Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

By Chris Denu

When you sit down and really start pondering a hike of nearly 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) it can weigh on you and start to feel like an insurmountable task. However, when I found myself pondering this type of hike, I couldn’t help but think of the quote by Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Though this would be nearly three times that thousand miles, the thought of just one step at a time shifted my mindset and I felt surprisingly optimistic.

I recently set off on a hike that changed my outlook on life, pointed me down an entirely different path, and left me with friends and memories to last a lifetime. Crazy Cook is the name of the monument in which a majority of Continental Divide Trail (CDT) hikers begin their Northbound journey. This is where I found myself on a hot day in early May, with thousands of miles in front of me. But just like the quote, I started North with a single step.

The CDT is one of the longest and most difficult trails in the United States. It’s generally done as the final hike in the triple crown. The other two trails being the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. The CDT runs North to South, South to North, and follows closely to the geographic continental divide. To the West, water flows to the Pacific Ocean, and to the East, it flows to the Atlantic or the Gulf.  This 3,000 mile-long trail passes through five of the Western US’s most scenic states: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the ends of which lie in Canada and on the Mexican Border.

When I started off, I had no idea the variety, the beauty, the harshness, and the splendor the trail would offer me. I would see snow in both New Mexico and Montana. I would pass through amazing desert landscapes, lush green meadows, dry and barren high plains, and mountainscapes that would make your jaw drop. I learned that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible, often hiking 30 miles a day, climbing mountain pass after mountain pass. I would eventually even become comfortable with hitchhiking, though I understand this is harder and more dangerous for some. Traveling across Colorado’s San Juan mountains with a new-found friend led to a lifelong bond through the shared experience and hardship, akin to the brotherhood formed by those I served with in the military.

The daily routine was a bit like this: Wake up to cold temps, force on your frozen socks and shoes, get as many miles in as possible before the snow begins to soften, then struggle through the sun-warmed snow, continually postholing, wear wet socks and shoes all day long, and finally set up camp completely exhausted after maybe 14-15 hard fought miles.

Southern Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin is a place with little water, little shelter from the sun, storms, and wild horses. Days in the basin proved good for long miles, but I experienced daily afternoon storms that brought fierce lightning way too close for comfort and with nowhere to shelter. The wild horses were beautiful and wary of me as we often met at the rare places to gather water.

Wyoming’s Wind River Range has become one of my favorite places on Earth. Its mountains, alpine lakes, and meadows are hard to put into words. The opportunities and challenges this range provides would keep any outdoor adventurer busy for many years. The climbing, the backpacking, the fishing, and the wildflower viewing is top notch. I absolutely cannot wait to reenter this wilderness again.

Idaho and Montana, sadly, were both burning as I hiked North through these states. The challenge of the forest fires were many-fold; we experienced ash falling from the sky, the constant smell of smoke, the closures of huge swaths of land, and the actual sight of flames only one ridge away. This led to many miles of road walking around active fire areas, which meant referencing maps and making new plans. It challenged us all the way to the end when we entered Glacier National Park.      

After a month in hot, dry, and fiery terrain, it was fitting that my last couple days on the trail entailed snow, cold, and rain. On the second to last day of my hike we crossed over a high pass in Glacier National Park and quickly found ourselves wearing all our layers as we hiked for hours in fresh, wet snow. Upon learning from the park rangers that our path to Canada was closed due to more fires, we set off on a final 23 mile road walk to a border crossing. A bit of an anticlimactic finish, but we embraced it, and it truly proved that no two hikes on the Continental Divide Trail are alike.