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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.


"7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail," by Francis Tapon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-04-05 00:10:00-06.


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7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail
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Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Grizzlies on 04/08/2011 14:05:20 MDT Print View

Both black bears and grizzly bears can be deadly to humans. However, it would be very unusual for a black bear to be that aggressive unless somebody were getting between a mother and cub or something equally stupid. Largely, black bears are very inquisitive, and they really want to steal your food. They know how much trouble humans can be if the humans start throwing rocks. To a great extent, if you can store your food properly, you've taken care of 90% of the problem.

Grizzly bears are another story. They are larger and much more unpredictable by nature. As long as they get enough to eat of their normal diet, they may avoid humans. When they get hungry, they will enter campgrounds, slice open tents to grab humans, etc. As outdoor humans, we have little control over grizzlies. If you are going to be operating in known grizzly country, your best bet is to carry bear spray. The second best bet is a bear flare, although some of the national parks prohibit those because of wildfire risk (e.g. Yellowstone).

One day when I was in Alaska last summer, I had 29 Alaskan coastal brown bears in front of me within 150 yards. Why wasn't I worried? Because the bears had a ready supply of salmon. All they wanted to do was to catch salmon, fight over salmon fishing territory with other bears, and make more baby bears.

So, fearing bears is not irrational. If that fear takes over and prevents you from doing your outdoor activities, then it is a little much. Go someplace where there is a large bear population and hang out for a while. Keep your bear spray handy on your belt. When I tromp around in Yellowstone or Glacier, I am carrying 30 pounds of stuff with me. A little extra weight for bear spray isn't going to hurt me.


Bradley Danyluk
(dasbin) - MLife
Bears on 04/09/2011 11:44:17 MDT Print View

From what I've read, Grizzlies are actually less likely to engage in predatory stalking / attacks on humans than black bears. However, they are more likely to be territorial and protective of their kills and their young. I've heard so many stories of black bears going crazy from hunger (or whatever) and stalking humans. Grizzlies are apparently more predictable in this regard - they probably won't stalk you, but do your best to never, ever surprise one.
IMHO the biggest difference you need to think about is you stand a decent chance of fighting off a black bear if attacked. Not so much a grizz. You're supposed to just play dead, keep your backpack on so hopefully it takes the majority of his swats on your back. Once a grizz thinks you're no longer a threat they usually give up any attack and leave, rather than trying to eat you, even if hungry.
Thankfully there are way less of them out there, and they are more reclusive.

Edited by dasbin on 04/09/2011 11:46:32 MDT.

peter vacco

Locale: no. california
brown bears are ok on 04/09/2011 12:36:46 MDT Print View

first of all, peter likes bears. from afar, i like them better even.
far is good.
it's always exciting to "meet" a bear close up.
had to spritz one in 2009. my error to start with, but i think he would have worked in too close anyway.

jerry : not to fear. "concern", ohh, very much yes. do the food storage thing, make noise, be very Aware of the wind, every other animal is. etc.
and consider the odds. like, what if you are up in the air the standard 429,000' on a ski lift and you start looking at the cable... now, you've already met the stoners.. i mean .. the "ski area maintenance people", and then you happenstance notice that the cable is not really all that new and shiny.
and, if it's Donner Ski Ranch, you know too that the cables jump of the rollers sometimes in the wind (the snowhippies throw a hook with a rope, and you descend down this thing .. and then they give you a tab for a Free cup of hot chocolate in the cafeteria)(i did not make this up ! )
so: you are "concerned", and vow Never Again to ski at a place that looks like they can't afford liability insurance.
but overall though, your odds of surviving another day of skiing are pretty good as far as the cable is concerned. skiing itself, if you have ever read the statistics ... perhaps not such a great transaction injury risk wise. but actual real Death .. is rare.

same with griz. your odds are good. very good in reality.
a griz will most most often look (poor vision in the extreme), ponder (one needs to drop into "bear time" to let them get a good thinking over this situation), and then saunter off a 100 feet, look back over a shoulder and shuffle off.
any other bear actions are cause for pulling the can and yanking the safety.

