Although the Continental Divide Trail is often spoken about in the same terms as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT stands alone in many ways.
All three are part of what long-distance hikers call the Triple Crown, and to be sure, there are similarities among them. They are all part of the National Scenic Trails System, a federal program that manages and protects non-motorized continuous trails which are 100 miles or longer. The AT, PCT, and CDT all stretch for more than 2,000 miles. They cover diverse, rugged, and mostly mountainous terrain.
The CDT extends from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, passing through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. It is intended to follow as closely to the Continental Divide as practical.
Several characteristics make this trail unique. The most notable of these is the trail's length. It's usually listed as being 3,100 miles long, but that's an arbitrary and meaningless number. Each hiker who completes the whole trail is likely to have hiked a different number of miles than other hikers.
There are two reasons for this. For one, the trail is still incomplete. Although it is said to be 95 percent finished, there are still many long stretches with no marked trail at all. Some sections follow dirt roads and highways.
The second reason hikers are likely to walk different distances on this trail is because of several alternates that they can choose. These routes deviate from the official footpath. Some alternates are in place for practical reasons, such as when it's necessary to avoid dangerous sections in heavy snow conditions. Other alternates are used to pass through scenic areas not included on the official route, such as passing through Wind River Range in Wyoming.
Whatever route is taken, if a hiker walked a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada, that person's hike is considered to be complete.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition is the primary organization for maintaining and protecting the trail. Like the trail itself, the coalition has had a difficult history. The first attempts to establish a trail along the Continental Divide started in 1962. Members of the Rocky Mountain Trails Association began marking in Colorado what became known as the “Blue Can Trail." The name came from the tuna fish cans that were used to show the route.
Nearly ten years after the AT and PCT were designated as National Scenic Trails with the creation of the National Trails System Act in 1968, a study was begun to determine the viability of a trail along the Continental Divide. The act was amended in 1978 to establish the CDT, but no funding was set aside for it.
The first person to claim a successful thru-hike was Eric Ryback, the same young man who two years earlier at age of 17 claimed to be the PCT's first thru-hiker.
Although a comprehensive trail plan was written in the 1980s, progress on constructing the trail was slow. Funding began to shrink in the 1990s, and by early 2012, the organization in charge of building and managing the trail ceased operations. Later that same year, the CDTC was established and renewed the efforts to finish the trail.
There are other features of the trail that make it unique among the Triple Crown trails. It climbs to the highest point of the three, which is Grays Peak in Colorado, where it reaches 14,278 feet above sea level.
There are also fewer hikers attempting to thru-hike it. In 2019, the year I hiked the PCT, just 76 hikers reported completing a CDT thru-hike. By comparison, 966 reported completing the PCT, and 1,033 said they finished the AT.
Parts of the CDT are more remote than the other trails, with long sections of the trail passing through rugged and barren terrain. Many people presume the distance between towns is longer, making resupply stops more difficult. This isn't true, with resupply options about the same as on the PCT.
I successfully completed a thru-hike of the CDT in 2021, starting at the Mexican border on April 13 and finishing at the Canadian border on September 18. My blog posts about that hike can be found here.
Nineteen and sixteen I started to roam
Out into the West, no money, no home
I went drifting along with the tide
And landed on the Great Divide
Railroading on the Great Divide
Nothing around me but the Rockies and sky
It's there you'll find me as the years roll by
Railroading on the Great Divide