Continental Divide Trail: THE Complete Thru-Hiking Guide - Greenbelly Meals

Continental Divide Trail | How to Plan Your Thru-Hike 101


An interactive map of the CDT complete with a state-by-state breakdown and a list of alternate routes (length, highest elevation and highlights).

Continental divide trail
© Paul "Pie" Ingram


Continental Divide Trail Overview


Length: 2700 - 3150 miles (depending on route)

Time to hike: 5-6 months 

Start and end points:

  • Southern terminus: Crazy Cook Monument
  • Northern terminus: Waterton Lake

Highest Elevation: 14,278 ft (Grays Peak CO)

Lowest Elevation: 4,200 ft

    The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a long-distance trail that runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. The CDT, alongside the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail make up the triple crown of hiking. The CDT is by far the most rugged of the three, being only 70% fully completed with a lot of portions of road walking and off-trail travel. 

    The trail is most commonly hiked from South to North starting at the Mexican border.

    The trail passes through five states - New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana - and ends at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park.

    Although not strictly “completed”, the trail came into existence in the seventies with the first person recording a thru-hike in 1977. It was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1978. Very few people still hike the trail to this day with an estimated 200 people starting the trail per year. This makes the whole experience on the CDT a much more lonesome and solitary experience compared with the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. It also passes through much more remote and rugged terrain than the other two trails.

    Because of the incomplete nature of the Continental Divide Trail, the route is somewhat open to interpretation. Overall mileage can vary from 2600 up to 3100 miles. There are a few different alternates that can be taken on the trail although there is a generally accepted official route.

    To Print PDF: Step 1) Expand to full screen view (click box in top right hand corner of map). Step 2) Zoom in to your desired map section view. Step 3) Click on the three white vertical dots and then "Print Map" from that drop down menu.


    Planning Your Thru-Hike


    When to Go: Timing, Weather and Seasons

    April to October for northbounders.

    June to November for southbounders.

    Whether headed Northbound or southbound, snow is the major deciding factor in planning your departure time. 

    Southbounders may deal with snow in Glacier National Park at the start and therefore start around June. They may also face snow in Colorado in the San Juan Mountains, so they need to arrive there in September.

    Northbounders will usually start towards the end of April so as to not arrive too early in the San Juan mountains and deal with heavy snow. They must also reach the end of the trail up in Glacier National Park before winter storms set in. 

    Hikers on the CDT will deal with an array of different weather scenarios, from harsh sun exposure to freezing cold temperatures. Rain, snow and frequent summer thunderstorms are all possible. Mosquitoes and other flying bugs also definitely exist. Lastly, you'll have to take normal precautions against rattlesnakes and other wildlife.

    continental divide trail mountains
    © Paul "Pie" Ingram


    Getting There: Transportation

    SOUTHERN TERMINUS: Most people will arrive at the southern terminus via the CDT Coalition Shuttle. The shuttle is provided for a fee for northbounders between March 1 and May 15, and on-demand for southbounders finishing in the fall.

    Lordsburg is the nearest town to the Southern Terminus and the shuttle will pick you up from there. The journey from Lordsburg to the terminus is a rough and rugged one with a four-wheel vehicle required. The shuttle costs 120 dollars per person. More information here.

    Note that hitchhiking is not possible.

    The three nearest major cities are El Paso, TX, Phoenix, AZ, and Albuquerque, NM. El Paso is the closest reachable by a 3 and 1/2 hour bus ride. All these major cities offer connecting flights around the US or further afield. 

    NORTHERN TERMINUS: The Waterton Lake terminus or Chief Mountain terminus can be reached from East Glacier Montana on the US side via regular shuttle buses. Hitchhiking is also a great, free option.

    The nearest major city is Missoula Montana with regular buses running to East Glacier and Browning. Missoula has a good airport with many connecting flights daily.


    Direction to Go: Northbound or Southbound?

    The majority of people hike the CDT going northbound with an estimate of only 20% heading south. The weather conditions that northbounders and southbounders face are somewhat similar, but will be found in different times/parts of the trail. So, there is not a major advantage in going northbound or southbound. 

