7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail

At first glance, doing a round-trip (a yo-yo) on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) seems like a waste. Why not hike a different trail instead of hiking the same one two times? However, unlike the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT is never the same trail twice.

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by Francis Tapon | 2011-04-05 00:10:00-06

Although the CDT Alliance (CDTA) has designated an official route, thru-hikers often deviate from it. The benefit of yo-yoing the CDT is that about 70% of the southbound journey can be new! No longer does one have to debate whether to take the low route along the lake or the high route on the ridge. A yo-yoer can do both!

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 1
First sign. The first 25 miles of official CDT trail in New Mexico are so well marked that you want to show your gratitude! Too bad that the signs stop after that...

After yo-yoing the CDT, I discovered that some of the beliefs that I had about the trail were false. Let’s debunk seven common myths about the CDT.

Myth #1: The CDT is 70% complete.

This myth implies that you’re bushwhacking with a map and compass 30% of the time. Reality: about 3% of the CDT involves trailblazing or cross-country travel. The 70% statistic comes from the fact that while 100% of the trail is designated, 30% of the time it’s not where the CDTA would ultimately like the trail to be. For example, one section of the CDT might be a road-walk until the CDTA can create a footpath. Perhaps a more accurate description is that 30% of the CDT is on either a dirt or paved road.

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 2
Hitchhiking to get to the start of the trail in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Myth #2: Thru-hiking is not a race.

All thru-hikers race against winter. Even the most leisurely thru-hiker looks like a maniac to the average weekend backpacker. Section-hikers have self-imposed time boundaries that force them to pace themselves, even if that pace is five miles per day. Someday, a courageous backpacker will thru-hike the CDT during winter; until then, we’re all racing - just at different paces.

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 3
I win! Celebrating the end of the CDT Yo-Yo.

Myth #3: You can’t go through Colorado’s San Juans before June because there’s too much snow.

I went through in early May. The secret is to start hiking before sunrise (when the snow is hard, but not icy), stay on the ridge as much as possible, and don’t let the snow intimidate you. Just because the CDT isn’t always on the divide doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be. Thanks to the wind and sun exposure, the divide doesn’t have the deep snow that you’ll find elsewhere. The extra effort needed to get on the divide pays off because you won’t be postholing all day. As a result, a pugnacious hiker can do 25-30 miles, even in May and June. I brought crampons, but never used them. The snow was almost never icy; it was usually crunchy or soft, in May. I didn’t bring any, but given the soft snow, ultralight snowshoes would have helped. However, the key ingredients to getting through the San Juans in the spring are lots of patience and courage.

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 4
This isn't intimidating: I can still see the trail signage. (Through the Tetons in mid-June. This pic was taken by the first backpacker I saw on the trip. I had already walked 2,000 miles - the length of the Appalachian Trail - until I found my first backpacker! Before that I'd seen two skiers, two snowmobilers, and one guy walking a dog near a trailhead.)

Myth #4: The Idaho-Montana border is full of PUDs.

A Pointless Up and Down (PUD) is a trail that takes you up and down a view-less mountain. Because the Idaho-Montana border has few trees, you’ll actually enjoy big views all day. Sure, you must head up and down along the ridge, often on steep trail, but you’re rewarded throughout the hike with impressive vistas on either side of the Divide. There’s nothing pointless about that!

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 5
The Highline Trail: Glacier National Park's Garden Wall.

Myth #5: Resupply lines are unusually long.

Compared to the PCT, the resupply points are about the same or arguably more convenient. The CDT surprised me by how often it goes right through a town, especially if you take the cutoffs. A 5-mile hitch is just as easy as a 20-mile hitch if there’s really nowhere to stop during those 20-miles. The longest resupply sections are around the Idaho-Montana border and the Black Range, but they’re no different than the John Muir Trail.

Myth #6: The CDTA route isn’t as good as the unofficial route that most thru-hikers take.

There are five major alternate routes that most CDT thru-hikers take, and they’re all shorter than the official trail. I took the official route on the way to Canada, and the five conventional shortcuts on the way to back to Mexico. These cutoffs are so popular that they almost feel like the official trail. However, only one of the five alternates is worth taking: hiking the Middle Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico is a bit better than the Black Range, which is the official trail. The other four alternates aren’t as good as the official trail. I recommend:

  • Using the Crazy Cook Monument terminus, not Columbus.
  • Taking the San Juans, not the Creede Cutoff.
  • Enjoying the 25-mile Rocky Mountain National Park loop, even if you make little forward progress (why skip a National Park?).
  • Going around Butte, not through Anaconda (when is a paved road-walk better than a dirt road?).

Thru-hikers have good reason to take such shortcuts: they’re usually racing to beat winter and/or want to just “bag” the Triple Crown as quickly as possible. Sticking with the official trail adds one or two weeks to the thru-hike, but more thru-hikers should consider it.

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 6
In mid-August, I walked the Divide in the Wind River Range instead of taking the CDT. The harder route was worth it to see these glaciers.

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 7
Going through the Tetons on the way north is a great alternative to the traditional CDT route.

Myth #7: You can’t go through the Tetons and have a contiguous thru-hike.

I describe a contiguous route on my website that has hardly any paved road-walking. The downside: you miss the Parting of the Waters. The upside: you walk from one National Park to another (Grand Tetons - Yellowstone)!

It’s fun to yo-yo the CDT because of the variety the trail offers. More than any other trail, the CDT invites you to hike your own hike.

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail - 8
Who says there are no hot baths on the CDT?

 

Francis Tapon is the first person to yo-yo the CDT. He is the author of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking. He donates half of his royalty to the CDTA, PCTA, and ATC. Watch his 77-minute CDT Yo-Yo Video here.


