I spend my day thinking about how I am going to get my American Heart Association recommended 10,000 steps completed. Teresa Martinez, the Director of Continental Divide Trail Coalition, spends hers thinking about 3100 miles of hiking and horse trail between Canada and Mexico.
Here is a bit of her story.
How did the Continental Divide Trail come to be?
As early as the early 1930s people became interested in hiking the continental divide. Originally it was only from Northern New Mexico, through Colorado to Wyoming and for many years it was known as the Blue Tin Can Trail as it was originally marked by blue tin cans.
In the 1960s there was a huge push to support the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which also brought attention to the idea of a trail along the Continental Divide. Once the AT and PCT were created between 1968 and 1978, an immense amount of work was done with the local communities in regards to the potential for the Continental Divide Trail. During this time, and following his 1971 thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, Jim Wolf became intrigued with the same idea and began to work to see a trail designated along the Continental Divide and eventually was the sole citizen to testify before Congress on behalf of the Continental Divide Trail. In 1978, the CDT was designated by Congress. The mapping of the official route was completed in 2011.
What is the official route of the Continental Divide Trail?
It starts 80 feet outside of the Mexican border in New Mexico. It goes through Colorado and across the highest point of any scenic trail in the US, Grays and Torrey’s Peaks. It goes into Wyoming, through Yellowstone National Park, up along the Idaho and Montana border and it ends at Waterton Lake in the in Glacier National Park and Canada’s Waterton National Park, at the border of the United States and Canada.
I have heard one of the bigger issues with the Continental Divide Trail is that no one actually knows where it is. It sounds as if this issue has been remedied.
For many years the Continental Divide Trail was not signed very well, and in many locations the official route had not yet been determined. Most Trail development has occurred since 1985, and until then hikers and equestrians alike had to find their own way along the CDT. The Continental Divide Trail now has an official route but part of the culture of the trail is in knowing that between the snow, rain, fire and whatever else Mother Nature throws your way there will be alternate routes. Also, there are places where the CDT does not actually follow the true Continental Divide because of private land or other issues. Even once the Trail route is finalized, the CDT culture will always, at times, require users to find their own way.
When you talk about the “trail” is this an actual well-defined trail similar to that we would find in our state or national parks?
There is a physical route but not all of it is a trail as most are used to. There are places along the way where the trail is literally signed but there isn’t any tread, and you are simply hiking line of sight from one cairn or sign to the next. In other cases while there is an official route, that route may be on an open road and some people choose to route find a way between those areas that don’t involve road walks. In other areas, we have identified the final route, but are in the process of constructing it.
What percent of the Continental Divide Trail is actual trail?
72% of the CDT is completed with an 18 to 24” trail that is surrounded by a mile wide corridor.
Is there a state that has the majority of those 175 miles?
How many people have completed the Continental Divide Trail?
Up until the last two or three years there were probably 10 or 25 people who attempted a thru hike. Over the years maybe 100 people have completed it. I know there is a couple who did it on their horses in the 1970s. But in the last two years, now that we have the map guides and with the help of social media with the thru hikers, we have a better idea of how many people are out there. In 2013, over 200 people have attempted it. WeI have probably had over a dozen requests this year alone for people who want to ride it on their horses.
The Appalachian Trail has a shelter system where there are records kept of the thru hikers. The Pacific Crest Trail can keep track of hikers because it requires a permit to hike it in locations of which the Pacific Crest Trail Association manages, but the CDT does not have either of these things and it is harder to know who has done the trail or is on the trail at any given time. However, many thru hikers are now using Facebook and online trail journals to stay connected, and so we have a better idea of how many people are out there, and the conditions they are encountering.
What is the total elevation gain and loss of the Continental Divide Trail?
I do not have that answer. I wouldn’t even harbor a guess.
What, in your opinion, are the major differences between the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail?
Each trail has its own unique experience. So many people know about the Appalachian Trail because of Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods. There are shelters along the Appalachian Trail. The founders of the Appalachian Trail wanted these to create a sense of community along the trail. The Appalachian Trail can see up to 2000 thru hikers start each year. It runs between Georgia and ends in Maine. It is beautifully green and it is well marked.
On the Pacific Crest Trail you are starting in the desert and going to Canada. You go through the Sierras and the Cascades.
On the Continental Divide Trail, it is the great divide of North America. It is the watershed of the North America, and a significant landscape even without a trail running along its spine. There is an enormous amount of history on the trail. There are areas where historic emigrant routes intersect the trail and you can still see those wagon ruts along the way, there is a strong Native American culture, and you can stand in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps. You can travel from desert to glacier.
Because the CDT is a trail in progress and in extremely remote locations, there are fewer people on it. You can walk for days and days and never see anyone. At many times you are at high points and you can experience North America’s wide expanses. There are very remote landscapes like the Bob Marshall Wilderness where there are few roads and grizzly bears. There is so much diversity on the Continental Divide Trail; you have to remain flexible and adaptable. You have to have backcountry skills.