on occasion a few of us get whacked while in a tent. but tarps .. ? NEVER !! (a joke)(maybe)
so that is a risk of being outside. i know for a fact that in a national park i am at more physical risk from the rangers (they're armed now) than the bears.
griz can and do tear up a campsite now and again. they just get piffed over people showing up, and rip everything to shreds. it's an early season thing. and it seems to be a glacier np thing too.
bob is right. go look at some bears. they are Magnificent ! and the more norther you get, the more cooler the bears are too.
once you watch them awhile, you won't want one for a rug.
mommy bears and cubs :
this is not the bonified instant total death sentence it's made out to be.
i know this. thrice !
scary, but no damage.
moms are mostly ... "get off my lawn". in composure.
you leave, they are happy again.

the eskimo (yeah, i know, they're Inuit's now. but there's a boatload of inuit'y different tribes and eskimo covers the lot of them) word for brown bear is roughly "always runs away". it's true too. mostly.
the koyokuk indians hunted them with reliable success using what amounts to a very strong spear.
they are not indestructable. but they can cover ground like nothing you've ever seen. bears are smart as a golden retriever, which is quite clever.
do this :

when possible. let them pass and remain un-noticed.
make notice before they get within range.
don't run.
be patient.
yield distance on the diagonal to the upwind side.
you have a right to passage, as do they.
look big.
do not challenge (at first)
stand fast.
do NOT cower.

the 10.6oz bear can mounted on a packstrap is a HUGE confidence improver and should let one stand composed in the face of a griz.



Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: brown bears are ok on 04/09/2011 18:15:49 MDT Print View

"the 10.6oz bear can mounted on a packstrap is a HUGE confidence improver and should let one stand composed in the face of a griz"

That was my presumption when I evaluated whether or not to carry spray in certain situations. Then it occurred to me, being one who makes it a point to be aware of the wind, that by far the most likely situation where I might surprise a bear is when I was down wind and hiking toward him/her. The next thing that occurred to me was that firing off bear spray into the wind is not such a good idea. So I ended up doing what I always do, which is to practice avoidance in a multitude of ways, and saved myself 10.6 oz in the process. So far, so good.....

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
grizzlies on 04/09/2011 19:28:12 MDT Print View

I agree w/ Bob, fearing bears is not irrational, irrationally fearing bears is

I worked for threes years in the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wildernesses, probably one of the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 and while I had numerous grizzly "encounters", none were bad. The one and only bad bear experience I did have, was w/ a black bear.

While the chances of using bear spray is most certainly very low, when I'm in grizzly country I'll take the 10 oz hit :)

Francis- thanks for the well written article and congrats on an awesome feat!

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: brown bears are ok on 04/09/2011 19:30:16 MDT Print View

A little perspective on Griz capabilities -


This was a 'prototype'. A 'production' version was never tested.

Edited by greg23 on 04/09/2011 19:32:52 MDT.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: brown bears are ok on 04/09/2011 19:33:05 MDT Print View

Greg, you might explain what is in the photo. I think I see carbon fiber shreds and some metal.


Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: Re: Re: brown bears are ok on 04/09/2011 19:42:28 MDT Print View

Yes, shredded carbon fiber and perforated aluminum, separated from each other.
It used to be a bear canister.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: brown bears are ok on 04/09/2011 20:55:10 MDT Print View

Greg, can you conclude what was the cause of the failure?

In the photo, it is difficult to tell of the screws are countersunk. Or rather, where the screws used to be.

Aluminum? That seems to be a little on the soft side for a proper bear canister.


Jack Marler
(JackNewman) - F

Locale: Mississippi River Valley
Bears and such on 04/10/2011 07:24:20 MDT Print View

I did a semi solo backpack in the Bob Marshall last August. I’m new to backpacking so prior to my trip I read several sources and I asked questions from a number of people to specifically get additional info on bears. I got the bear spray and secured it against my left hip belt. During the parts of the trip that I was alone I was still concerned about bears in general and the grizzly in particular. I was also more than just a little nervous about mountain lions. I saw bear and mountain lion tracks, no animals. Overall it was such a wonderful experience that I’m going back to the Bob this August and I’ll again have the bear spray. I really appreciated reading the first hand bear advice from you guys. So what kind of wisdom can you share on the subject of lions.… BTW, I cant begin to tell you how much I have learned in the past two weeks reading various post here…Great advice from real people! Thanks

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
lions and bears, oh my on 04/10/2011 09:29:20 MDT Print View

I don't worry about lions. If I were 5'0", I'd worry more. Even if one does decide I'm small enough to eat it'll probably get the drop and me and kill me before I know what's happening.

