3,000 Miles, My Ass: Why the CDT Isn’t As Long As Everyone Says It Is
How long is the Appalachian Trail? How long is the Pacific Crest Trail? Why, 2193.1 miles and 2650 miles, respectively, of course. While the exact mileage of these trails varies from year to year, these numbers are known and accepted.
Okay, so then how long is the Continental Divide Trail?
3,100 miles, right? Well, no. It’s complicated. The truth is, no one really knows the answer and as the saying goes, no CDT thru-hiker will walk the same trail. The trails of this world are living entities, even the ones with established routes like the AT and PCT, and they change every year.
However, where the AT and PCT are snakes, the CDT is more of an octopus. Not only are there five recognized termini (three southern, and two northern), but a bajillion alternates of varying popularity split from the redline (a common synonym for ‘official route’, derived from the route’s red color on the popular navigation app, FarOut.), only to return some miles later. Sometimes, divergent hikers will be gone for an hour. Other times, it will take them weeks to reunite with the official CDT.
So how do we even begin to ascribe a specific length to such a uniquely individualized route? Where does the commonly quoted 3,100-mile length come from? Is it all an elaborate hoax to scare away aspiring thru-hikers in order to preserve the solitude of the CDT experience? What are miles anyway? And importantly, why does anybody care?
READ NEXT — Overview of the Major Alternates Along the CDT
3000 Miles, My Ass: The truth about the length of the CDT
Spoiler alert: The CDT isn’t 3,100 miles long. As we’ll see later, a totally legitimate CDT thru-hike usually doesn’t even hit 3,000 miles. 2,900? How about 2,800? Probably not. From what I can gather from the best resources available, most CDT hikers might hike a distance equal to or slightly longer than that of the PCT.
Does that mean the CDT is as ‘easy’ as the PCT? Not necessarily. There are a lot of factors that make the CDT a beast, and it’s scary for many reasons — navigation, bears, fires, exposure, lightning, dry desert, altitude, cold, monsoon, moose, guns, cars, wolves, tourists, difficult access, grimy motels, and more! However, total miles need not be one of them. Besides, as anyone who has hiked the AT will tell you (again and again), not all miles are created equal. Sure, the CDT incorporates a lot of off-trail hiking, but there’s also a bunch of smooth road walking too. Mileage is only part of the story.
My Realization: The CDT isn’t 3,000 miles
Way back in 2019, before it was cool (yeah, we still called it Guthook, nbd), I hiked the CDT with my partner, SpiceRack. During the hike, I kept track of our daily mileage out of curiosity, as well as for my lame blog. For this reason, I always had a running total of our mileage. Because we decided to hike some shorter alternate routes during pre-trip planning, we never expected to hike a full 3,100 miles. However, I had dreams of topping 3,000.
But as Spice and I neared the Mexican border, it became apparent that we wouldn’t eclipse that number either. Shorter alternates had chipped away at our total, and by the time we reached Crazy Cook Monument at the US-Mexican border, it stood at 2,770 miles. That reality didn’t leave me disappointed. However, it left me questioning just how the 3,100-mile “King of Trails” had shriveled to PCT-ian length. Why wasn’t anyone talking about this?
I think that the answer essentially boils down to this: no one cares. At least not yet. Later, we’ll try to understand the hiking community’s complicated relationship with the length of long trails and why the CDT is treated differently.
Purpose: Numbers don’t lie
Okay, okay, I think you have the gist of it now — the CDT is full of alternates and isn’t as long as everyone thinks it is. But what am I trying to do exactly? Well, in short, I want to set the record straight. 3,000 is a big number, it might even be your favorite number, but that doesn’t make it the right number when talking about the CDT.
While I’m certainly not trying to diminish the trail or anyone’s achievement, we’re not living in the dark ages either. We can figure this out! Aspiring thru-hikers need not fear the big 3,000. Let’s take a closer look at CDT mileage and see what we can learn about the “King of Trails”.
Where does 3,100 come from?
It turns out that the answer to this question is the simplest of them all. While the CDT is credited by most sources as being 3,100 miles long, this number actually describes something much more practical than a human-created route.
According to Teressa Martinez, Executive Director of the CDTC, this number refers to the length of the geological Continental Divide between Canada and Mexico. It is literally carved in stone. With the route of the CDT being so mercurial, it has been easier to quote this number, “So the USFS (as the official lead agency for the CDT Stewardship) has chosen that number as the official mileage until the Trail is actually completed.” One day, when the CDT finds a permanent home on protected lands, we might start using the actual trail mileage, but for now, 3,100 is the official line.
