As noted at the U.S. Geological Survey site, National Atlas, the web page, “Continental Divide of the United States,” the natural boundary that separates the waters that flow into the Pacific Ocean from those that flow into the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico is known as the Continental Divide. The “Great Divide” as it is sometimes called, runs from north to south from Alaska to northern South America.
Through the backcountry along the Continental Divide runs the longest of America’s national trails, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). According to the Continental Divide Trail Alliance (CDTA) organization’s home page, the 3,100-mile wilderness trail runs from Glacier National Park in Montana, the northern terminus, to between the U.S. and Mexico border near Hachita, New Mexico, the southern terminus. About 1,000 miles of the trail is still under construction by CDTA partners and volunteers.
Highlights of Backpacking Trips Along the CDT
The CDT traverses some of the most pristine and challenging terrain in the country, offering backpackers the opportunity to tread where few have ever gone. Backpacking trips from the northern terminus to the south pass through five states and some of the most notable national parks and scenic, unspoiled wilderness areas in America.
As detailed at the “Continental Divide National Scenic Trail” page on the official site of the Bureau of Land Management, beginning at the northernmost trailhead inside Glacier National Park (Montana), the trail runs south through Caribou-Targee National Forest (Idaho), Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), Rocky Mountain National Park and Rio Grande National Forest (Colorado) and the El Malpais National Monument and the Gila Wilderness (New Mexico). Traversing the last miles of the trail to its southern terminus will have backpackers passing through the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico, North America’s largest desert.
Continental Divide Trail Hiking Trips
According to “The Lure of a Long Trail: Planning a Thru-Hike,” at Trailspace.com, only about a dozen people each year through-hike the entire length of the CDT. In contrast, the site notes that the Appalachian Trail attracts about 250 through-hikers annually and about 180 hikers complete the entire Pacific Crest Trail each year. Experiencing the entire route along the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico is not without its challenges. Hikers climb striated mountain peaks, pass alpine lakes beyond number and cross through majestic forests, mountain meadows, and high deserts. A through-hike of the CDT is for only the most experienced backpackers who have extensive backcountry knowledge and excellent navigational skills.
For those that don’t have the six months time that it requires to complete the entire trail or the recommended one year of preparation time, the CDT can still be experienced by hiking it in segments. The Continental Divide Trail Alliance site offers “30 Trips on the CDT,” a collection of 30 different routes along portions of the trail broken down by state.
CDT Hiking Trips and When to Go
The Continental Divide Trail Alliance site notes that the best time to attempt the CDT in its entirety depends on whether a backpacker plans to travel from north to south or south to north. The “Frequently Asked Questions” page advises that hikers beginning at the south terminus should start in March or April when the temperatures are most moderate and water most plentiful. For those who plane to start at the northern end and travel south, the less common route, a mid-June start should be planned.
For those with a hankering for a real outdoor adventure and feel up to the challenge of a six-month, 3,100-mile walk (averaging 17 miles per day) through some of the wildest country left in America, the Continental Divide Trail may be just the ticket. While completing the entire trail is an accomplishment to be proud of, the enjoyment of the scenic beauty and rugged backcountry experiences of the trail are also available to those who choose to see the CDT in more easily digested segments.