New Challenges on the CDT
Monday, March 9, 2020 12:34 pm

One of the attractions of the Continental Divide Trail to me is the variety of new challenges the CDT brings. The most significant of which is the “choose your own adventure” aspect of the trail.

Planning the Continental Divide Trail

Remote and Isolated

The Appalachian Trail is described as a “footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness”. And while the AT is in the wilderness, by some definition, it’s really not that remote. In most areas of the trail, a good day’s hike will cross multiple roads, and the trail is never really that far from civilization.

Both the Pacific Crest Trail and the CDT have wilderness sections that put even the AT’s “Hundred Mile Wilderness” to shame.

And while the CDT has no shortage of roads (and roadwalks), many of those roads are especially isolated, even by PCT standards. Because the continental divide is along high mountain ridges, there’s fewer nearby towns, and the distances to those towns are higher. I’ll have to go further between resupplies. And I’ll need to go faster to avoid having to carry weight from extra food.

The CDT also sees the fewest hikers of the Triple Crown trails, and reports suggest that it’s not uncommon to go days without seeing other hikers.


The creek crossings in the Sierra on the PCT were, at the time, the most challenging water crossings I’ve ever had. In taking the Gila River Alternate between Silver City and Pie Town, I’m going to have to deal with even more water than that. This alternate has over 200 crossings of the Gila River, so for several days, I’m not going to have anything resembling dry feet. (At least, they’ll be clean!)


The snow in Colorado is going to be a big wildcard for my hike. Since it’s still early in the season, it’s unclear what the snow situation will be this year. So far, the San Juans appear to be slightly below average, but all it takes is one major snowstorm to change that, and there’s plenty of time for snow to fall (or melt) before I get there. I’m hoping I’ll luck out and won’t have to use an ice axe, but it will only be prudent to learn how, since the Colorado snowpack won’t be as firm as what I waded through in the Sierra. Stunning as the views in the Sierra were, the snow was my least favorite part, and I’m not so much looking forward to the snow in Colorado. One way or another, though, I’ll make it through.


Because the Continental Divide Trail is even more remote than the PCT, I hope to see a lot more animals on the trail. In the south, New Mexico is home to the gila monster (which is actually Utah’s state reptile!), as well as antelopes, road runners, and no shortage of rattlesnakes. In the north, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area is claimed to have the highest population density of grizzly bears anywhere in the US outside of Alaska.

Grizzlies, which I have so far been fortunate to not encounter (being as they are not present on the trails I’ve hiked so far), are the animals I’m least looking forward to encounter. Keeping food properly stored, and hiking with someone else then, if possible, is going to be the best way to deal with them.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to the choose-your-own-adventure aspect of the CDT.

One of the defining characteristics of many long-distance trails (such as the AT, Long Trail, and Benton MacKaye Trail) is that there is generally a single path to follow. While the PCT has a few notable alternate routes, and a few places where hikers are likely to hike off-trail (such as in the Sierra if there’s snow), for most of its length, there’s one trail to follow.

The CDT, as I mentioned before, has no shortage of defined alternates, as well as wide-open areas that encourage deviation from the trail.

While I was researching the trail in my trail guide, I did find something that was initially surprising: a distinct lack of campsites. The AT and PCT have hundreds of campsites along their length (and the AT has an extensive shelter system as well), but I counted about 60 designated campsites along the entire CDT in my guide, most of them in heavily-trafficked national parks in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. (If they were evenly spaced, which they’re not, 60 would average out to about one campsite every 50 miles!)

Talking with other hikers who have hiked the CDT confirmed my suspicion: because there’s so few people on the trail, trail maintainers don’t generally create campsites. The campsites created by hikers themselves tend to be somewhat randomly placed, and because there is so little traffic, campsites don’t get enough use to become established. Instead, hikers just find somewhere they like (and which is relatively flat) and set up camp. This is (apparently) easy for most of the trail where it’s relatively flat, but the more mountainous areas of Colorado make that more difficult.

This is going to require a significantly different hike planning strategy for me. On prior hikes, each time I got to town, I would usually plan out exactly where I expected to be every day until I got to the next town (or resupply point). I didn’t usually expect to follow the plan precisely, but having a plan was a key part of my hike.

For the CDT, instead of targeting specific campsites, I’ll instead have to target other waypoints on the map — or just general terrain features that will be conducive to a good campsite.

In any case, the lack of distinct “camp here!” spots is going to make that aspect of the hike vastly different, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it does to planned distance vs. actual distance. My initial guess is that I’ll wind up going further than planned each day. On the AT and PCT, getting to a location that you know is a good campsite increases the likelihood of stopping there. On the CDT, without the draw to stop at particular locations — one particular campsite is not any better than another place a mile further down the trail, especially if there’s still daylight and you still have energy.

Also, my experience on the PCT, where I spent a lot more time at campsites (rather than in shelters on the AT and Long Trail), will be beneficial for actually spotting good places to camp. The PCT provided much-needed training in that regard. Before the PCT, I rarely saw campsites because I just wasn’t looking for them. Since then, even on day hikes, I’m much more likely to spot potential campsites.

Next: The Wilderness Requires a Surprising Amount of Civilization