Wildlife on the CDT: What You’ll See and How To Be Respectful
Bird song on the breeze, a rustle in the willows, a shriek in the night.
You’re positive you’ve just heard the call of a fully mature sasquatch.
The long trails of this world pass through countless landscapes that are all rich in biodiversity. This means that many of us will have plenty of opportunities to observe or encounter wildlife on our thru-hikes, day hikes, or whatever gets us out there. While this is exciting for many, it can be a little nerve-rattling for others. Perhaps you fall somewhere in the middle.
We prepare in so many ways when gearing up for a thru-hike, but rarely do folks learn about the creatures they might encounter along the way. And as with all things, education is power. Acquiring knowledge, even the barest amount, about the wildlife that you will share the trail with can make a big difference to your peace of mind when the twigs start snapping in the dark.
Hiking the CDT? Here’s your wildlife guide
Over the past many years, I have had the privilege to spend an incredible amount of time on the Continental Divide Trail. I hike it, am a steward of it, and my work is centered around it. I am a wildlife conservation photographer and naturalist, and the CDT provides access to some deep pockets of wilderness. From Rocky Mountain apex species to tiny beings that can go unnoticed, the Continental Divide corridor is rich in wildlife.
The CDT crosses many different biomes and wild stretches, and so is home to a wide variety of creatures. Sharing space with these animals can be a life-changing experience whether you’re wildlife-curious or slightly terrified of who you may encounter. With this CDT-specific guide, I hope to empower you to soak up the wildlife around you and feel confident while hiking among creatures both great and small. Without further ado, let’s meet the characters.
Big ol’ Critters on the CDT
When you think about animals on the CDT, you likely gravitate to the larger animals you might encounter. These creatures tend to get a bad rap because they’re big and powerful (read: unpredictable and scary). Let’s take a closer look at some of them to learn how to observe them — or get past them — safely.
Grizzly & Black Bears
Black bears can be found along the entire CDT and grizzly bears call the northern portion of the trail (Wyoming and Montana) home. While the thought of encountering these big buddies can be rather overwhelming, rest assured that bears want nothing to do with you. The simplest ways to avoid an unwanted bear encounter are to make consistent noise while hiking and to manage your scented items in a responsible manner.
Making noise alerts bears to your presence, allowing them time to move away before you are even aware that they are nearby. Again, they typically want nothing to do with humans. Using appropriate bear-resistant products and techniques such as bear canisters and scent-proof bags ensures that we keep it that way. It’s important that bears don’t learn to associate humans with food, and proper storage of yummy-smelling things is the best way to avoid this.
If you’re lucky enough to observe a bear in the wild, always maintain a distance of 100+ yards, and be sure to make your presence known. Bears really don’t like being surprised, so it’s better to let them know that you’re there rather than trying to be sneaky. During spring, be extra mindful of mama bears and their cubs. Few things will upset her more than some jabroni getting too cuddly with her precious baby. However, from a respectful distance, these animals are truly amazing to observe.
From top to bottom, whether you are SOBO or NOBO, you will be in mountain lion country for the entirety of the CDT. But breathe easy — just like bears, they do not want to be around you.
You will likely never see a mountain lion on your trek, but you may hear one. Ever think you’ve heard someone screaming in the dark of night? There is a good chance it was a mountain lion in heat. This alarming call has haunted thru-hikers for as long as thru-hikers have been thru-hiking, but now you know that this scream is just a lady lion looking for love.
In mountain lion country, behave as you would in any location that has large predators. Make your presence known, keep your senses alert, and understand the odds of an encounter are very slim. And if you do see one of these majestic creatures, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
Moose & Elk
Both of these two are quite common along the CDT, and I lump moose and elk together simply because they are both giant deer that need a lot of space and respect. While these herbivores have absolutely no reason to approach humans, they can inflict potentially fatal injuries if inspired to defend themselves.
Moose and elk tend to be very quiet, and like our friends above, do not like to be surprised. So if you find yourself nearby, be sure to make your presence known to these animals. Spring is an especially important time of year to be mindful, as mama moose and elk will throw down in no time if they believe their newborn babies are under threat.