Citation

"7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail," by Francis Tapon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/continental_divide_trail_seven_myths.html, 2011-04-05 00:10:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » 7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 14:30:31 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: 7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 14:36:17 MDT Print View

Agreed

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
7 myths on 04/05/2011 15:18:56 MDT Print View

Awesome article Francis, makes it sound easy!

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: 7 myths on 04/05/2011 15:39:04 MDT Print View

Two great articles in one day. Am I in heaven? 1 backpacker in 2,000 miles? This is my kind of trip.

Again, another excellent article that only gives the reader a flavor of of what is out there, and leaves us wanting... more, which can be found by ourselves.

Wonderful!!

Philip Delvoie
(PhilipD) - MLife

Locale: Ontario, Canada
7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 17:23:25 MDT Print View

Ok...now Addie is just teasing us by putting 3 of these out in one day.

Good stuff Francis.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
re on 04/05/2011 17:26:05 MDT Print View

I like the three different perspectives of these CDT articles

Thanks

What's this about 7s anyway???

Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
CDT-Theme on 04/05/2011 18:16:30 MDT Print View

I'm a sucker for a theme. Order, odd-numbered multiples, and great writing/photos make my heart beat faster!

These were really fun to work up. Thanks to all this week's authors!

Ryan Linn
(ryan.c.linn)

Locale: Maine!
Re: CDT-Theme on 04/05/2011 20:16:04 MDT Print View

Addie, you're torturing me!
Francis, very nice to hear about what not to listen to when I eventually get around to the CDT. I can't wait!

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Re: 7 myths on 04/05/2011 20:18:48 MDT Print View

"1 backpacker in 2,000 miles? This is my kind of trip."

If you think about it another way, it's no backpackers in 2,000 miles.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: 7 myths on 04/05/2011 20:32:27 MDT Print View

"If you think about it another way, it's no backpackers in 2,000 miles."

Even better!!

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: 7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail on 04/06/2011 11:26:00 MDT Print View

Great article. Thanks.

Ronald Strickland
(pathfinder)

Locale: USA
Excellent piece on 04/07/2011 06:51:12 MDT Print View

Many of my friends have hiked or are hiking the CDT. So I have wondered about the issues described in this article. Thank you for your many valuable insights.

Tim Cheek
(hikerfan4sure) - MLife
Myth #3 caveat on 04/07/2011 17:41:01 MDT Print View

I was in the San Juans the first week of June in 1977. If God had not ordained my legs to grow together at the waist I fear I'd still be sinking into that snow...

My sense is that there may be a window of opportunity depending on the snow fall and temperatures of a given year, but I would not say it is a myth.

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Cool! on 04/07/2011 20:48:41 MDT Print View

Neat stuff. Thanks for sharing with us.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail on 04/07/2011 21:39:29 MDT Print View

It's really wonderful to have three great CDT articles the same week! They are making me homesick! I keep remembering those Wyoming winters of my youth, though, so I will stick to going back in summer hiking season.

Francis' yo-yo bit only leaves me in awe. At my tortoise-like hiking speed (5-7 miles per day) it would take me several years to go one-way! However, I've always noticed that the scenery looks quite different when you're going the other direction! That not only keeps out-and-back trips from being boring, but also brings to mind that a good safety rule is to turn around and look back occasionally so that you know what to expect on the way out.

Francis Tapon
(ftapon) - MLife

Locale: Earth
Re: Myth #3 caveat on 04/08/2011 04:58:11 MDT Print View

Tim, you make a fair point. I never said it would be easy! I just said it's a myth that you can't do go through Colorado in May. The fact is: you can do it.

Sure, you'll see more skiers and snowmobilers than hikers. And some days will truly test your patience. For example, one day my voice became hoarse because I was swearing so loudly after postholing for most of the day. I was swimming in snow. I probably did 1 mile every 2 hours.

Still, if you follow my get-up-at-4am-and-take-the-ridge advice, then you'll be able to do 20+ miles in a day even in May.

It ain't easy! But you can do it. :)

Thank you all for your comments!

Francis Tapon

Edited by ftapon on 04/11/2011 03:35:20 MDT.

Richard DeLong
(Legkohod) - MLife

Locale: Eastern Europe / Caucasus
CDT on 04/08/2011 08:15:10 MDT Print View

I think these new articles on the CDT will help popularize the trail among potential thru-hikers and help people see that it actually is a realistic endeavor. The CDT deserves to grow to the stature of the PCT and AT.

Francis, you did fail to address my own personal fear about... Grizzlies:)

Edited by Legkohod on 04/08/2011 08:48:47 MDT.

peter vacco
(fluff@inreach.com) - M

Locale: no. california
trail envy ? on 04/08/2011 10:04:34 MDT Print View

" The CDT deserves to grow to the stature of the PCT and AT. "

??????? wtf ?


-----------


sorry, just had to do that.

v.

Richard DeLong
(Legkohod) - MLife

Locale: Eastern Europe / Caucasus
? on 04/08/2011 13:24:00 MDT Print View

I don't understand your reaction. I'm talking about public awareness, number of thru-hikers, degree of trail organization, etc. Obviously it lags far behind the AT and quite a bit behind the PCT. That's what I'm talking about by "stature."

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Grizzlies on 04/08/2011 13:33:30 MDT Print View

I've backpacked in the Rocky Mountains a little, but now I'm fearful of Grizzlies.

I've heard they can attack humans.

I've encountered black bears in Oregon a couple times and they just ran away, so I'm not fearful of them.

Should I be fearful or is that an irrational fear?