Alternates and Route Planning
Sunday, February 23, 2020 6:58 pm

One of the unique parts of the Continental Divide Trail, compared to the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, is the number of alternate routes hikers can take, and how that impacts planning.

Planning the Continental Divide Trail

The Appalachian Trail does not really have any alternates to speak of. While there are a few bad-weather trails that skirt some ridges, side trails to shelters or water sources that might return further down the trail, and alternate routes you could take in some areas, staying on the official white-blazed path is almost sacrosanct among some hikers. Hiking the AT is not just about a continuous footpath, but passing by as many white blazes as possible.

The Pacific Crest Trail has a few alternates, but they don’t really define that trail. The first opportunity hikers have to take an alternate is near San Jacinto, in the south. A network of side trails offers several ways off the mountain and into lower elevations, which can be important for early-season hiking when the ridge is still covered with snow. (And, for several years, some of these side trails were required due to fire closures.) Later on is the infamous “Endangered Species Detour”, a required detour. In Oregon, nearly everyone takes the alternate along Crater Lake’s rim. A few other alternates are defined in Oregon and Washington, and in many years, fire detours require makeshift alternates if one wants to maintain a continuous footpath. (My PCT hike required five detours due to active and past fires.)

The Continental Divide Trail, by contrast, has over twenty defined alternates, and even more are possible due to the open-country nature of much of the trail’s path. In contrast to the AT, it’s almost expected that CDT hikers will take alternates. For the CDT (as with the PCT), having a continuous trail is what’s important, not the exact route taken.

Alternates in New Mexico

While there are alternates in every state on the CDT, for now, I am focusing only on the alternates in New Mexico. This is because these alternates will determine how long it takes to get through New Mexico. Given a desire to enter Colorado in early June (but not before), the length of New Mexico is important for determining a start date. Since some of the alternates open up additional avenues for resupply, knowing where I plan to be is important as well.

The official trail through New Mexico is 789 miles, and nearly all of the alternates shorten that distance, sometimes considerably.

Choice of Terminus

The CDT “officially” starts at the “Crazy Cook” terminus on the New Mexico-Mexico border, but that’s not the only place to start the CDT. The Columbus-Gila alternate starts further east, also on the Mexican border, just south of the town of Columbus. Skipping the first two trail towns (Lordsburg and Silver City), and instead traveling through Columbus and Deming, this alternate joins the CDT near the start of the Gila River alternate north of Silver City, and is about 38 miles shorter than the CDT from its start to where it joins the CDT. I won’t be taking the Columbus-Gila alternate, though, since I’d rather start from the official terminus.

Gila River

The next substantial alternate is the Gila River alternate. Rather than taking a long, circuitous route through the remote Black Range, this route joins, and then follows the Gila River in the river’s canyon. Considerably more direct, it’s 75 miles (3 - 4 days!) shorter that the main trail, as well as having considerably more water: it follows a river, and even crosses it over 200 times! It also has the benefit of adding a resupply point directly on-trail between Silver City and Pie Town.

The Gila River alternate even has its own alternate, the Gila River High Route, which roughly parallels the river, but on higher ground outside of the river valley. If the river winds up being too high or dangerous, it’s nice to have another option.

Pie Town

The Pie Town alternate cuts off about nine miles and significantly reduces paved roadwalk. It also passes by the hiker-friendly Davila Ranch.

Cebolla and Bonita-Zuni

The Cebolla alternate, between Pie Town and Grants, is about 37 miles shorter than the CDT. It achieves this by skipping a circuitous route through a lava field, instead opting for a more direct route.

I’d rather take the more interesting route through the lava flow, but, this is also a fairly dry part of the trail. Whether to take this shortcut or not will depend entirely on water conditions, and I’ll defer that decision until I get to Pie Town.

If one opts not to take Cebolla, the Bonita-Zuni alternate cuts about 4 miles and reduces the amount of roadwalk on the CDT going into Grants. Whether to take this will also be an on-trail decision.

Mount Taylor Summit

North of Grants, this alternate to the summit of Mount Taylor is one of the few alternates that is longer than the trail it skips. At just over 11,300 feet, this would be the highest mountain summit I’ve hiked, edging out San Jacinto by almost 500 feet.

Ghost Ranch

Between Cuba and Chama, the last trail town in New Mexico, is Ghost Ranch. A slightly shorter (2.5 miles) and reportedly more scenic trail adds an on-trail resupply stop.


The Gila River route by itself cuts off more trail than the rest of the New Mexico alternates combined (excluding the Columbus-Gila alternate, which doesn’t apply when starting from Crazy Cook). This was the most important to decide on, not just because of the significant distance change, but also because it results in a significantly different hike for its duration.

I’m not particularly thrilled with 200 river crossings, but, it will be nice to have the change of scenery from the desert, and by all accounts, it’s a beautiful stretch of trail. The extra resupply opportunity and shorter distance will reduce the food I’ll need on that stretch of trail. So, this alternate is in.

Factoring in the other alternates I plan to take (Pie Town, Mount Taylor, and Ghost Ranch), that reduces New Mexico from 789 miles to 704 miles, a pretty significant reduction.

With that in mind, I could begin to decide on a start date.

Next: Selecting a Start Date and Getting to the Trail