To safely observe these critters or move around them, you’ll want to proceed slowly and smoothly, avoiding direct eye contact and never walking directly at the animal. It’s also smart to keep a constant chatter so your location is obvious, as these animals have poor eyesight. And as with bears, you’ll want to maintain a distance of about 100 yards.
READ NEXT — Moose and Thru-Hiking: Your Questions Answered
Always a majestic sight, wild horses can be found along the CDT in parts of Wyoming and New Mexico. Bands of wild horses are exciting to observe, but it’s important to keep the classic, 100-yard distance from them. Even though they might look like domestic horses, they are not. However, they are also not truly wild either. The appropriate adjective for these beauties is feral. The horses in the American West are descended from domestic horses originally brought to America by the Spanish.
There is something calming about being in the presence of wild horses and witnessing their spirit. If you have the opportunity, I highly encourage you to take a break and observe them. Grab a snack and learn what horses get up to when they are free to be.
Mid-Sized Critters on the CDT
The animals along the CDT described as mid-sized are abundant and too many to list here. Instead, I’ve selected a handful of these critters you’re most likely to spot from the trail. From friends with horns to friends with floof, all of these animals have big personalities that can make observing them a true joy.
To get the most out of your time with these characters, be sure to give them a lot of respect. This means giving them plenty of space, never feeding them, and cleaning up after yourself around camp. Most of these animals learn to associate humans with food easily, which always leads to a shortened life for them. If we want to continue enjoying wild experiences with these wild animals, following Leave No Trace principles is crucial.
Basically everyone’s favorite Rocky Mountain mascot, charismatic mountain goats can be found in much of the high-elevation terrain on the CDT. By nature, mountain goats are extremely curious and inquisitive, and this can lead to rather memorable human/goat interactions.
In mountain goat country, be sure to pee only on solid ground or rock. These animals simply love the salt content of human urine and will dig up fragile tundra to get it. When we humans pee on rocks instead, these friends lick rock rather than damage the fragile dirt.
Even though mountain goats may not seem like they need much space, they do. Mama mountain goats are super protective of their babies, and billies (male mountain goats) get pretty hormonal come autumn. Yet with all their curious quirks, if you get the opportunity to observe these animals, they may become your favorite species!
Fun fact: mountain goats are not goats. They’re actually much more closely related to antelope.
A keystone North American species, the bighorn sheep is a cool customer indeed. And hikers on the CDT have the opportunity to see both Rocky Mountain bighorn and desert bighorn in New Mexico.
Bighorn sheep populations are in decline as domestic livestock take over grazing areas and spread disease to these endemic populations. Urban sprawl has also tightened available habitat, so if you get the chance to stop and observe these charming animals, make sure to soak it up. If you happen to spot them during the rut, towards the end of summer or in early autumn, you’ll likely see some rams put those burly horns to the test.
Bighorn sheep aren’t hugely curious towards humans, but as with all wild animals, you’ll want to keep a respectful distance to avoid any mammal-to-mammal miscommunication.
The most common deer you’ll see along the CDT are mule deer, but you may also see some white-tailed deer. How do you tell the difference? There are a few easy ways to know.
First, mule deer have their great big muley ears that make them super cute. Although, if you spend a lot of time around them, it’s easy to forget that they have huge ears when compared with other deer species. Another difference is that mule deer have a black-tipped tail, whereas white-tailed deer have a larger tail that is fully brown. Finally, the last easy way to identify them is by their antlers. Mule deer antlers fork evenly, while white-tailed deer antlers grow tines off of a single beam.
Deer are curious and full of personality, and when observing them, maintain a good distance. Much like moose and elk, deer have terrible vision, so it’s wise to chatter while you’re around them so they know exactly where you are. If you ever see a deer bobbing its head up and down, that indicates that it’s attempting to get a good look at you.