    The major difference is when people start. Northbound hikers head off in April and southbounders start in June. This is an important factor to consider when planning a trip around work or other commitments. 

    One slight advantage of Heading Northbound is that you will be starting in the relatively easy, flat, rolling terrain of New Mexico. If you start in Glacier National Park heading south, the terrain is mountainous and hiking is difficult. Starting off on easier terrain at the beginning of a thru-hike is always nice to get in shape before tackling more strenuous mountain hiking.

    Of course, if you are looking for a social hike, the CDT isn't really the trail.  But, heading Northbound, you are much more likely to run into people. If you're looking for a more solitary wilderness experience then southbound would be your best bet.

    snow on the continental divide trail
    © Paul "Pie" Ingram


    Permits

    The CDT does not have a single permit that thru-hikers need to obtain before hiking like on the PCT. 

    Since 2019 it’s necessary to obtain a Recreational Access Permit to hike through New Mexico. They cost 35 USD and are available here.

    Additionally, there are a few areas that require permits for overnight camping such as Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. These permits can be organized well in advance but that is very impractical on a thru-hike. It's almost impossible to tell when you will arrive and so walk-up permits are your best option.

    We did find it quite difficult to organize permits for Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, but we were traveling in quite a large group. We had to be flexible with our schedule and hike fewer—or more—miles than we wanted based on the available campsites.

    Don't be too worried about the permits for the CDT, it is a relatively hassle-free process. More information can be found here


    Navigation: Maps and Apps

    As mentioned, the CDT is not officially “complete”. But, don’t let that stop you. 

    On my thru-hike of the CDT in 2017, our group used the Guthook App and it worked flawlessly. In the group, we also had Ley's Maps (as in Jonathan Ley) and Yogi's guidebooks for towns and resupply options.

    I carried a small compass—as did many of our group—but I don't think it came out of my backpack a single time. Advanced map reading and navigation skills are NOT necessary for the CDT.

    The Guthook app allowed us to easily follow a GPS track should the trail be hard to find or nonexistent. The notes and comments are not as plentiful and up to date as the PCT Guthook App, but they offer decent insights. The app is especially helpful if there are hikers a few days in front of you that comment frequently.

    Ley's maps and Yogi's handbooks are great to have along as they have more detailed information on alternate routes and towns/resupply.

    The navigation itself is not the same as on the AT or PCT where you can always have your head down and follow a well-trodden and blazed trail. A lot of the CDT is road walking or hiking on other trails that use a different blazing system. Many areas use the official CDT symbol blazes but you can’t rely on them. 

    You need to pay more attention and study the app and guidebooks to ensure you don’t miss an important junction or other features.

    continental divide trail map


    Packing: Gear and Clothing

    You need to be prepared for all kinds of weather on the Continental divide trail. As mentioned above you’ll deal with blazing sunshine, snow, below-freezing temperatures, rain, summer thunderstorms, and bugs. Don't forget them!

    You’ll also have to carry up to 6 days of food on the CDT. That means you need to have a pack that's roomy enough and comfortable enough to carry a heavy load (see Best Ultralight Backpacks in 2020).

    With the amount of distance you will be covering, its important to try and keep your base weight low. This will avoid unnecessary wear and tear on your joints and your morale. Most people that tackle the CDT will probably have done the AT or PCT before and should have a good idea of their gear requirements. 

    Aim for a base weight around the 15 lbs mark.

    The gear used on most long-distance hikes is about the same but here are a few things that are specific to the CDT.

