The Continental Divide trail is a 3,100 mile footpath connecting Mexico and Canada. It follows the rocky mountains through the U.S. states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Each year hopeful thru-hikers try hiking the entire trail. The Continental Divide Trail, along with the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, form what thru-hiker enthusiasts have termed the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in the United States.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) is much more than just a line on a map, however; it is a living museum of the American West, a place to reconnect with nature, and a unifying force bringing people of all walks of life together. This makes it one of the largest conservation efforts in the history of the United States.

The name of the trail comes from the land formation it follows — the Continental Divide. This is a physical land formation that parts all precipitation and waterways between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It begins in Northern Alaska, continuing south through the Canadian Rockies. In the continental U.S., the Divide follows the Rocky Mountains through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and so does the Continental Divide Trail! The southern portion of the Divide peaks along Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental.

Although the CDT, America’s most challenging trail, is not complete, with good maps, a compass, and thorough planning, a person can currently travel from Mexico to Canada following close to the geographic Continental Divide. Signs and markings identifying the CDT vary. Some segments are on well-marked trail, while others require cross-country travel on a line of sight. In some areas, the CDT temporarily follows roads to avoid trespassing on private lands and/or until a better, non-motorized route can be built.

Most of our information in this article comes from the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, the amazing organization that manages and maintains the trail and a great resource to start your journey.

The Continental Divide Trail by the Numbers

  • It takes 6 months to finish the average thru-hike.
  • Currently, 76% of the CDT is complete and located on non-motorized trail.
  • The trail is 3,100 miles long.
  • The CDT traverses 5 states – Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
  • About 200 people a year attempt to thru-hike the CDT.
  • The youngest person to thru-hike the trail is Reed Gjonnes, who hiked the trail with her father Eric Gjonnes from April 15, 2013 to September 6, 2013 in one continuous northbound hike at the age of 13.
  • The tallest point on the trail is Gray’s Peak at 14,270 feet.

Notable Spots on the Trail

Ventana Arch
  • El Malpais – the Ventana Arch – New Mexico
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Lemhi Pass – where Lewis and Clarke first stepped foot onto the Divide
  • Glacier National Park on the Canadian border
  • The Great Divide Basin – the only place that the Continental Divide splits and rejoins

Packing and Prep

The CDT is a long, high, and remote trail which means there is little room for errors when packing and planning. A laundry-list of concerns like grizzly bears, snow and ice, and limited water supply is something every CDT hiker must take into account. This is why the CDT is probably not for first-time backpackers. That being said, hikers of any skill should know how to plan and prepare for a long-distance thru-hike.

The CDT is a long, high, and remote trail which means there is little room for errors when packing and planning. A laundry-list of concerns like grizzly bears, snow and ice, and limited water supply is something every CDT hiker must take into account. This is why the CDT is probably not for first-time backpackers.

That being said, hikers of any skill should know how to plan and prepare for a long-distance thru-hike.

Liz Thomas on Backpacker.com says: Compared to the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails, many CDT hikers choose slightly heavier-duty gear: their picks have to be strong enough to handle the New Mexico desert and trudge through snow at 14,000 feet in Colorado. Still, hikers try to choose lighter packs to minimize the impact of all that vertical on their back, knees, and joints. Food and water carries on the CDT can be heavy, too, so light gear choices help reduce overall pack weight.

You can check out Liz’s detailed packing list HERE.

There are many other things you should take into consideration when planning your trip. For example, there are multiple places where you need permits to cross or places you will need to pay a national park admittance fee.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has a free planning guide that will help you prepare for every part of the trail. The planning guide is the ultimate resource and although it is free, the suggested donation of $10 is a great price for all the information you receive and goes back to supporting the trail.

Download the CDT Free Planning Guide ($10 suggested donation)

Have a favorite thru-hike you’ve attempted? Share your experience, photos, and tips in the comments below. You could be featured in our series!

And don’t forget to check back each week for the next hike in the series!

Other Posts in this series:

1. Appalachian Trail
6. Ice Age Trail
2. Continental Divide Trail7. Tonto Trail
3. Pacific Crest Trail8. Kalalau Trail
4. Resurrection Pass Trail 9. The Long Trail
5. Colorado Trail 10. Superior Hiking Trail
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Madison Austin
studies Public Relations at Brigham Young University and is a marketing specialist at the Utah National Parks Council. She is an avid hiker and enjoys being outdoors. Growing up in the mountainous regions of Colorado and Virginia enabled her to follow these passions. After moving to Utah to attend college, she has spent her time fostering both a career in Communications and a love for Utah's National Parks.

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