CDT Alternates: The Good, The Bad, and The Epic
The Continental Divide Trail is known for having loads of alternates, and it can be a little daunting to decipher which ones to take. Before I started the CDT, I was more or less a thru-hiking purist, always taking the main route as often as possible.
Luckily I was given some advice early on my CDT adventure about the value of alternates. I soon opened to seeking routes other than the official CDT, which we thru-hikers call the red line (that’s the GPS track color in the popular navigation app, FarOut). Some of the alternates were, by far, the highlight of my adventure, while others had me hating life by the end of the day.
Below, is my list of the most impactful alternates on the CDT. And since I am a dirty, rebellious SOBO hiker, they are listed from north to south. In addition to my own experience, I also sourced valuable insight from other CDT thru-hikers at The Trek about the routes that I didn’t take.
In the end, there are pros and cons to every route option on the CDT, and as always, the cliché, hike your own hike, rings true. The following are opinions, worth taking with a grain of salt. Hopefully, they will give you a little more insight and clarity into some of the trail’s major alternates.
READ NEXT —
- Overview of the Main Alternates Along the CDT
- The Basics of Planning a CDT Thru-Hike
- CDT Resupply Guide
Northern Terminus: Chief Mountain vs. Waterton
The monument at Waterton Lake is arguably the more popular northern terminus, but for a variety of reasons, the alternative terminus at Chief Mountain still sees a lot of hikers. Difficulty with fire closures, snow levels, road access, and crossing the US-Canada border can all make a start or finish at Chief the only and best option. It is also an officially recognized terminus by the CDTC, so don’t worry, it’s legit.
If trail conditions allow, most NOBOs will end their thru-hike at Waterton before either backtracking to the nearest road in Glacier National Park (Going to the Sun Road) or continuing north to Waterton Park several miles into Canada.
SOBOs, on the other hand, typically start at Chief Mountain Border Crossing to avoid dangerous stretches of lingering snow that might remain on the Waterton route when they start in June and July.
For either, the Chief Mountain terminus is the logistically easier option, which can be appealing for a number of reasons. It is located on a paved highway and does not require crossing an international border, which significantly reduces the hassle of getting to or from the trail.
Both routes are in Glacier National Park, and there is no bad way to hike in Glacier. So basically this will come down to real-time conditions, personal preference, and logistics.
Conclusion: Waterton for NOBOs, Chief Mountain for SOBOs, but you can’t go wrong.
Editor’s Note: The backcountry border crossing at Waterton was closed in 2020, and reopened in June 2023. It is again possible for both NOBO and SOBO hikers to cross the US-Canada border on the CDT, provided the proper procedures are followed. As we’ve learned, this information is subject to change. Please contact the CDTC or Glacier NP before planning a trip to Goat Haunt Ranger Station at Waterton.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness (N. Montana): The Kitchen and Spotted Bear Alternates
While staying at a hostel in East Glacier, I met some hikers who were heading north who told me that I should 100% take the Kitchen and Spotted Bear alternates. I didn’t question them once they shared why. The Kitchen alternate is a few miles shorter than the official CDT, but more importantly, it avoids a tremendous amount of blowdowns. Instead, you cross a very tame creek about 15 times, which was honestly a welcome treat in the heat of July.
The Spotted Bear alternate cuts off about 15 miles of the CDT, while adding a significant amount of elevation gain. However, it again saved me from an insane amount of blowdowns. It also rides some high ridges with excellent views, whereas the official CDT stays low in the valley.
I later heard from NOBOs that the main route had been cleared by trail crews, and of course, trail conditions vary from year to year. I think the takeaway is that blowdowns should be avoided at all costs if you value your sanity. Try to get trail condition beta ahead of time, especially in The Bob.
Conclusion: The Bob is notorious for blowdowns and you will encounter them. Researching which routes have or have not been cleared is the best way to determine which route to take.
Butte (S. Montana): Anaconda Cutoff vs. Butte vs. Superbutte Cutoff
Most thru-hikers take the Anaconda Cutoff (per the CDT thru-hiker survey). The main reasons are to reduce mileage and enjoy the rare pleasure of walking straight through the small town of Anaconda. Outside of New Mexico, there are few towns directly on the CDT so this is a treat. However, that access comes at the cost of several miles of pavement walking with little to no shoulder, which makes one question if that Subway sandwich was worth it.
The main route, which circles Butte, MT has more mileage and enjoys its fair share of well-groomed mountain bike track. It also has an insane amount of PUDs (pointless ups and downs) that can easily drive one insane. But the southern portion is quite pleasant. Dirt roads through some beautiful farmland afford good views of the mountains.
Perhaps the largest deviation from the official CDT is the Superbutte Cutoff, aka the Big Sky Alternate. Few SOBOs take this route, but for NOBOs it can be a hike-saver if they need to avoid fire closures or cut serious time to ensure that they beat winter to the northern terminus. Basically, this route skips the big arc of the Montana-Idaho border, instead beelining directly between Butte and Yellowstone. This cuts a few hundred miles.
