Monday 30 December 2019

Continental Divide Trail

 *This is one of many trips that didn't get posted when I all but abandoned this blog back in 2015. It's now 2019 and I'm adding in that missing content in a more photo-based blog post, this trip was from 2016*

After last years poor showing on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), which ended in a fractured foot, it's now time for a 2nd attempt. Like last year I would hike south which I'm convinced is the best way for any CDT hike. Why? Well, a northbound hike will likely hit heavy snowpack, leftover from winter, forcing a compromised route through some of the best hiking that the CDT has to offer in Colorado. 90% of hikers will head north and securing permits can be an issue for the busy Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. However, for me, the main reason for my southbound hike was I didn't want to experience an overcrowded trail like I had on my previous hike across the USA, on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I love hiking in the USA because of the true wilderness that we just don't have in Europe and large numbers of other hikers can spoil that for me

Hiking southbound does have its own issues and it can feel like a bit of a race. You will almost certainly have some snow on the higher passes in Glacier and you are straight into high mountains so is a harder start than the flat deserts of southern New Mexico. However, the snows in Glacier should be nothing like you will experience in Colorado and after that first week, you probably won't need your snow gear again. Mostly though the issue with a southbound hike is that you really need to clear Colorado by the end of September or winter can end your hike. Clearing Colorado is the single biggest issue for any southbound hike and it will always be in the back of your mind. It will affect your route choice and you may end up taking shorter routes, rather than the best route, to save time. Speaking of routes, one of the great things about the CDT is the many options, while there is an official route there are also thousands of optional add-ons which means that almost everyone will hike a slightly different CDT. In good weather then you might take in a 4000m+ summit, feeling a bit tired then you can take a lower valley route. Most days on the CDT you have those choices which make this a very different hiking experience to that of the PCT.

A question I'm often asked is how hard the CDT is and how does it compare to the PCT? The CDT is known to be a tough trail and it is certainly a harder hike than the PCT. You do need better mountain skills for sure, but physically I found the CDT only a little tougher, particularly if you spend most of your time on the official route. Be warned though that some of the optional routes can really change that. Overal both the PCT and CDT are fairly easy trails to hike when I compare them to some of my other hikes, on a scale of 1 to 10 I would place the PCT as a 5 and the CDT as 6 or 7. For comparison, my hike the length of Norway is a 10.

Onto the CDT post! This is a long post, with over 200 photos, but it's impossible to compress a 5000km hike, of this beauty, into less and still get a good feel for it. Even so, this post does not cover many areas of the CDT. The CDT is a truely incredible trail and certainly one of my hiking highlights.

5000km from Canada to Mexico
Glacier National Park - Montana - 23 June

There are 2 starting points for the CDT with the official being Waterton Park and the other is the much more accessible point of Chief Mountain. Which you choose will likely be dictated by your start date and snow conditions. It was an easy choice for me because Waterton was still closed so the only permits being issued were for Chief Mountain. Glacier National Park is known for its beauty and it doesn't disappoint, it's also known for its bears. I've been twice now and I've always seen bears, grizzlies and blacks. I recommend carrying bear spray in Glacier, and indeed it's wise to carry spray until at least Colorado on the CDT. Glacier National Park is a very popular hiking destination and you should try and organise permits well in advance (April is a good time), those that left it late sometimes had to camp many miles off route.

Chief Mountain Border post
There are a LOT of Bears in Glacier

Border point, the border monument is past this building on the right (ask permission from the border guards to visit)

Bridges are often removed for winter and may not be in place if you start too early

Redgap Pass - Glacier national Park - Montana - 24 June

First pass of the CDT and it certainly lives up to its name.

Piegan Pass - Glacier National Park - Montana - 25 June

Poor weather for this section. Started out as mist and rain but that soon turned to snow up high. Good navigation skills were needed over the pass.

Piegan Pass is up there somewhere

Taken on the summit of Piegan Pass
Triple Divide Pass - Glacier National Park - 27 June

Snow tunnel on Triple Divide Pass

Pitamakan Pass - Glacier National Park - Montana - June 28

Pitamakan Pass
Pitamakan Pass
Bob Marshall Wilderness - Montana - 2 July

This is a much quiet place to hike after Glacier yet it has so much to offer. Now away from the National Park trails are less maintained and there's many unbridged river crossing. I also destroyed my first set of shoes! That's a new record for me at 2 weeks but fortunately, I had arranged for a pair to be sent ahead.

Chinese Wall - Bob Marshall Wilderness - Montana - 2 July

The highlight for me is the sheer rockface that is the Continental Divide and has been named the Chinese Wall, it's easy to see how it got that name.

Chinese Wall
Chinese Wall

Helena National Forest - Montana - 8 July

This is a much easier section but being at lower altitude it's a lot hotter and water can be hard to find. With the scenery being decidedly average, not many photos have made it in this post. Helena was where I was forced to abandon the previous year so it was good to arrive in excellent physical condition.

