The Basics of Planning a CDT Thru-Hike
Planning a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail?
The CDT is an underrated gem of a trail. There’s a lot I think you should know, so for this first part, I’ll talk about timeline, navigation, alternates, information sources, and water.
In my research prior to hiking the trail, much of what I found was the same fearmongering: prepare to be lost all the time, the trail isn’t marked, wildlife is everywhere, resupply is difficult, and hitching is tough. Of course, experiences like this are subjective, but in my eyes, these were serious exaggerations.
If you’re already hiked the AT and/or PCT, you will realize that accurate, updated information is slim in comparison. and much of the adventure is in the “figuring it out for yourself.” I loved that part of my experience on the Divide and I wish that for everyone else too, because in the end, it makes you a more prepared, enlightened hiker.
There are a few things though that I wish I’d had solid info on before setting out. Like any trail, talking to people who have completed it in recent years is the best way to prepare. I stress “recent” because this trail has undergone a lot of change the past few seasons. So, this information is based on my own hiking experiences, and by no means the only way to hike the trail. Here’s my rundown of things I think are worth sharing:
NOBO, SOBO, or Flip
Ah, one of the first steps in making the decision to thru-hike. Sometimes our hiking direction is decided for us based on timelines, work, and finances. If you’re lucky enough to to decide, however, consider the arguably narrow window of time you have to complete this trail. Northbounders can start in March or April, but will likely face snowpack in Southern Colorado that may force them on to snowshoes or lower routes. I guess you could take your time through New Mexico and let the snow melt too. Late April to early May starters would probably run into some hot, long days in the desert, but enter Colorado at a more forgiving time. The next challenge is the snow in both the Winds, and Northern Montana. Typically, you’d want to reach the Northern Terminus by mid-September, or expect some tougher weather up north.
Southbounders might have an even tighter window of time to complete the trail in one direction, but will likely have less issue with the previous year’s snowpack. The typical start dates will range from June 15 to July 1, but in 2017’s case, a lot of us started in early July. If you hike very swiftly, you can try to cruise through Colorado with no issue. But winter hit the mountains by early September and most of those July starters were forced off trail. A few of us managed to push through this by taking lower routes or enduring the poor weather. Southbounders will face the challenges of an approaching winter and diminishing daylight, but less bugs and heat in New Mexico.
I think thru-hikers tend to forget that flip-flopping is an entirely acceptable way to thru-hike the trail. It takes a bit more thought with logistics, but you can usually control your pace with strong accuracy. A well-executed flip can mean hiking the trail faster, and in ideal conditions/seasons. Want to avoid snow, short days, or grueling heat? Break it up and hike each chunk in a logical order. Don’t rule this out as an option.
Getting to and from the Southern Terminus via the CDTC shuttle is definitely the easiest option unless you know of a friend or trail angel who is willing to make the remote drive. Be careful in late fall after the rainy season because the washouts make the roads pretty gnarly, even for 4WD and high clearance vehicles (we had this issue November ’17). In addition to the official terminus at Crazy Cook, there are two less remote options to begin or end your hike: Antelope Wells and Columbus.
This is where things start to get a little more complicated. Unlike her AT and PCT counterparts, the CDT requires some thought in choosing your route. It’s not one giant bushwhack and there are trail markers in many areas (in 2018 the CDTC set out to blaze the entire trail) but there will be a bit of off-trail navigation, depending on the routes you choose. There is no one, single track trail to follow along mindlessly, but instead a variety of options to pick from based on each day’s weather, water, and your stamina. You don’t need a compass unless you hit tons of snow and cold temps that make your phone unreliable.
I love maps, but I rarely carry paper maps on long hikes. It seemed most hikers on the CDT carried paper copies of Jon Ley’s maps, even if they were sticking to the Bear Creek/Guthook route and found comfort in having them. I used a combination of Guthook, Jonathan Ley maps on the Avenza App (favorite!), and Google Earth satellite images.