Let’s dig into what we do know
So the geological Divide is 3,100 miles long, which is awesome. That’s a big shiny number, and I like big shiny numbers. However, even if the USFS doesn’t care how long the CDT is until the trail is completed, I bet that we can figure out a more accurate number. Between the following three reliable sources of hard data, what can we learn about the true length of the CDT?
The CDTC: 3,006 miles
If you download the official (and excellent) CDT mapset on the CDTC’s website and add up the numbers state-by-state, you’ll get 3,006 miles — 974 (Montana/Idaho), 507 (Wyoming), 736 (Colorado), 789 (New Mexico). So right there, a 3,000-mile thru-hike is looking pretty endangered. Instead of having 100 miles to mess around with, it’s only 6 before you dip out of the 3,000-mile club.
Take pretty much any shorter alternate (Spoiler: they’re all shorter), and you’re below 3,000, relegated to the land of mediocre, short-distance thru-hikers. Why even try! In fact, there are only three alternates that don’t drop you below 3k: Knapsack Col (-.3 miles), Cirque of the Towers (-.7 miles), and Ghost Ranch (-2.2 miles). But hey, it looks like you can take all three!
Is the CDT growing?
Okay, so the CDT is just over 3,000 miles long these days. Again, trails are ever-changing, especially the CDT, so I asked whether or not the CDTC expected the trail to grow or shrink. Martinez responded with an enlightening and satisfying answer:
“The official mileage that we have based on proposed miles of the official route — which does not include the middle fork of the Gila, the Wind River High Route, or any alternates anywhere else — is 3,120. This is an internal number we have based on administrative data. Having said this, not all the miles are completed and this number is not based on road miles walked, but on proposed routes once they are actually completed. For example, in NM once the gap between Pie Town and Grants is completed the 59 miles of road walk will become 65-68 miles of actual trail. We won’t know precisely until it’s on the ground and built, however. Likewise in CO, in the Cochetopa Hills, the current mileage is 39 miles, but once completed it will be closer to 45 miles. And we have no idea yet about Muddy Pass, but my guess is those 15 miles of road walk will become closer to 30 miles of trail, etc etc. So our “internal” mileage is based on that estimate, not what is on the ground today.”
So yeah, the CDT is growing, or expected to grow. And that makes sense — as road walks are diverted to existing and newly constructed single-track, the trail will inevitably wiggle more, and thus the trail will lengthen. 3,006 miles today, 3,120 miles tomorrow.
FarOut Guides: What does the app say?
Adding up the mileage of each section in the popular navigation app results in a total CDT length of 2,982 miles. Alternatively, click on the terminus icon and you’ll see that the mileage sits at 2,975.3. Sorry, 3,000-mile aspirant, looks like you need to walk in a few circles to reach your goal.
Halfway Anywhere’s CDT Surveys: What do the results tell us?
Since 2017, thru-hiker extraordinaire and proprietor of Halfway Anywhere, Mac, has collected and collated trail data in his annual CDT Thru-Hiker Survey. In this, he breaks down each of the major alternates’ popularity as a percentage of that year’s thru-hiker class who hiked it. From this, we are able to get an idea of which of these length-altering alternates people are actually taking.
With this information and FarOut mileages, I estimated the total distance of the average CDT thru-hiker in 2022 (the most recent data available) and 2019 (Selfishly, the year I hiked). Alternates with over 50% of respondents reporting that they hiked it were included in the route. I’m sure that there is a smarter way to extract value from this data, but this is what my brain is capable of.
The Results: How long is the CDT actually?
In 2019, the most popular CDT route was 2,717 miles long. In 2022, that number crept up to 2,743 miles. Those numbers are less than 100 more than the PCT’s official 2,650-mile length. In other words, the CDT and PCT are practically the same length based on the most popular CDT routes.
How Short Can the CDT Get?
Throwing out the alternate route popularity data, it’s possible to calculate the shortest distance between borders while sticking with the redline and standard alternates. Of course, it’s easy to find a shorter route by following roads, but we need to draw the line somewhere.
So, assuming a continuous footpath and opting for the shortest route at every opportunity, it is possible to cut off 588 miles per FarOut, resulting in a total mileage of 2,387 miles. That’s closer to the AT than the PCT. Huh.