Nice hiking, but very average by CDT standards
Anaconda Pintlar Wilderness/Beaverhead National Forest - Montana/Idaho - 14 Jul

Wow, just wow! This was an unexpected section and a real pleasure to hike. Really quiet hiking in the grandest of surroundings. Challenging but totally worth it. The 2nd half of this section is along the Idaho/Montana border before dropping down to the desert town of Leadore.

Leadore - Idaho - 30 July

The plan had been for a quick 1/2 day rest/resupply in Leadore before getting back on the trail. There were a few other hikers in Leadore so that evening we settled down for a pizza and had a lovely evening. The following day I found a lot of very ill-looking hikers, food poisoning they said. I felt fine so set off but I'd only been on the trail a few minutes when I came across 2 more hikers looking very sick and heading back to town, food poisoning they said. Still, I felt fine. Fast forward a few hours and I no longer felt fine, I felt terrible! Too far from town I settled down for a miserable camp and woke up feeling even worse. I had no choice but to slowly head back to town. I was stuck in that town for 6 days recovering from that pizza! Leadore is a desert town and the hiking around the hills there is semi-desert, its hot, dusty and dry. The only water you will find is from cow troughs.

Leadore is an old mining town
Only water on this section is what's left out for the cows

Yellowstone - Wyoming - 8 Aug

There can be few places as well known as Yellowstone National Park and I was certainly looking forward to my first visit. I really wanted to see Bison and of course the Geysers, I saw the Geysers but didn't see any Bison. Actually, Yellowstone was a bit of a disappointment as it's a very popular hiking destination so camping permits can be an issue and the section of Yellowstone the CDT passes through was badly damaged by fire a few years ago and is only just recovering. 

Geysers - Yellowstone - Wyoming - 9 July

The Geysers are spectacular and well worth a visit.

Teton Wilderness - Wyoming - 12 Aug

The Parting of the Waters is an interesting place where the waters divide, more or less equally, west to the Pacific ocean, or east to the Atlantic ocean. Made a good camp spot for the night while I watched the waters trickle away in their respective directions.

Parting of the Waters

Brooks Lake - Shoshone National Forest - Wyoming - 13 Aug

One of the big issues with wilderness hiking is resupply. I'm happy carrying 7-10 days food (14 at a pinch) but even then resupplying can mean making a 60mi+ trip, each way, which will normally mean at least one hitch. You can waste a lot of time resupplying. One way of reducing this is to send supply parcels ahead to the more remote places, be that Ranches, Hotels, or in this case a Luxury Lodge. Brooks Lake Lodge is a very high-end place where no hiker could afford to stay but they happily take food parcels for CDT hikers for no cost and knowing that they will make no money out of us. To places like that, I would like to say thank you!

Bridger Wilderness/Wind River Range - Wyoming - 15 Aug

Another wow section! Expected this time, this is a busy area with great hiking. Unfortunately, I experienced a lot of electrical storms that did affect my route choices and here I mostly stayed on the official CDT route rather than taking in the more dramatic alternatives.

Great Divide Basin - Wyoming - 19 Aug

The Continental Divide splits in central Wyoming and the CDT follows the eastern rim of the Basin. In the Basin, it's hot, very dry and the roads are straight and seemingly never-ending! Down there there's no shade and you walk from dawn to dusk. No point stopping earlier as its too hot to pitch a tent before dark. Any drinkable water comes from cattle troughs. It's here my 2nd set of shoes finally died, they did well at 1000mi.

Down into the Basin

Northern Colorado - 28 Aug

After hiking in the Basin it's a relief to finally cross into Colorado and get back in the mountains. Hiking in Colorado is probably the highlight of any southbound CDT hike and once you clear Colorado then it's unlikely winter will stop you finishing your CDT hike. Finally, that pressure to get here quickly that you've felt since day 1 will be over! The trail through Colorado is often very high but always mountainous. Expect to be hiking at 10-14000ft and if winter should arrive before you clear these mountains then, at the very least, you will have to drastically change your plans. The snows did come, and the remains of a hurricane, but it wasn't full winter or a show stopper.

Small forest fire, fire is always an issue on the CDT
Mount Zirkel Wilderness - Colorado - 29 Aug

Colorado starts off fairly tame and eases you into the altitude. One of the major issues with a Northbound hike, after the snowpack, is electrical storms. Colorado's electrical storms are insane! I discovered just how bad they can be on my Colorado Trail hike in 2011 and its something I've never forgotten. Fortunately for those hiking south the worst will be over by the time you arrive. Another good reason to hike south!

Indian Peak Wilderness - 31 Aug

Grays Peak - Roosevelt National Forest - Colorado - 7 Sept

At 14262ft Grays Peak is the highest point on the official CDT route and is also a very popular peak to climb in general. While in the UK we may "bag" Munros or Wainwrights, in Colorado you "bag" the 14000ft Peaks. Any peak of 14000ft or greater will likely be busy and the climb up Grays Peak felt like the tourist route up Ben Nevis, just with less oxygen! Once off the summit, you will soon be alone on a superb high altitude ridge walk.

