Why The Continental Divide Trail?
Saturday, February 8, 2020 5:58 pm

Four years ago today, I made a decision that completely reshaped the course of my life: to thru-hike the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail. In the four years since I first set foot on Springer Mountain, I've also thru-hiked the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, as well as the much shorter Long Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail, all together totaling 5,400 miles.

This year, I will attempt my third epic-length hike: The Continental Divide Trail.

Planning the Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail

As its name suggests, the Continental Divide Trail largely follows the North American continental divide, which separates the the US into two drainage basins: all water west of the divide flows into the Pacific Ocean; all water east of the divide flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Not surprisingly, this makes the CDT a relatively high-elevation trail.

The CDT’s southern terminus, on the New Mexico-Mexico border at Crazy Cook, begins an almost eight-hundred mile trek through the high-elevation deserts of New Mexico. The trail starts at an elevation of 4,300 feet, and within a hundred miles, reaches its low point of 4,220 ft. The next time the trail is that low is at its northern terminus.

By contrast, the low point on the AT is 124 feet in New York; the PCT bottoms out at 180 feet while crossing the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods, between Oregon and Washington. In fact, the majority of the Appalachian Trail is at a lower elevation than the CDT’s low point!

The trail gradually increases in elevation as it winds north through New Mexico, entering the Rocky Mountains, and reaching over 10,000 feet as it enters the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. In Colorado, the trail rarely drops below 10,000 feet, reaching a high point of 14,254 feet on Grays Peak. Also in Colorado, the trail comes close to Mount Elbert (14,433 ft), the high point of Colorado and the entire Rocky Mountain range. Elbert is the second-highest peak in the continental US behind Mount Whitney. (Hopefully, I’ll have a better experience summiting Elbert than I did Whitney!)

In Wyoming, the trail passes through Yellowstone National Park — even directly in front of the Old Faithful geyser. Having been to Yellowstone once as a kid (and not being able to get enough of it), I’m quite looking forward to this portion of the trail.

Beyond Wyoming, the trail ventures along the Idaho-Montana border before heading into Montana proper, ending in Glacier National Park, at the Canadian border along Waterton Lake. (The CDT’s northern terminus also marks the southern terminus of the 700 mile Great Divide Trail, which follows the continental divide further into Canada. Alas, there won’t be enough time to add that trail to the hike!)

Completing the Triple Crown of Hiking

The AT, PCT, and CDT are the best-known long-distance hiking trails in the United States, and are three of eleven National Scenic Trails. With a combined collective length of nearly 8,000 miles, the three trails span fourteen eastern and eight western states as they traverse a variety of scenic landscapes and historic locations. Together, they form the Triple Crown of Hiking.

Completing even one of those trails is a great achievement. Fewer people attempt two. And less than a thousand people have completed all three. I hope to become one of the few that have. With two of the three completed, that leaves the longest and least defined of the three to go.

Over the next several weeks before I leave for the trail, I’ll blog here about the planning and preparation for what I hope will become my most epic hike so far.

And, as I have on my prior hikes, I’ll maintain a daily trail journal, posted here, which will chronicle my trek from Mexico to Canada. Soon, I’ll be back on the trail, and I invite you to follow along!

Next: Picking a Direction of Travel

Continental Divide Trail, 2022