Wait a minute. If I’m seeing this right, that’s 20% shorter than the redline. The length of the CDT through the entire state of Wyoming is only 507 miles in total. How do we reconcile the fact that this route or one similar to it, has so far qualified as a completely legitimate CDT thru-hike, equal to that of one that travels 2,975 miles along the redline? Are we crazy for allowing this cheater of a thru-hiker to get kudos for a hike well done?
I don’t think so. It seems like a legitimate thru-hike to me. But I also can’t imagine granting the same level of grace to a thru-hiker who shortened the PCT or AT by 20%. Now that feels crazy. I’d guess that I’m not the only one who feels this way, yet how do we explain this blatant double standard?
Does Size Matter?: Our Confusing and Complicated Fixation on Mileage
Why does total mileage matter anyway? Walking across the country obviously isn’t about taking the longest route possible, yet we still oooo and ahhhhh over the length of our long trails.
A short trip to the theater:
AT Hiker #1: 2,200 miles over roots, rocks, and mud. And yeah, I climbed Katahdin in a storm of ice-lightning-snow with a porcupine on my back (but my baseweight was still 3 pounds).
PCT Hiker #1: Psh, the AT’s only 2,200 miles. The PCT is longer than that, and therefore harder and better!
CDT Hiker #1: *cough, cough* 3,100 miles *cough, cough*
AT Hiker #1, PCT Hiker #1: (inaudible grumbling)
The CDT certainly benefits from the mystique of widely being considered a 3,000+ mile trail, but why? And how is this myth perpetuated? Because as we’ve seen, very few, if any, CDT hikers actually walk 3,000 miles.
There must be something about being the longest of the Triple Crown trails that puts stars in our eyes, and with so many possible routes, we lack a framework to understand the true length of the CDT. No doubt, 3,000 miles is an impressive threshold. In lieu of an accurate understanding of how far CDT hikers walk, we let this myth persist. Not only that, but we buy into it too. Included with my completion certificate from the CDTC was a rocker patch with “3,000 Miler” embroidered in blue.
When it dropped out of the envelope into my hand, I scoffed a little bit, but I was also filled with pride. I knew that my CDT total wasn’t really that close to 3,000 miles in the end, so it seemed disingenuous to claim that it was, as this patch suggested. However, even if that number wasn’t true to my experience on the CDT, it represented the magnitude of the achievement in a way that transcended hard numbers.
The figure was wrong, but the feeling wasn’t. Did I hike 3,000 miles? No, but the CDT was 3,000 miles long, and I hiked the CDT. So by association, my thru-hike was worth equal accolades to one that traveled the trail to its maximum. The same goes for someone who hiked fewer miles than I did. That kinda makes sense, right?
What does everyone else think?
Then I began to wonder how other hikers felt. Did they believe that a) the CDT is truly 3,100 miles long, and b) they hiked over 3,000 miles of it? Not that I think the length of the trail is of particular importance, but had we all been duped? Surely I wasn’t the only hiker who kept track of mileage and realized that the miles didn’t add up.
Next, I remembered back to a moment on trail when a few hikers celebrated their 2,000-mile mark. We were at mile 2,000 per FarOut, after all. Still, this came as a surprise to me because I knew that we were still a couple hundred miles short based on my daily calculations. That year, I only met three thru-hikers who were adhering to the redline the whole way (although, I’m sure more were out there). For all but these three, the 2,000-mile mark was fiction, yet I felt like few of us knew this or cared.
Is Longer Cooler?
Why do we care about being in the 3,000 Miler club? How about the 2,000 Miler club on the AT? Obviously, there is something about hiking very long distances that captures our imagination, and I admit that part of the appeal of hiking the PCT, CDT, and AT for me was their length. However, to this day, I’m not sure why. The length difference between the Colorado Trail (CT, 486 miles) and the CDT doesn’t automatically make the CDT better, yet it’s probably fair to say that the hiking community thinks it’s cooler to thru-hike the latter. Again, why?
And for all you east coasters, riddle me this. Flagg Mountain marks the geological southern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains and sits 405 trail miles south of Springer Mountain in Central Alabama. It’s a very cool spot. What if the AT included these extra miles from its inception, or what if ongoing efforts to extend the trail to Flagg are successful? What will we say about a 2,200-mile hike from Springer to Katahdin then? Not as cool, right?