You won't be alone on the climb

The ridge walk the CDT follows off the summit
Copper Mountain - Colorado - 11 Sept

There are many ski resorts in Colorado and some even produce their own snow for the summer. It's odd hiking in 30C temperatures while watching people ski. My first thought was, perhaps oddly, how much energy must it waste to produce and maintain this snow year-round.

Though its only mid-Septemeber autumn is well on its way in Colorado and winter could arrive at any time. The colours are wonderful at this time of year and given the reduction in electrical storms its a great time to hike here.

There are a number of graves near the trail, this was for a miner 
Hope Pass - Colorado - 13 Sept

Same pass taken from 2 different angles, sunny on one side, thundery on the other. Storms come quickly in Colorado.

Cottonwood Pass - Colorado - 15 Sept

First signs on winter, just a light dusting but a reminder to keep pushing on. 

Gunnison National Forest - 19 Sept

La Garita Wilderness - 19 Sept

San Luis Peak isn't on the official route but is easily accessible from the CDT. I first climbed this peak in 2011 on the Colorado Trail and loved its quiet isolation. Peaks over 14000ft will likely be busy with "baggers" but this peak, at only 13993ft, is largely ignored because it's 7ft too short... Like last time I had this peak all to myself.

San Luis Peak 13993ft
San Luis Peak
San Luis Peak 
San Luis Peak
San Luis Peak from the CDT
Creede - Colorado - 20 Sept

Creede is another place I had visited on the Colorado Trail and it is a lovely old mining town. No mining is done nowadays, just tourism, but unlike many places it still feels like a genuine mining town. Here I had to make a big decision over route choices. The main route takes a spectacular way through the San Juan mountains and is quite possibly the best hiking on the CDT. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas and was telling me that the remnants of a hurricane would be passing over Colorado bringing 5 days of gales with blizzard conditions on the summits. There is another official route that cuts out these mountains and stays a little lower and should be much safer in bad weather. The choice wasn't about taking the San Juan route, that was clearly out right now, but if I should stay put for 5 days and then see how much snow had been dumped. But to be honest, I didn't fancy sitting put for so long, particularly after already taking 6 days off sick in Leadore. Reluctantly I took the lower route.

Old mine, Creede
Grave of a young girl

Rio Grande National Forest - 23 Sept

The weather did turn bad but perhaps it wasn't as windy as expected, though I did hear a couple of trees blowdown. Snow arrived and the temperatures plummeted with overnights down to -8, which is right at the limit for the gear I was carrying. I was kind of happy that the snow did arrive and didn't feel so bad about taking the lower route.

San Juan/Rio Grande National Forest - 24 Sept

Heavy frost and -6C

Almost out of Colorado, but not quite, that's New Mexico in the background

Chama - New Mexico - 26 Sept

The CDT crosses Route 17 highway at Cumbres Pass (Colorado) and I needed to get into Chama (New Mexico) to resupply. From Cumbres you have 3 options, hike 20km each way, hitch, or take the tourist steam train. Given it was early morning the steam train comes through in the afternoon that was out. I wasn't keen on an extra 20km hike down into the hot desert, so hitch it was. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to stop and give me a lift! After about an hour I was joined by 3 other hikers which would only make hitching harder. Another hour later and still no luck but then a lovely couple stopped and picked us all up, drove us into town, then drove us around town doing our chores before finally taking us all out for dinner! Well worth the wait and it's moments like this that you never forget. Thank you! 

I left Chama the following day and returned to Cumbres Pass on the steam train.

True Trail Angels

Carson National Forest - New Mexico - 01 Oct

The first few days in New Mexico are surprisingly mountainous before gradually dropping into the desert.  On a southbound hike, the desert is actually very pleasant at this time of year. The desert is also surprisingly beautiful and not at all like what you experience on the PCT in southern California.

Santa Fe National Forest - 2 Oct

Hiking south autumn lasts for such a long time with these fall colours being about a month behind that I'd seen earlier in Colorado.

Gila Wilderness Area - 3 Oct

The Gila is known for its river, monsters (a lizard) and its cliff dwellings dating from the late 1200's. The new official CDT route misses out the river and these dwellings but most CDT hikers take the old route which does go to these places. 

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila river

Cuba - New Mexico - 10 Oct

South of Cuba is where you enter the desert proper. Most peoples idea of the desert is probably deep golden sand, with no living creatures, but most deserts are not like that at all. They have a certain beauty that I love and are packed with life of all types. Cactus, snakes, tarantulas, scorpions and many lizards are but a few that call this home, along with a surprising number of mammals.

An old wind-powered water pump is in the background (unfortunately no longer functioning)

Rock art from around 1300

Lordsburg - New Mexico - 20 Oct

Lordsburg is the final town on the CDT. I resupplied and stayed in the motel overnight and then set off to the border. Any hiking near the border can be potentially hazardous because there some issues with drug gangs and illegals coming over the border and there's also a lot of heavily armed border guards patrolling the area. It's not recommended to hike alone and by chance, I met up with the guy I'd walked the first couple of weeks with, with way back in Glacier. We ended up walking this section and finishing together.

The only water you will find out here

USA/Mexico border BEFORE Trumps wall