Wednesday, December 2, 2015

CDT - Thoughts and Advice for Future Hikers

The CDT seems to be the most feared of the triple crown trails, and usually for good reason.  It's far more remote than the AT, more rugged than the PCT and at first glance seems to be over 3.000 miles long.  However, there's an increasing amount of useful information out there for the trail but not a lot linking it all together.  This post will put together what most thru-hikers did in 2015 and what I would have found useful before hiking.

Disclaimer: Rachel and I only hiked the northern 250 miles of New Mexico in the spring, flipped to Glacier, hiked all of Montana/Idaho, the northern half of Wyoming (including an alternate in the Tetons) and all of Colorado - about 2200 miles in total.

I really enjoyed *most* of my time on the divide but Rachel and I also section hiked and skipped the roadwalks and less liked areas.  Unlike the PCT if you carry the right maps and you can choose your own adventure instead of doing the same thing as the other thru-hikers.  The trail tread, maintenance and marking varies every day so you never know what you're going to get unlike the consistent sidewalk of the PCT.  You spend a lot of time above treeline with great views, the trail never got incredibly hot and although water was always on our minds we rarely carried more than 3 or 4 liters.  We had more storms than my PCT hike and several times had to bail off the divide for half a day or take a lower route because you're so exposed for so long.  The logistics of the trail can be frustrating and there are some very long dirt and paved road walks but I think it's a great trail.

The best parts of the trail for me were Glacier National Park, the Anaconda-Pintler range and most of the Idaho-Montana border, Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River range, the alternate through Teton National Park, basically all of Colorado and the stretch north of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  That's actually most of what we hiked, aside from central Montana, parts of Yellowstone and some dull but nice trail in New Mexico. 


A lot of people seem to come to the CDT expecting a lot, usually a more rugged version of the PCT.  Most of those people seem to have been disappointed.  This isn't a manicured path from Mexico to Canada that you can just zone out on and soak in the nature.  There's a lot of walking on two-track and dirt roads, especially in New Mexico and Montana/Idaho while the PCT was almost entirely trail.  There are also a handful long paved road walks, more if you take the cutoffs, since the trail isn't complete yet.  Parts of the CDT don't get maintained and you never really know where so your mileage can suffer randomly. The tread is generally rougher and goes from being well marked to unmarked frequently.  Sometimes it isn't even clear how many miles you walked that day because of alternates or the official route didn't exist yet.

The scenic parts of the CDT seem to go on longer than the scenic parts of the PCT (like about 600 miles of CO vs the 200 miles or so of the Sierra), but so do the boring parts.  The trail towns on the CDT are generally smaller, more expensive and not as hiker friendly as the PCT. Snow is also a much, much bigger deal on the CDT, unless you've done the PCT southbound.  The trail in Colorado stays above treeline for 30 or 40 miles at a time, way high up.  The Sierra's in contrast go valley to pass, so you only get snow around the passes.  Hike northbound in the early season on the CDT and you'll be camping on snow or road walking around it.   You'll also see a lot fewer people and see the same ones over and over on the CDT. You'll lose people depending on alternate choices then see them again a thousand miles later.  

There's also very little purism on the CDT.  There are so many route choices, no one really sticks to the official trail and far fewer hikers than the PCT connect their footsteps opting to skip any long paved road walks instead.  

I think you have to really like to walk to enjoy the CDT.  The the towns and social aspects of hiking are icing on the cake.  There's plenty of hikers these days so you won't be alone for weeks at a time, but there's way fewer than the other triple crown trails. Still, I would definitely skip the worst of the road walks and not worry about it - the trail is incomplete so why walk the unfinished parts?


The "official" CDT is somewhere north of 3,100 miles along the rocky backbone of North America. Pee on one side and it drains to the Atlantic Ocean, spit on the other side and it heads to the Pacific - hence the Continental Divide.  The official route attempts to follow the divide as closely as possible, although literally almost no one ever hikes all 3,100 miles. Unlike the PCT and the AT, the trail makes numerous U shapes which are easily shortened through the use of "cut-offs" or alternates, some of which are more scenic than the official trail.  Most people end up hiking between 2,500 and 2,800 miles depending on route choices so don't be intimidated by the length.

Following the spine of the continent sounds appealing at first but often it means walking on a dirt road next to a barbed wire fence along the top of a wooded ridge while a rugged snow capped mountain range looms in the distance, practically teasing you.  So I say embrace the alternates!

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail was created in 1978 but largely unadministered and entirely unfunded until the 90's.  The trail crosses dozens of individually administered national forests, several national parks, BLM administered land, state land and private land. For the first 20 years of its inception the CDT was literally a hodgepodge of trail, road, jeep track and cross country.    The CDT Alliance tried to piece it all together but closed its doors in 2012 due to a lack of funding.  In June of 2013 the CDT Coalition formed and picked up where the CDTA left off, only with more focus on the communities along the trail.  As a bonus, the panel of land management agencies that is supposed to coordinate the CDT also hasn't met in over a decade.