How long does it take to do the Continental Divide Trail?
People do it in about five to seven months with about 18 to 30 miles per day. Most people will start in June in Glacier National Park and head south if they desire to do a continuous thru hike.
What are some of the more challenging areas of the Continental Divide Trail?
Different areas are challenging for different reasons and because all areas may be best described as remote with limited supplies. New Mexico is challenging because the terrain does not have a lot of easily accessible water. Colorado can be technically difficult and involve long, high climbs, thunderstorms up high, snow in August, glaciers and snow fields. And as you head further north, you sleep with grizzlies which I think makes it challenging emotionally.
Mother Nature throws a lot at you which is why you do it. The trails towns are few and far between. There is no question it is difficult to hike 3100 miles but the challenges you come up against are also the quintessential experiences.
How often are you crossing towns while on the Continental Divide Trail?
In New Mexico it could be every couple of weeks, in Colorado it could be every week. On average I would say seven to ten days. On the Appalachian Trail you come across a lot more road crossings and towns.
If I was considering doing the Continental Divide Trail, what would you recommend I do to prepare myself?
I think you should take a long trip for a week or a weekend by yourself and see if it is something you can manage. I think getting the gear right is really important. You need to be as lightweight as possible but you need different types of gear. Be prepared to walk in hot, exposed locations as well as snow fields and unexpected extreme weather conditions. But, a lot of the preparation is mental. If you are ready to embrace whatever comes your way the Continental Divide Trail is a great hike. The CDT has two mottos: “Hike Your Own Hike” and “Embrace the Brutality.” It is a bit of both. There are times where you just have to put one foot in front of the other. There are other times where trail magic happens and that is why you put one foot in front of the other. I encourage people to look at the different routes. There is a lot of information on trailjournals.com and the Continental Divide Trail listserv. Thru hiker Yogi has compiled an immense amount of data into the CDT Planning Guide and this information really helps you think out and plan a possible thru hike or section hike (www.pcthandbook.com) and people can find a lot of information on our Facebook page and our website.
What if I just wanted to sample the CDT what areas do you recommend?
On our website we have 30 trips along the CDT as the quintessential areas. It depends on the time of year you want to go and the experience you want to have. I would say in New Mexico go to the El Malpais National Monument or the trail through the Carson, Santa Fe or Gila Forests. In Colorado I would say the San Juans. You could hike them for seven to ten days and not cross a road. Hiking from Stony Pass to Salida which is also a fantastic two week trip, but you could break it down into smaller trips.
Also in Colorado are the Collegiate Peaks and the loop trail from Tennessee Pass to Monarch Pass. It is a 90 mile loop that connects the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. It is fantastic. There are various lodges/hostels and services along the way. It even crosses Mt. Princeton Hot Springs.
On the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park there is another great loop. The Wind Rivers Range in Wyoming is also fantastic and they are the quintessential idea of the Rocky Mountains. The Continental Divide Trail within Yellowstone National Park is amazing. In Montana I would suggest hiking along Chief Josephs Pass through the Anaconda Pintlers, Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.
What about near the Continental Divide Trail near the Denver area?
If you drive up I-70 to Herman Gulch at exit 218 you can hike the CDT north bound up to Herman Lake. On the way you will see some of the most beautiful columbine and wildflower fields of your life. It is 1000s of columbines. And then Herman Lake is a quintessential high mountain lake. It is just gorgeous. To the wildflowers it is about 1 to 1.5 miles and the lake is about three miles.
Or you could drive to Highway 40 at Berthoud pass and the CDT passes right across it. You can hike 1.5 miles and you are on the physical divide with expansive views of Rocky Mountain National Park to the North and Grays and Torreys peaks to the South.
What about cost from end to end?
Most people say they spend between $3000 and $5000. A lot of it depends on whether or not they have gear or need to buy it and if they are flying their gear out to the different mail drops or if they are resupplying in the bigger towns along the way.
What are the daily challenges you face in building and supporting the Continental Divide Trail?
We offer a lot of support to local, state and federal agencies. Each individual within these agencies has the job of 10 people and they have less money and less resources to do their work. This is a huge challenge, as is getting congress to know the importance of the Continental Divide Trail and to stop cutting funding to our agency partners.
Engaging the American public also brings interesting challenges. Every trail is important and significant but what is unique about the CDT is that the Continental Divide itself is nationally significant. This is where Lewis and Clark first crossed thinking they would see the Pacific Ocean only to learn how expansive North America is, this where the Atlantic and Pacific’s watersheds begin, this is where a tremendous amount of Native American culture and history resides and this is where the last of the wild species roam. Creating a Trail that celebrates all of these important aspects, and also creates opportunites for folks to interact in a meaningful and deliberate fashion is our focus and goal.
Learn more about the Continental Divide Trail here: http://www.continentaldividetrail.org/