Guthook’s CDT app has very little information aside from the basic GPS waypoints and water sources. Only in New Mexico does he add details on towns or waypoints. The GPS tracks follow the Bear Creek Maps and “official” CDT route over 3,100 miles, with some of the major alternates and cutoffs. I wasn’t a huge fan of the way Guthook orients direction on the app, and was often doubting my own sense of direction when trying to find the trail. The biggest benefit of the Guthook app was having the water sources and comments. Much of the time they were outdated, but inconsistent information was better than none. The comments for finding off-trail water and using the satellite images to scope out trees for potential camping spots was most helpful. But overall, I would not want to rely on this as my sole and primary navigation source.
My primary source was Jonathan Ley’s topographic maps downloaded in the Avenza app. His route differs slightly from Bear Creek in many areas, but his witty notes on alternates and resources are incredible. I enjoyed reading the USGS topo maps to gain better map-reading skills and found the GPS easy to use. He also gives suggestions of additional places to drop down from the ridge and find water. Carrying his paper maps gives you the benefit of being able to see the big picture on his “overview” maps. I used my partners in a handful of cases to create alternative routes in bad weather.
When in towns, I like to zoom in and download Google satellite images so that I can see the treeline and terrain once I’m out of service (there are no existing campsites so there’s more thought and timing involved). The terrain map helps for locating roads, towns and services.
Going into the San Juans in late season, I also picked up a Nat Geo map of the area. I wanted to see side trails off the Divide, dirt roads, and bailout options should a big winter storm roll in or the cold kill my phone and battery pack. I’d recommend this for the more remote areas if you plan to explore more or you expect potential bad weather.
Most mornings, I’d lay out all the various maps with route possibilities and scheme up a plan for the day based on weather and water supply. It was a bit more work, but I really enjoyed the routine and having options. Be prepared to inspect all the maps pretty regularly.
Dawson Pass, Montana: In Glacier, this route adds a few stunning and worthwhile miles. Leaving Tripyramid pass, stay on the ridge for a nice long stretch before dropping down into Two Medicine. A highlight of Glacier for sure.
Spotted Bear, Montana: This route shaves off about 16 miles, but that’s not the main reason people take it. This route pushes you farther west through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, with an abundance of wildlife. It travels along the Chinese Wall, an impressive curtain of limestone rock, and pristine Dean Lake.
Caribou Peak, Montana: There are others similar to this one, where Ley offers an off-trail traverse high up on the Divide. If you have good weather and enough water, there’s a challenging scramble up to Caribou Peak with incredible views the entire way.
Anaconda Cutoff, Montana: Usually a necessary cutoff to save some time, the road walks here suck, and it’s pretty unappealing until after you leave Anaconda heading south. It’s a fun little town with friendly folks and you get to experience more of the Anaconda-Pintlers, which features many gorgeous lakes and tolerable climbs.
Macks Inn Cutoff, Idaho: Most people take this route because it’s logistically a hell of a lot easier and the Macks Inn route allows you to do some real route finding and bushwhacking along the river. It wasn’t hard, and the wildlife (specifically grizzlies) was well worth it.
Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming: If there is an area to hike off the official CDT, it’s in the Winds. This was my favorite part of the entire trail, so don’t skip out! The passes are challenging, water pristine, and views mind-blowing. If you’re feeling up for it, give the Andrew Skurka’s Wind River High Route a go, as seen on Ley’s maps. I’ve section hiked the lower CDT here, and can 100 percent say it’s underwhelming compared to Knapsack and Cirque.
Rawlins road walk, Wyoming: The road walk south of Rawlins is a brutally boring 30-mile, waterless stretch along heavily trafficked roads. This alternate on Ley maps WY37-40 saves a few miles and gets you the hell out of the basin quicker.
Mount Taylor, New Mexico: I didn’t do this, but heard it was pretty great and it’s your last (or first) real chance to stand on a high peak.