Seemingly independent to the NGO and federal efforts to the CDT are local trail maintainers and individuals like Jonathan Ley that compile information on the route.

Compare that history to the AT and the PCT and its easy to see why the CDT has the reputation it has, and why there are some pretty big differences in thru-hiking it.

A much more in depth history from the CDTC is here

Some other useful planning links are PMags' quick and dirty guide, Wired's guide and The Trail Unites Us which has the water report and canister fuel availability for the trail.  Yogi also has an excellent town guide for sale.


The biggest way the history of the CDT will impact you as a thru-hiker is in navigation and route choices.  Unlike the PCT and AT there is no one way that everyone hikes.  Instead, you can pick and choose various "official" alternates and unofficial alternates.  Sometimes the official trail doesn't make any sense. looping over and back where a quick bushwack would shorten it.  Other times the alternates are more scenic or usually just shorter.

Also a note on electronics. It's possible to hike the CDT without a GPS but everyone I talked to doing it seemed to wonder if it was worth the bragging rights.  Sometimes the trail is well marked, then not marked at all.  Some turns are easy to miss but most are not.  Mostly you save time using some form of GPS.  If you're a very fast hiker it would be easier than if you're barely able to make 25 miles a day.  Also figure an extra hour of hiking a day to make the same miles as you did on the PCT, the trail is usually in rough shape.  

Bear Creek Maps

The CDT is officially mapped by Bear Creek Survey in conjunction with the CDTC.  The Bear Creek maps are highly detailed and cover the official route and the most common alternates, what I'll call "official alternates". The BC maps are very accurate and detailed but occasionally out of date.  They also show really long dry stretches of trail when in reality there's water less than a quarter mile off trail.  Map and compass users tend to dislike them since the scale is so large it can be hard to orient yourself.  The forest service will build new trail and Bear Creek doesn't always have a chance to survey it before you get out there! However, they're the most accurate maps for the trail.  You can find their maps here.

You can also load the BC tracks and waypoints into your GPS or your phone using a GPS app like Gaia.  This is handy since it gives you a wider map corridor than the paper maps.  I don't think there's much reason for a dedicated GPS anymore if you're carrying a smartphone.  Gaia is the best GPS app I've seen and lets you preload basemaps and tracks for use without cell service.

Ley Maps

Jonathan Ley thru-hiked the trail in 2001 or so and maintains a set of maps for most of the common alternates and his own preferred route, which 90% of the time is the same as the CDTC route.  He designates his preferred route with a red line, alternates on trail or road with a purple line and cross countryhiking as either dotted purple for an alternate or dotted red for the official route.  Ley adds in notes from each years hiking class to the maps.  The notes range from water sources to alternate routes, some of them following the literal divide instead of the official trail that often stays low.  His dotted purple routes are usually more challenging, more scenic and awesome if you're adventurous.  They can also get you into trouble if you stray from the route. He also includes low routes to avoid snow or if you have to bail due to inclement weather - especially important in Colorado.  The Bear Creek maps cover only the official route. Since Ley doesn't actually survey the trail he keeps his maps more up to date than the BC maps but the route may be more of an estimation and note saying "brand new trail - aren't you lucky!".  You can find his maps here and yogi prints them for a great price too.  I recommend 11x17 to make the basemap easier to read!  He doesn't use waypoints like Half-mile on the PCT, he just assumes you can read the road or trail labels and draws a line.  You really have to be able to read the basemap!

The downside of the Ley maps is that they aren't very accurate.  Ley will list the mileage between two stars on the route - generally between 3 and 10 miles - and often he's close but occasionally he's way off.  Ley seems to use pen and paper maps most of the time instead of a GPS track, so he can be off by as much as 20%.  It's worth either carrying additional maps or budgeting an extra day of food if you're relying solely on his maps.  You might think you only hiked 20 miles that day but actually hiked 25! He also lists water sources that aren't on the Bear Creek maps but Bear Creek lists water sources not on his maps!

Wolf Guide

Jim Wolf has been a CDT advocate for nearly 40 years and maintains a set of guidebooks, but most people find they aren't needed since the trail is more well marked and complete than it used to be.  I haven't used them and didn't meet any who did but I heard of a few that liked them.  They do inform you more about the trail history and what you're actually hiking through, so they might be nice to have.  You can find out more on how critical Jim's been to the CDT here!