I don't worry too much about Griz either, but I do pay attention. Know when and where they're likely to be, and either avoid those areas in those times or make a load of noise. Don't surprise them and avoid well used camps (and thus habituated bears) and you should be fine.

I'd worry about Smoky Mountain black bears the most of all. They seem the most habituated (potentially), and some of the stories are rather frightening.

Bradley Danyluk
(dasbin) - MLife
Cougars on 04/10/2011 11:44:45 MDT Print View

I've never seen a mountain lion, which freaks me out because I'm hiking in one of the highest population density areas for them on the planet. I've spoken to a mountain lion expert who said something to the tune of "if you west coasters knew how many times you were stalked by one without knowing it, you'd never go outside again."
I don't know for a fact how accurate this is. But I assume it is. They're out there, they're extremely stealthy, and they like to stalk people. But they probably won't attack. Unless they're extraordinarily hungry or you're extraordinarily small.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Cougars on 04/10/2011 14:21:25 MDT Print View

I live in one of the large population centers of California. Just two weeks ago a mountain lion came out of the hills and got into a residential area (RWC). It was reported in somebody's back yard. A reverse 911 call went out to the entire area, the local cops showed up, and tried to deal with the animal. However, they claimed that they could not get a good shot with a tranquilizer gun, so they just shot and killed the animal.

Mountain lions normally hunt deer, and the hills are full of deer here, so I would not be a bit surprised to see some big cats wandering around. They do not normally go after full-size humans unless they get awfully hungry. Every few years some trail runner will be attacked by a mountain lion. Typically, the runner is a petite woman, so she looks easier to take than a large man. Further, if you hike with others, you are pretty safe. It would be almost unheard of for a mountain lion to attack a group of humans.


Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail on 04/10/2011 16:56:18 MDT Print View

"Every few years some trail runner will be attacked by a mountain lion."

To a predator, if it runs, it's dinner!

The only mountain lion I've ever seen was disappearing really fast into the forest. That was 60 years ago. I do occasionally look around to see what's behind me, and I suspect my dog would sense a lion or bear long before I would. On the other hand, such predators are one reason I keep my dog close by, either on a leash or on the trail directly behind me.

Edited by hikinggranny on 04/10/2011 17:02:55 MDT.

Sam Farrington
(scfhome) - M

Locale: Chocorua NH, USA
"7 Myths about the Continental Divide Trail" on 04/10/2011 20:55:54 MDT Print View

Blimey! Colorado in May without snowhoes? Very courageous.
How about those bronze colored Colorado black bears!

Francis Tapon
(ftapon) - MLife

Locale: Earth
Snowshoes and Bears on 04/11/2011 09:20:55 MDT Print View

Samuel C. Farrington: Yeah, it would have helped to have snowshoes, overall. I carried crampons in May, but that was a mistake. I should have carried snowshoes instead. I never used the crampons because it wasn't super icy, even above 13,000 ft in May. The lack of snowshoes forced me to get up in the dark and hike when the snow was cold and pretty hard. It was a work-around. But the snowshoes would have been a burden at other times. Overall, though, it would have been better with snowshoes.

I saw a mountain lion in New Mexico and a few bears along the way. You're probably more likely to get hit by a car when you're hitchhiking for a resupply than getting killed by a bear. I didn't carry a stove or pot, so I never cooked at all for 7 months. That might have helped. :)

Francis Tapon

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: CDT yoyo diet on 04/11/2011 13:26:14 MDT Print View

I was surprised to see you have hardly posted here before so it was easy to find more info on your stove-less diet.

I could likely deal with extended no-cook also, but I'm more curious about how often if ever you made a fire since you had no hot food to warm you on cold mornings.