Because the Superbutte does not follow a track in FarOut, it requires more navigational awareness, and it’s important to prepare in advance (find the CalTopo track here). There are long food carries and waterless stretches, yet it is this remoteness that makes it such an appealing option. It would also be a trip worth exploring all by itself. However, I feel that cutting the entire Idaho section of the CDT means missing out on a lot of gorgeous terrain. For that reason, I would leave the Superbutte for another time.
Conclusion: Stick to the main route unless you are under a time crunch or need to avoid fires. Take the Anaconda alt if you want the shortcut or don’t want to hitchhike into Butte.
The Wind River Range (Wyoming): Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers
Have you ever wanted to feel like you are living in a Lord of the Rings movie? Well, these two alternates will help you feel like Aragorn at every jaw-dropping pass.
North of the Winds was a low point for me, but these alts reminded me of the amazingness of the CDT. Both the Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers alternates add mileage and considerable elevation change, but most hikers will call this worth it. While these routes are not technical, they do require off-trail route finding and scrambling on loose, steep talus. Hikers should feel comfortable on loose rock and budget more time before considering these options. Travel is slow. That said, they were definitely one of the highlights of my entire thru-hike.
The red line, in comparison, sticks to smooth trail, is shorter, and doesn’t climb exposed mountain passes. Rather than charging through the heart of the range, it parallels their rugged edge. And even though you’ll feel removed from the action, the views and walking are sublime.
Conclusion: If the weather allows, take both alternates if you are comfortable with exposure and route finding on loose rock and scree. Knapsack Col is by far the sketchiest of the two, and both are unbelievably beautiful.
Rawlins Roadwalk (S. Wyoming)
Due to water shortages on the red line, many hikers opt to walk the road south of Rawlins, WY. Southern Wyoming is mostly desert, and this portion is no different, with long carries between unreliable water sources of dubious quality.
Walking the road between Encampment and Rawlins cuts mileage, and makes this dry stretch relatively easy. And if you’re lucky, and don’t look like an axe murderer, you might be able to yogi some drinks or snacks from passing cars. Cons of opting for the road are the inevitable pains that accompany asphalt roadwalking. I don’t mind dirt roads, but asphalt destroys my body. As much as I hate carrying huge water loads I think I would camel up and take the red line next time.
Conclusion: If you don’t mind asphalt, do the alt. If you hate asphalt, don’t.
James Peak to Mount Flora Alternate (N. Colorado)
While not a well-known alternate, this was one of my favorites. Between Grand Lake and Berthoud Pass, this route will take you off the red line while climbing five 13ers in five miles. It shaves off a few miles, but with all the added elevation it will probably take around the same time as the main route.
Conclusion: Take the alt if it is snow free and you have good weather.
Silverthorne Alternate vs. Grays Peak (N. Colorado)
In the jagged heart of the Colorado Rockies, the CDT rises to its highest point on the summit of Grays Peak. At over 14,000 feet, it’s one epic spot indeed. In my opinion, one of the perks of hiking the CDT is easy access to 14ers and my advice is to touch as many summits as possible. For this reason, I think that the red line is a worthy goal if conditions allow.
The Silverthorne alternate, on the other hand, trades Grays for lower terrain. Pleasant valley walking and quiet ridges lead into the town of Silverthorne, significantly reducing the resupply needed for this section. From there, well-groomed trail climbs around Buffalo Peak before rejoining the red line at Copper Mountain. This alternate is perfect for reducing mileage and avoiding bad weather. Bonus perk: there’s a Chipotle on trail in Silverthorne.
Conclusion: Stick to the red line if you like lofty summits and have good weather. Go Silverthorne if the weather is dubious, there’s lingering snow, and/or you really like burritos.
Collegiate West vs. Collegiate East (Colorado)
The CDT merges with the Colorado Trail (CT) near Breckenridge, and the two routes stick together until deep into the San Juans. However, CDT and CT hikers alike face a decision when they reach the Collegiate Peaks.
Between the small town of Twin Lakes and a few miles south of Monarch Pass, the trails split for roughly 85 miles. The original CT skirts the eastern side of the range, or Collegiate East, while the CDT stays high on the western side, Collegiate West.
Sticking west on the CDT is more physically demanding. The climbs are bigger and the trail stays at a consistently higher elevation. And what’s the reward? Most hikers would call Collegiate West the more epic of the two routes, with crazy beautiful views of alpine meadows and endless peaks.
Going east on the CT rewards the hiker with easier grades and lower elevation for the most part. There’s less exposure, more shade, and definitely less snow early in the season. If snow levels are a concern or the monsoon is slamming the high country every afternoon, then Collegiate East will be the safest option.
The cool part about both of these routes is that you are within range of quite a few 14ers. On Collegiate West you have the opportunity to tag Mt. Huron, La Plata, Mt. Missouri, Oxford, and Belford.
On Collegiate East, you have the opportunity to tag Mt. Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Antero, Shavano, and Mt. Tabeguache. Climbing 14ers was by far the highlight of both my CT and CDT hike and I would definitely recommend hiking a couple no matter which route you choose.