Gosh, now I’m confused, and maybe you are too, but let’s swing this coolness idea back around to the Continental Divide. Is the 3,100-mile CDT still cool at 2,975 miles long? And is it still just as cool at 2,387 miles? What does length say about the inherent value of the thru-hiking experience, and will we really allow a number to determine this for us?
Comparison and Judgement: Can We Leave Them Behind?
You may be wondering that if there’s an official CDT route or ‘redline’, then how come no one seems to stick with it? After all, if we lazy CDT hikers just hiked the damn redline, then we wouldn’t need to ask all these pesky philosophical questions.
Well, folks, the CDT ain’t your PCT or AT. There are few purists along the Divide and any condescending judgment they lug around falls on deaf ears. Whereas the PCT and AT already had established routes by the time thru-hiking became popular, thereby enabling trolls to rate the subjective value of a stranger’s thru-hike from a thousand miles away, the CDT has so far remained too confusing for this simple-minded understanding to apply. For now, at least, it is still enough to hike the CDT by any route. No need to start a pissing match of one-upmanship. A successful ride along the Divide is measured by the quality of the experience, not a puritanical adherence to a single specific route.
Isn’t this how it should be on all trails? Hike your own hike, remember. However, it bugs us when someone who we perceive to have hiked a lesser version of the same trail (perhaps they blue-blazed a few miles or hitchhiked around an entire section) claims the same level of achievement. “I hiked the AT,” appears to be a simple statement with a straightforward meaning. However, it can mean a lot of different things.
The deep question
Despite my noblest intentions to live and let live, I’ll admit that it irks me when I think about the hikers who skipped long roadwalks for no ‘good’ reason yet still made it onto the CDTC’s completion list (and received a 3,000 Miler patch). Perhaps I feel that these unscrupulous characters diminish the value of my hike, but then what does that say about my own self-worth? Did I only hike the CDT for external validation?
READ NEXT — 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking the CDT
The CDT is Weird and Amazing
The freedom to choose is one of the great gifts of the CDT, and adopting this mindset has the ability to transform one’s perception of a thru-hike. Rather than being driven by the desire to hike all the miles between termini without deciding the way from one to the other, multiple route options allow the CDT hiker to seek whatever is most desirable at the moment without fear of torpedoing their claim to a true thru-hike. What do you want to see? On the PCT and AT, you get what you’re given, and potentially get slammed for deviating from the expected, curated experience.
What do you want to get out of this hike?
Each CDT alternate delivers a unique flavor. Sure, many of them are popular because they are shortcuts (not one alternate is longer than the redline), but hikers are almost forced to choose. This lateral thinking and limited-judgment environment opens up countless possibilities and is a breath of fresh air in a world where thru-hiking is increasingly packed into a glass box and mercilessly scrutinized.
Why are you thru-hiking the CDT? Without the safety net of the redline always choosing your path, you might be surprised to learn that you don’t actually like climbing over mountains, at least not if there’s a road that circles the bottom with fast food along the way. When do you push yourself? When do you give yourself a break?
READ NEXT — CDT Alternates: The Good, The Bad, and The Epic
We’ve covered a lot of ground and dipped into some touchy subjects. That wasn’t my intention when I started investigating the true length of the CDT, but as all hikers know, the trail is never exactly what you expect it to be. The CDT is not 3,100 miles long, nor is it 3,000 miles. But it will be.
So. Sorry if you’ve hiked the CDT and lived your life thinking that you walked 3,000 miles in doing so. In reality, you probably haven’t. But who cares, right? Does that number actually matter? My hope is that the CDT continues to live free from the dogma that afflicts the most popular long trails. This boxed-in, self-righteous, unimaginative, discriminatory thinking is the enemy of the very thing that so many people seek during their journey — self-discovery.
So far, the CDT’s confusing array of alternates and relatively low number of hikers have minimized the murmurs of disgruntlement with the laissez-faire attitude along the Divide. Yet it grows, and will continue to do so unless the trail community is active in its encouragement of the choose-your-own-adventure nature of the CDT. Even when the official CDT route has solidified, I hope that 90% of thru-hikers still splash along the Gila River because it’s amazing, or pound the pavement through Anaconda because there’s a charm to hiking right through the center of Small-Town Montana, not to mention snagging a sando from Subway. The freedom to choose is a true gift of the CDT. Fortunately for everyone, length has nothing to do with it.
Featured image: Owen Eigenbrot photo. Graphic design by Zach Goldman.
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