History of the Great Divide Trail

The First Nations have called this part of Western Canada home for more than 10,000 years, developing a rich and varied culture throughout the region. Today, the Great Divide Trail (GDT) passes through the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), Tsuut’ina, Îyârhe Nakoda, the Plains Cree,  the Dene Dháa, the Nakoda Sioux, the Dane-zaa, the Ktunaxa, the Secwepemc, the Syilx,  the Sinixt, and the Metis people (region three and four). Acting as guides for many of the first fur traders and explorers, Anthony Henday and David Thompson would be among  the first Europeans to see and later explore what would become the Canadian Rockies.

CPR Last Spike

Driving the Last Spike on the Canadian Pacific Railroad – Courtesy Library and Archives Canada

Exploring the Region

Recognizing the economic prospects of what was then called Rupert’s Land, the British Government agreed to fund a scientific expedition by Captain John Palliser in 1856. Between 1857 and 1859, Palliser and his team conducted the first detailed studies of the region, and mapped many of the passes crossed by the GDT today. In 1871, British Columbia colony agreed to join the fledgling nation of Canada, with one condition, that a transcontinental railroad be built. By 1883 the first tracks of Canadian Pacific Railroad arrived in the Rockies, and two years later, Canada’s first (and North America’s third) National Park was established at the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. Soon tourists would flood the mountains, establishing towns, hotels, trails, and mountain huts, some of these would eventually form parts of the GDT route. Between 1913 and 1925, A.O. Wheeler surveyed much of the route as he marked the provincial border between British Columbia and Alberta.

Enter the GDT

The GDT as a route was first formally proposed by the Girl Guides of Canada in 1966, and there was soon a flurry of interest. The first trail guide was published by Jim Thorsell in 1970 and the Great Divide Trail Association established in 1975. Pre-dating all of this however, was Peter Parson (the same person who pioneered the Continental Divide Trail) who is thought to have hiked the route of GDT in 1930. While we don’t have a lot of details, we do know he signed the register at Mt Robson describing how he was on his way up the spine of the Rockies to the Arctic.

The GDT Today

By the early 1990’s, interest had waned, and the GDT faded into obscurity. Sections were repurposed for ATV use, logged, or simply reclaimed by nature. Things began to change in the mid 90’s when several hikers began to share their experience of the trail. Hearing these rumors and hiking the trail in 1996 with his wife Julia, Dustin Lynx published Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail in 2000 (Available on Amazon here). It quickly became the de facto resource for the GDT (now in its 3rd edition) and since then, the trail has become more popular than ever with the efforts of a reconstituted Great Divide Trail Association (http://www.greatdividetrail.com/), the creation of a Facebook Group (Great Divide Trail Hikers) and the inclusion of the GDT into the popular Guthooks app.

Today, efforts continue to upgrade and re-route problematic sections of the trail, as well as working with jurisdictions along the route to obtain formal recognition.

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