John's Continental Divide Trail Hike


Q: What is the Continental Divide Trail?
A: It’s another one of those border to border trails. The CDT runs along the Continental Divide, as best it can follow, within the US spanning the distance from Mexico to Canada. 
Q: Well, what is the Continental Divide?
A: The Continental Divide is a geographic feature that, in the Americas, runs continuously from the tip of South America to somewhere north farther than you can image (but not as far as the North Pole). The Divide defines which way water will run. On the west side of the divide, the water will make its way to the Pacific Ocean. On the east side, the water winds its way to the Atlantic.
In some places the Divide is little more than a high spot. In others, it’s a knife edge ridge too steep for snow to stick.
Q: So where is the CDT?
A: In general, the Rockies. I’ll hike the width of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, not necessarily in that order
Q: What order will you hike them?
A: I won’t know until I finish. The sequence depends on many weather factors, all out of my control.
Q: You say there’s no trail in some places. How will you find your way?
A: Well, I’ll know which direction I should generally be heading. I’ll have landmarks, like mountains to orient me. When there’s no trail and no sign, I’ll look at the map, read the guidebook, find a landmark, consult my compass, and set my course. I may even have a GPS, but I have yet to find the right one.
Q: Will you hike alone?
A: Like the Pacific Crest Trail, I’ll be independent with my food and equipment, but I’ll look to hook up with other hikers. The big problem is: how many hikers will there be? On the PCT in 2002 over 250 hikers started at the south end of the trail within a couple of weeks of each other. The CDT has maybe 50 people who start, and some start in the north, and some in the south. Hikers will be few and far between. In 2004, I hiked through Montana with Spur and Apple Pie, then I was on my own for the most part.
Q: What about wild animals, like Grizzlies?!
A: Yes, there are wild animals. In 2004, I walked through the homes of grizzly bears in Montana and northern Wyoming. I got to see one and her cubs in Glacier NP. Otherwise, all I saw were big footprints.
Sure, there’s a danger. I could just stay home, but instead I’ll have a great hike. I want to see a mountain lion, but I'm not sure I want it to see me. Chances are the reverse will be true.
Q: How will your hike be similar to your PCT hike?
A: I will have a bounce box (a box with items I’ll need, but don’t want to carry, such as my camera battery recharger). I’ll be receiving resupply boxes (that I set up before I began) in various towns and outposts. I’ll be hiking long days. I’m allowing 6 months to finish.
Q: How will your hike be different than your PCT experience?
A: My bounce box won’t be so huge this time. My long hiking days will result in covering 16-20 miles, not the 22-28 miles I’d do on the PCT on an average day. I’ll spend a significant portion of my day figuring out where I am, and where I’m going. When I hit a road to hitch into town, the towns will be much more distant. I’ll have some 30 or 40 mile hitches. And, as I mentioned, there will be far fewer hikers. I’ll likely be hiking alone for days or even weeks.
Q: Why won’t you be able to hike as far in a day as you did on the PCT?
A: Some hikers report they spend up to 2 hours every day making navigation decisions. On a thru-hike 2 hours is 5 or 6 miles. That alone explains it, but additionally the terrain will also slow me down. If the PCT tread is, for the most part, a highway, the CDT tread is a vague country road. In fact, the fastest hiking on the CDT is likely to be on vague country roads-old jeep or wagon tracks.
Q: What maps will you use?
A: On the PCT, we all had guidebooks that included maps that detailed the narrow corridor of the trail.
There is no such thing on the CDT. There are two sets of guidebooks, one from the Continental Divide Trail Alliance (CDTA) and one from the Continental Divide Trail Society (CDTS). Word on the street is that the CDTS books are much better even though the CDTA books show the ‘official’ route. I’ve heard that the CDTA books say things like “We got lost here” and don’t provide a solution: It seems the book author only hiked that section once. But I digress. In either case, the maps in these guidebooks are not adequate for hiking the trail.
A patchwork of maps from the BLM, Forest Service, national parks, and private map makers could be used, but the scales vary, they cover larger areas than just the trail corridor, and they could be hard to pull together.
I’ll use a set of maps created by a CDT thru-hiker. He created the map corridor using USGS 7.5’ quads, digitized them, illustrated the trail, including alternate routes, annotated the margins and put them on a CD. Each year hikers give feedback, improve the notes, and contribute to making the set even better. I’ll be hiking with the third generation of these maps, which now include GPS coordinates, thanks to the efforts of a few hikers.
I will supplement these maps with road maps from printed DeLorme atlases. These will provide large overviews of the areas and will be most useful when I’m off the trail and headed to a town.
In some sections, like southern New Mexico, I’ll also have an assortment of agency maps to help me make it through this particularly unfinished section of the trail.
Q: Why are you hiking southbound in 2004?
A: I felt drawn to hike this trail southbound. Plus, statistically, I have a better chance of completing a continuous thru-hike if I go southbound. More southbound hikers do better. Starting northbound has two distinct advantages which I’ll be sacrificing by going southbound: Northbound hikers can start earlier in the year. I know a small group that left the Mexican border in mid- to late-March. If they run into obstacles, like snow, they have the luxury of time to wait, or to jump ahead then jump back. Hiking southbound, I’ll need to leave in mid-June. That puts my finish date in November with no room for delays.
The second advantage to a northbound hike is finishing in Glacier National Park. We southbounders will be finishing with anti-climatic middle-of-nowhere New Mexico. To add insult to injury, we’ll then have to hike back to the nearest town, retracing the final miles we hiked to finish the trail. At least we won’t be rushing to finish like the northbounders, who will be ever-worried about early snow in Glacier.
Q: Why are you hiking northbound in 2006?
A: New Mexico and Colorado present two extremes. New Mexico can start getting dry and hot in May, and will be dry and hot until the monsoons. The San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado can still have last winter's snow in May and June. I want to get through New Mexico before it gets hot and before the monsoons, but I can't get into Colorado's high country until much later. By hiking northbound, I'll be able to experience spring in Colorado's Rockies.



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