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico: This route has a dramatic shift in environment and vegetation no matter which direction you’re walking. It’s pretty cool, and allows you to resupply easier by sending a box to Ghost Ranch.
Gila River, New Mexico: I hiked on the official CDT through here back in 2015, and can tell you that the Gila route is much more interesting. Walking through the river is both physically and emotionally challenging, but there’s no shortage of rewarding scenery. Stop at the Cliff Dwellings and soak in some hot springs. Hands down, a worthy alternate. Check out Ley’s Gila High Route to get a different perspective and save some of the river crossings
I skip stating options for Colorado because the weather essentially decides for you. I got pushed onto the Silverthorne, Collegiate East routes last fall.They were both beautiful but I know the main CDT is the superior route if you have the right conditions to stay up higher on the Divide. There is a ridge walk that Pounds and Dingo did after James Peak that sounded pretty cool, so I’d recommend that. Dingo and I tried for the San Juan route in early October and bailed off onto the Creede Cutoff just after Spring Creek Pass. It’s tough terrain but the Creede Cutoff is still relatively high and beautiful, so would be the preferred route over the Ride the Divide.
After figuring out early on in my long-distance hiking, there’s only so much planning you can do. Sometimes just knowing the basics, and having sources to help you figure the rest out on the fly is all you need. I’ve never bought Yogi’s guide for any other trails, but the 2012 version I used on the CDT was pretty useful. If not, just because there’s not much else to go by. Having all the phone numbers for spots in town in one place is very convenient. Given the remote nature of some of the spots we sent boxes to, the addresses are frequently changing, making public forums like Facebook groups nice for up-to-date info. People in towns often give out their info if they are available to help, hikers post useful water or town info, and CDTC offers links to news and trail happenings.
I also used Google Maps a lot. Picture yourself above treeline with no trees in sight, whipped and ready to find a spot to camp. If I pre-loaded the satellite images, I could use them in a pinch looking potential camp spots, water, or dirt roads. Even houses and towns if I were in serious trouble. I hate to carry paper maps, but given the nature of some of these areas, I wanted to know the full extent of the trails. For the San Juans and Collegiate Peaks in Colorado, I picked up area maps to have side trips and bail-out options because of the unpredictable weather.
Water, Water (Not) Everywhere
Aside from the southernmost 100 miles between Lordsburg and the Mexican border, water on the Divide was very manageable. There were plenty of stretches through lush areas with clear-flowing water, even during the dry wildfire summer. It gets tougher when you hike high up on the Divide for 15-20 miles where there is obviously… no water. It’s easy though to check out the topo maps and there were typically places you could drop down and find water if necessary. Map reading skills did come in handy for finding water not noted in Guthook.
There was lots of cold, clear water to drink from streams, creeks, and springs. But get used to sharing your more foul sources. Much of the CDT hiker water supply is put in place for good old American cattle. In areas like the Great Basin, Central Montana, or 99 percent of New Mexico, the main use for this land is grazing livestock. Ranchers or BLM manage a number of windmills and troughs that hikers also rely on through dry stretches. Water quality varies greatly season-to-season and year-to-year, but I had very few disgusting sources that needed to be pre-filtered through a bandana. I was super grateful to have Mio energy or flavor packets to ease the taste of cow shit and my Sawyer filter kept me from getting sick.
The final (or first) stretch near the Mexican border I found no water outside of the caches provided by the CDTC. They are 100 percent necessary to complete this stretch. Make sure they are full and be mindful of how much you’re taking.
As noted earlier, the greatest challenge with water is knowing if it’s there or not. Unlike the PCT’s up-to-date water report and Guthook comments, the most recent comments are weeks old. Unless you happen to be in the NOBO bubble, you will likely find yourself guessing based on recent weather, past comments during similar time of year, snowmelt, etc. Sometimes you gotta carry extra just in case it’s dry. It’s the name of the game. Maybe this will change as the trail gets more popular.
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