Lastly, Guthook Hikes! has an android and iphone app for the CDT.  He uses the Bear Creek data in a format that's easier to use than just using a GPS track. The app was pretty stable for me but occasionally my phone couldn't get a GPS signal so having Rachel with her phone as backup was great.  The databook feature is really helpful since the Ley mileage is all over the place.  Basically the app can replace a databook and the BC maps. You can tell I think the app is worth it but definitely carry paper maps! One hiker lost their phone, didn't have maps after flipping to Canada and got lost for 3 days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness!

My Experience

I'd describe the CDT as having three types of route choices - "micro" alternates that range from a mile or two to ten miles or so - generally purple routes on the Ley maps, "official" alternates that generally take a day or more mapped by BC and "unofficial" alternates that can take several days to a week to complete by Ley or others.  The Ley microalternates and his notes on water make the maps really worth carrying but the maps aren't great on their own.  You could take Beacon's databook but it will only work on the official trail and is already out of date for the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.  

What seemed to work best was carrying 11x17 Ley maps and the Guthook app.  The app makes it easier to figure out how many miles to water/town/wahtever and the maps are useful for the notes and fun alternates.  I found I could get 3 days out of a full charge on my iphone 4s while using guthook 3 to 5 times a day in airplane mode.  That means you really only need about 2000-3000 mAH of extra battery.

It's also worth carrying small scale maps for any part of the trail that you think might have a lot of snow or where bad weather can really screw you up.  For me that was the Weminuche Wilderness, the South San Juans the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Wind River Range.

Snow and Weather

You'll hit snow no matter what direction you go, even if you flip.  Every year is different but unlike the PCT there's always going to be at least some snow in Colorado.  The winter of 2015 put very little snow down in Colorado and Montana so most people opted to start early in April heading northbound. May came and storm after storm dropped feet of snow on Colorado and the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  In early June the temperatures started climbing, monsoon season started early to boot.  Hikers trying to enter Colorado hit unconsolidated snow that was unstable and avalanching, people were even post holing in snow shoes.  Taking a lower route meant crossing flooded streams.  A few of the earliest hikers (Reverend, Karma and Dave Z mostly) pushed through southern Colorado before the melt while most thru's either road walked Colorado until conditions improved or flipped to Canada and hiked south.  

2015 was an unusual year on the CDT but with climate change I wouldn't be surprised if its more common.  In general you should expect to hit at least 200 miles of almost continuous snow in Colorado.  The trail stays very high and you should be able to camp on snow (more ground insulation) and may have to melt snow for water occasionally.  The trail in the South San Juans north of Wolf Creek Pass does a lot of long steep traverses up the sides of mountains and would be especially dangerous without an ice axe.  Most northbound hikers take the Creede Cutoff to skip that section of trail, which is a shame since it's beautiful.

The benefit to Montana in the spring is that the trail is valley to pass for the first 100 or so miles in Glacier National Park.  It's much more like the Sierra and the snow is more stable than in Colorado.  You'll want an ice ax and microspikes but you don't have to camp on snow or worry about avalanches.  The downside is you'll likely miss the Highline Trail to Waterton Village because the trail is closed and requires technical mountaineering gear to get over the Ahern Drift *safely*.  

Trail Direction

The direction you go really depends on the snow.  If you want the best possible weather and the least snow but want a continuous hike - go south.  The desert in the spring is a sad thing to miss and finishing at the Mexican border is anticlimactic but you'll miss fire season in Montana and monsoon season in Colorado.  Northbound hikers get chased by daily afternoon lighting storms through most of Colorado (often while post holing), then dodge wildfires in the nearly 1,000 miles of Idaho and Montana but they get longer days in Spring and finish at the incredibly epic Glacier National Park (if it isn't burning).   

I think the best of both worlds is to hike north in the Spring from Lordsburg, plan a flip from Chama, NM and hike south from Glacier.  You lose some sentiment of a continuous path but chances are you won't take a continuous path anyhow.  

It is interesting to note that the Ley maps, Yogi guide and Wolf guidebooks are all ordered Southbound.  Traditionally this was a SOBO trail - that has reversed the last few years as popularity increased.


Most of the same stuff you used on the PCT can work for the CDT.  You'll want a shelter than can take some wind to camp high up in Colorado.  If you're planning on sticking it out northbound be prepared for camping on snow - something like a thermarest x-therm and snow stakes or some kind of snow parachute for your shelter.  Waterproof or neoprene socks would be good too.  

In general the CDT is a little colder than the PCT.  We got snowed on almost every month we hiked it.  We also had a heatwave in Montana in July but as soon as we hit the Winds it got cold again. The basin is typically hot and dry, then Colorado is cold because you're above 10,000 feet for almost the entire state. New Mexico in the fall can also be cold. 


You can definitely pick and choose alternates as you go.  Try out some of the dotted purple Ley microalternates - they're really fun and you can always turn around.  Here's my thoughts on the official and unofficial alternates we took or didn't take north to south.  Unless noted otherwise, Ley and BC have these routes mapped.

