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. Because of the extreme conditions that range from desert to mountaintops, some people say it is America's most challenging trail. Its unofficial slogan is "Embrace the brutality."
Several notable 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. Until there is a continuous and official route, there will be some way-finding involved in a CDT hike.
The second reason hikers are likely to walk different distances on this trail is there are several alternates that they can take. These deviate from the official route. 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, such as 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 attempt a 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. In some sections, there are longer stretches without water than the other trails.
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.
Because the CDT is more remote, there are longer sections of the trail that travel through wilderness. Although many people presume this stretches the distance between towns for resupply stops, this isn't true. The resupply options are about the same as on the PCT.