The odds of seeing a bobcat are very slim, but it’s cool to know you’re in their territory for most of the CDT journey. These short-tailed cats are elusive, but can be spotted along tall brush and in trees. Most likely if you see a bobcat, it will be on trail and leave you thinking “did I really see a bobcat?!” for years to come.
You’re very likely to hear coyotes singing to the stars at least a few times during your time on the CDT, and if you’re lucky (or keep early morning trail hours) you might get to spot one a few times too. Coyotes are about the size of a husky and while they may be curious pups, they really want nothing to do with humans.
If you fear these canids, rest easy knowing that coyotes are typically quite shy and fearful of humans. However, if you get the chance to see a coyote on your thru-hike, you’ll probably enjoy it! Coyotes are playful, intelligent animals, which is really obvious when you observe them unbothered in the wild.
And now for the most charming critter of them all… vulpes vulpes! Also known as the red fox, these gorgeous and smart animals are often described as the spirit of the forest. Red foxes are curious, silly, athletic, and vocal. If you’ve heard a scream in the night that was not a mountain lion, it’s likely a red fox looking for love. Red foxes call the entire length of the CDT home and you’re likely to see one.
When observing foxes, do what you can to keep your distance, and know that they sometimes try to close it because they’re so curious. The best way to keep foxes healthy and wild is to not let them get too comfortable with you. A loud clap here and there is likely enough to keep them a little wary of you.
Little Critters on the CDT
Some of the most amazing animals in the country are little critters that can be found along the CDT. Many of these pint-sized animals are highly evolved to live where they do and because of that, they are extremely unique. And while these small-statured friends don’t pose the same threats of larger wildlife, it’s equally important to show them respect. This means giving them lots of space, never feeding them or trying to touch them, and of course, cleaning up your camp area.
If you have ever cleared treeline and heard a mighty MEEEP! ring through the air, you have officially been greeted by an American Pika. These little alpine firecrackers are most closely related to rabbits and hares, and they are incredibly well-suited to life in the extreme. Pika do not hibernate during winter. Instead, they gather and dry grasses (called hay piling) all summer long to have enough food to get them through the freezing months under the talus.
Although they are small, the American Pika are a climate change indicator species, meaning that their population’s well-being is used as a measure of overall ecosystem health. Sadly, their numbers are in decline across the mountain west, and there have been many attempts to list them as an endangered species. So when you get the chance to observe them, take it! They are a ton of fun to watch, especially in summer when gathering season is in full swing.
Possibly the most adored animal listed here, yellow-bellied marmots are a common sight and sound on the CDT — at least in the mountainous sections. These cheerful beasts can be spotted lounging on boulders in the sunshine, whistling their hearts out, and playing with one another in mountain meadows.
Hear a scream that wasn’t a mountain lion or a red fox? You’ve likely heard an angry (or super playful) marmot. These large rodents have a ton of vocalizations apart from the classic whistle we know them by. Many folks are shocked to hear the more aggressive-sounding marmot screams for the first time. Be sure not to feed these adorable critters no matter how politely they wait. If they get accustomed to being fed, they will end up dead.
Birds on the CDT
Birds of the CDT are varied and incredible. From America’s only aquatic songbird (the American Dipper) to the rare and threatened Mexican Spotted Owl, if you are interested in birds, the CDT will be the hike of a lifetime!
To find out which birds you’re hiking with, try downloading the smartphone app Merlin Bird ID and use the Sound ID feature while you hike. It’s pretty darn cool to learn to ID birds based on their song.
Awareness and Presence
Whether you’re someone who looks forward to wildlife encounters or someone who would prefer to avoid them altogether, it’s important to keep the local animal populations in mind during your hike on the CDT. These critters are everywhere and call the landscapes home. Seeing some, or many of them is almost guaranteed and being prepared for a potential meeting will help keep you and them safe. It might also make your time on trail more interesting and fulfilling. As you pass by the residents of the wild places you move through, don’t forget to appreciate their personalities and quirks. Humans aren’t the only animals with something to say.
Has your life been changed by experiencing wildlife on the CDT or another trail?
Featured image: Photo by Deirdre Rosenberg. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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