The Butte Route

We hiked the entire "circle of Butte" instead of the Anaconda cutoff.  Overall its a solid "meh".  Some good views, some nice trail but also some really annoying PUD'y trail.  It was really frustrating when we realized the newest unmapped section of trail was actually 28 miles long instead of Ley's guess of 19 miles. Most people take the Anaconda cutoff which is a long paved road walk (which they then hitch) that cuts about 60 miles off the official trail.   Ironically, the official trail has just as much paved road walking but it's spread out between trail heads. Also, you can still hitch to the town of Anaconda from the Butte route, which shortens the food carry leaving Butte.  

Old Mining Ruins on the Butte Route

The Butte Super Cutoff or Big Sky Cutoff - Not on BC or Ley

We didn't take this but a few hike it every year.  You skip the boring parts of central Montana and the entire Idaho-Montana border, including the wonderful Anaconda-Pintler's.  I hear its nice but you really have to figure out the route for yourself.  Supposedly it cuts out 200 miles or so, might be nice if you're late in the season or doing a yo-yo.  I would check it out if I hike the CDT again!


Mack's Inn

This cuts off 30 miles from the official trail but the northern part is a bushwack through a swamp/beaver pond.  It's one or two hundred yards in waist deep ice cold water with muck on the bottom through tall brush - not fun.  There's sort of a herd path after that but it's easy to lose.  In hindsight I would recommend the official trail based on what I heard.  At the time it let us catch Patch, Grits and Raven who wanted to do the next alternate through the Tetons with Rachel and I so that was cool.

Edit: Buck30 tells me there's a game trail all the way on the far left side (going south).  DO NOT FOLLOW THE BEAR CREEK GPS!

Tapons Teton Route - Not on Ley or BC maps

I loved this route! I'll be updating the maps eventually.  From what I heard, the official trail leaving Yellowstone is flat, boring and covered in horse shit most of the way to the Wind River Range.  You can look at the Tetons way off in the distance and wonder what the hell you're doing on the divide.  Instead, the TTR takes you from Heart Lake just south of Old Faithful Village in Yellowstone, along the crest of the Tetons, has some epic cross country hiking, into Jackson and then through the Gros Ventre Wilderness - a rarely visited but incredible alpine area.  You rejoin the CDT at the Green River Lakes trailhead, just north of the Wind River range.  There are some 5 to 10 mile road walks, mostly dirt but not a big deal. I don't know why Tapon includes the last cross country portion into the winds, it isn't necessary and looks kind of insane - we didn't do it. Expect this route to add 2 to 3 days over the official trail.
Our off-trail campsite above Solitude Lake

Knapsac Col and Cirque of the Towers

Both in the Wind River Range and both insanely beautiful - you would be a fool to skip both. Cirque of the Towers is definitely easier.  Knapsac Col goes over a receding glacier that you don't realize you're on because its covered in scree.  Also a few hikers linked the CDT to Skurka's Wind River High Route so if you're really adventurous check that out!

Coming down Knapsac Col

Grays and Torrey's vs. Silverthorne

Here's one section of trail where the official route is absolutely gorgeous and incredibly difficult.  We went over 14'ers Grays and Torrey's instead of the "chipotle cuttoff" through Silverthorne and it was awesome.  Definitely budget an extra day of food.  Protip: the entire drainage basin north of Grays and Torreys has water that tastes like blood.
The official "trail" north of Grays and Torreys

South San Juans

Definitely worth the extra time, many hikers take the Creede Cutoff but the South San Juans are some beautiful miles.  The trail is in bad shape but the views are worth it!  Ley doesn't map the Creede Cutoff for good reason.

South San Juans - you can't even see treeline!

Ghost Ranch

We took the alternate into Ghost Ranch on foot, which was mostly a long dirt road walk.  The hike out of Ghost Ranch was beautiful though.  I hear the official trail is new and really nice though so maybe do that and hitch to Ghost Ranch.  

Mt. Taylor

The official CDT goes around the base of Mt. Taylor, I think out of respect for the local Native Americans.  I say hike the mountain! It was cold, windy and beautiful.  The alternate does extend the dirt road walk north of the mountain quite a bit though.  

There's a bunch more alternates in Southern New Mexico that we didn't hike - sorry!
Frosty morning climb up Taylor

Resupply and Towns

You'll definitely want to pick up a copy of Yogi's guide.  Some of the resupply stops are seasonal or only take UPS and it has information on getting your Yellowstone and Glacier permits.  You definitely want to send boxes at a minimum to Leadore, Lima, Yellowstone, Twin Lakes, Doc Campbells and Pietown.  

That should do it - feel free to ask questions in the comments!


  1. That was a great article and super informative. Thanks

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