, Teton National Park, Wind River Wilderness, Collegiate Wilderness Area, San Juan Wilderness, and the Gila River Wilderness. Many section hikers require either self-issued wilderness permits or backcountry camping permits in the national parks.

Glacier National Park

The national park touching the border of Canada is one of the most striking. Huge peaks, high ridgelines, a grizzly population, and deep glacially dug valleys provide breathtaking views and routes. Since it is a national park, Glacier has an extensive trail system on and off the Continental Divide Trail. Many section hikers consider Glacier to be one of the best places to start because of its quick immersion into the backcountry.

Sitting above an alpine lake in Glacier National Park
I’ll take Glacier in the summer on a northbound route over arriving at the start of winter from the south any day.

Bob Marshall Wilderness

The “Bob” is one of the most regarded wilderness areas along the entire trail, featuring spectacular natural phenomenons like the Chinese Wall, sweeping views, and excellent fishing. Its remoteness rewards those willing to travel into its depths with a pristine alpine environment full of bustling wildlife and raging streams and rivers.

Wind River Range

The Wind River Range is widely regarded as many hikers’ favorite section of the trail. Several alternates allow backpackers to explore a staggering number of lakes, granite peaks, and passes.

The Wind River Range is home to 19 of Wyoming's 20 highest peaks
The range is home to 19 of Wyoming’s 20 highest peaks, and they are all stunning.

This is also a fly fishing mecca, and spending weeks exploring the area only scratches the surface. The Winds are extremely remote, with access limited to a couple of different trailheads. Once you’ve made your way into the heart of this Wyoming gem, you’ll vow to come back.

San Juan Mountains

The San Juans are located in the southwest corner of Colorado on the edge of Durango. The variable weather, short season, and difficulty of the terrain often scares people away. Those brave enough to venture into this landscape of sprawling green and alpine lakes are rewarded with the experience of a lifetime.

Additional Questions You Might Be Asking

You may be asking yourself, after all the grueling travails I just told you about: is it worth it?

It absolutely is! The CDT will test hikers in ways that few other challenges can. The length, ruggedness, logistics, and types of people I encountered illustrate why I went back a second time. There is peace to be found in the remote wilderness, a reward for the few that strive to surmount such an immense challenge.

Hikers heading south from Cumbres Pass in northern New Mexico
Continental Divide Trail Hikers heading south from Cumbres Pass in New Mexico after the first snowstorm of the season in early October. Six-hundred more miles of thru-hiking lay ahead.

The typical season

The thru-hikers that choose to go southbound must try to fit their 3,100-mile hike between the time the snow finally melts in Glacier National Park, around June or July, and the time the snow begins to fall in southern Colorado and New Mexico, usually in September. I experienced winter weather in the southern Rockies on both my Southbound CDT hikes, and I’ve also met hikers who’ve either finished in a storm or raced one to the terminus.

How dangerous is the Continental Divide Trail?

The CDT is not a dangerous trail for a prepared backpacker. Yes, it is more remote, requires additional planning, and has a higher likelihood of encountering wildlife compared to the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, however, the CDT is statistically no more dangerous than thru-hiking the AT.

How well marked is the Continental Divide Trail?

The CDT is the least well marked of the Triple Crown trails. Although, with the rise in GPS phone apps, it is reasonably easy to find your way. Most hikers will simply download FarOut Guides and use it to navigate, plan and complete their hike.

How much does it cost to hike the Continental Divide Trail?

Even though it is more complicated and longer than both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the cost to hike the entirety of the CDT is roughly the same. I spent about $4,000 and the average hiker spends anywhere from $4,000-8,000.

Camping along the Continental Divide Trail

This is a biggy. Camping on the Continental Divide Trail is dispersed outside of the National Parks. This means, within Leave No Trace Principles, that the regulations are strictly dependent on the location. Within the majority of the public land that makes up the CDT, the conditions are simple: be off the official trail and within the public lands corridor.

Do you need permits to hike the CDT?

In the national parks, an official backcountry camping permit must be issued from a rangers office or visitor’s center. Depending on the park, these can be very hard to obtain or as simple as a walk-up. Glacier National Park is well known as a difficult location to get backcountry camping permits.

Additional Continental Divide Trail Hiking Resources:

    • FarOut Guides is the official app of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition
    • CDT Water Report is a data set that is kept up-to-date by hikers and for hikers to help all hikers find reliable and trustworthy water sources
    • The Continental Divide Trail Coalition is a non-profit organization that works hand-in-hand with the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land management agencies to build a strong community of supporters to maintain and protect the CDT

The Continental Divide Trail Tested Me in Ways I Never Expected

I learned a new level of suffering and found great reward in doing so. The difficulty and unexpected adversity around every twist and turn in the trail kept me going, and eventually back for round two. It is a trail I cannot get enough of, and I think you’ll agree!

Want to take Jeff’s advice and try your hand at some section hikes first? Try backpacking in Yellowstone, take in the San Juan Mountains via a via ferrata, or go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

About the author
2x CDT Thru-Hiker, Professional Backpacker, Trail Runner, and Author

Jeff Garmire is a professional endurance athlete, speaker, writer, and author. In his book “Free Outside” he details his 8,000-mile journey hiking the Calendar Year Triple Crown, completing the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in eight months. Jeff got into backpacking while taking a term off of college and somehow landed upon hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Jeff currently has 17 speed records on long distance trails.

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