Conclusion: Stick to the main route (Collegiate West) if snow and weather is not an issue. Either way, climb a 14er or two.
READ NEXT —
- Collegiate East vs West: 8 Key Differences for CT Thru-Hikers
- How to Hike Every 14er on the Colorado Trail
Creede Cutoff vs. San Juans (S. Colorado)
The portion of the official CDT through the San Juans is epic, no doubt about it. The environment is also not very forgiving, and at 118 miles between Lake City and Pagosa Springs, it’s a monster section. While most of the CDT in Colorado is above 10,000 feet, the trail through the San Juans spends a lot of time above 12,000 feet. Combine that with endless exposure and rollercoaster terrain, and hikers earn every view.
Unfortunately, a lot of hikers don’t get to see this epicness for one of two reasons. NOBOs will likely find the San Juans still covered with some amount of snow. Post-holing, sketchy traverses, and avalanche danger are real concerns in all but the driest years, and so many will choose the alternate through Creede.
SOBOs are racing the clock to get through Colorado before the first major snowfall of winter. Shortcutting the San Juans becomes mighty tempting as the days shorten and temps dip, which leads us to…
The Creede Alternate chops significant mileage when compared with the red line. It also stays low and passes through the heart of Creede, an ancient mining town with oodles of charm. Many NOBOs opt for this route after grinding through extremely challenging terrain to the south, and exhausted SOBOs will savor the respite of the shortened sections. On the flip side, it involves a lot of road walking. Depending on who you are, that might be boring.
Consensus among hikers seems to be that sticking to the red line is preferred, but walking through Creede is perfectly acceptable. If you have to take the low route due to weather or lingering snowpack, take it, make the right choice for yourself, but be warned that FOMO is a formidable adversary.
Conclusion: Follow the red line through the San Juans if weather and snow conditions permit.
Cebolla and Bonita-Zuni Alternates (New Mexico)
Between Grants and Pie Town you have the opportunity to take two alternates: the Cebolla and the Bonita-Zuni alternates. The main route does have some interesting geological features, but it can be hard to navigate and water is scarce. For sweltering NOBOs, or freezing SOBOs, these other routes, while imperfect, can look pretty good.
The Cebolla alternate shaves mileage, but also includes a long roadwalk on a semi-busy highway with little to no shoulder.
The Bonita-Zuni alternate is a little bit longer, but sticks to dirt road instead of pavement.
Ultimately, this is a kind of ‘pick your poison’ section, though all routes offer stunning desert vistas. Long and dry, short and pavement, or somewhere in the middle. I took the Cebolla alternate and my hip flexors felt like they were going to explode by the time I stopped for the night.
Conclusion: Take the Bonita-Zuni alt and skip the Cebolla alt if you despise roadwalking. If you are trying to save mileage or if water is going to be an issue, take the Cebolla alt.
Gila vs. Gila High Route vs. Black Hills (S. New Mexico)
Pretty much everyone either takes the Gila or the Gila High Route. Although they are out there, I haven’t met a single person who’s hiked the official CDT through the Black Hills. For many, the Gila is a highlight of the CDT for its unique abundance of water in a desert environment.
The Gila alternate walks along the Gila River through a deep canyon. In fact, the route crosses the river well over 100 times. The scenery is breathtaking and so diverse compared to the rest of the CDT. Most thru-hikers choose this route.
While rare, the Gila can sometimes flow too high to hike safely. Luckily, there is the Gila High Route which mostly stays above the canyon with only one deep crossing. If the Gila is raging, the High Route still soaks in the beauty of the canyon without the danger of sketchy river crossings.
Conclusion: Take the Gila. Take the Gila High Route if high water is an issue.
Southern Terminus: Crazy Cook vs. Columbus vs. Antelope Wells
The monument at Crazy Cook is arguably the most desirable southern terminus of the CDT. Most thru-hikers will start or end their journey here, and it’s a fantastic spot. However, it’s not easily accessible. The twenty-mile dirt road is treacherous for all but the most capable vehicles, and navigational issues make getting lost a real possibility. Hiring a shuttle or hiking to/from the nearest paved road are the two most reasonable options. The hiking itself is beautiful and straightforward, and the CDTC-maintained water caches remove the burden of finding water in the true desert.
The second most popular southern terminus is Columbus, NM. The advantage of this route is easier access than Crazy Cook. It’s also shorter, so there’s that too.
Coming in as the ultimate hipster move, Antelope Wells is usually only a destination for bike-packers as it requires an insanely long highway walk to access. Has anyone ever actually done this?
Conclusion: Take the main route to/from Crazy Cook unless logistics don’t allow it.
READ NEXT — How to Get to the CDT Southern Terminus
The CDT is a thru-hike where I highly recommend exploring the alternates. The red line is not always the best route and there are real gems off the official trail. Use the alts to your advantage. If you crave adventure, then opt for a more technical route. If you are avoiding weather or are just in need of an easy day, a road walk might be a good option. I believe it is true that no two thru-hikers end up hiking the same trail. So have fun and choose your own adventure.
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