    • Warm gear: we dealt with lots of cold nights. I started with a 20-degree quilt but eventually switched to a zero degree mummy bag and was toasty warm.
    • Ice ax: Might be necessary for certain areas of the CDT at the start or finish and also the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Don’t carry it the whole time, ask someone at home to ship it out.
    • Microspikes: Used for traction in the snow and is a good idea when icy conditions are probable. Crampons may work too.
    • Reflective umbrella: I'd always thought umbrellas for hiking are unnecessary but I really enjoyed having a reflective umbrella in the areas of harsh sun exposure on the CDT.
    • Water containers: There are some long stretches where you need to carry a good amount of water with you. I carried two 1-liter smart water bottles and a two and a half liter water bag. That was plenty.
    • Bear Spray: Essential for Northern Montana. We only saw one Grizzly from a distance but many hikers see a lot more. It's reassuring to have bear spray with you

    The following video shows you exactly what I carried on the CDT in 2017:


    Where to Sleep: Camping, Shelters, and Hostels

    On the CDT it's absolutely necessary to carry a tent or tarp system with you as there are no shelters on the route. I carried a single wall, trekking pole tent with a built-in bathtub floor and highly recommend that. It protected me from the bugs, rain, snow, and cold temperatures. 

    The only places it was necessary to reserve camping were in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, as previously discussed. Otherwise, there was plentiful camping alongside the trail. 


    How to Resupply: Food, Hostels, and Towns

    Trail towns are a little fewer and further apart on the CDT. Rarely do you walk right through them as you do on the AT. Resupply logistics of a thru-hike are also a little more complicated. 

    Many local people in towns haven't even heard of the CDT. There are of course places to buy food, motels to sleep in and bars to drink in. But, it is not the same established culture as the other two Triple Crown trails.

    I never had any real problems but some of the towns on the Continental Divide Trail are poor rural towns. Due care should be taken when hitchhiking and whilst in town.

    In  2017, my resupplies were about 50% boxes and 50% resupplies bought in town. I do believe it's possible (although not ideal) to resupply only in towns and not send yourself boxes. However, having boxes in some of the small towns and resupply points on the CDT was very nice as your options were limited and prices were often high.

    Prices for resupply and motels varied from state to state. Yogi's handbook was very helpful in planning out resupply options and also cheap options for accommodation.

    Similar to the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT towns are fairly far apart. Hitchhiking from the trail into towns is a difficult and long process. It was not as bad as we anticipated though. But, we often waited a while and the car rides from the trailhead into the town were often 20+ minutes long. That's considerable compared to the Appalachian Trail where you often walk into town or the trail is very nearby.

    Packing myself boxes and having a friend send them to me on the trail had positives and negatives. Buying food beforehand was cheaper and enabled me to have the food I liked. However, oftentimes, you would have to go to the Post Office (a hassle). By the end of the trip, I was fed up with all the food in my boxes. 

    There are some trail angels on the CDT and we did get trail magic once or twice alongside cached water, especially down in New Mexico. 

    A Note on Water: Like a lot of things in the long-distance hiking world. There’s a lot of fear-mongering about the water situation on the Continental Divide Trail. With proper planning and paying attention to comments on Guthook and up to date water reports, you’ll be fine.

    There IS water available and there is an awesome group of volunteers that cache water in the driest of spots.

    There are areas where water sources are very few and far between and it’s necessary to drink from some less than desirable sources. The most notable being the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming and New Mexico. New Mexico has the majority of the cow troughs and gross sources. But, there’s no other option and you get used to it.


    Sights: Nature and Wildlife 

    One of the coolest things about the Continental Divide Trail is the variety of ecosystems and scenery you pass through. Rarely will you be bored or unimpressed by your surroundings. High mountain passes, colorful desert washes, and everything in between.

    The CDT is a geologist’s dream. There are arrowheads to study and ancient cave dwellings to visit along the trail.

    On my hike of the Continental Divide Trail, I saw a grizzly bear, black bears, moose, coyote, small mammals, and a lone wolf in the single coolest wildlife interaction I’ve ever had. 

    Bring your camera.

    Bear hangs/lockers/canisters are only a requirement in the national parks along the trail. Follow good practices in the backcountry and smaller critters shouldn’t be an issue.

    Moose on the continental divide trail
    © Paul "Pie" Ingram


    Sectional Overview


    These sectional breakdowns follow the point of view of a northbound hiker as most tackle the trail from this direction. For a good insight of a southbound hike refer to trail journals from 2017.


    New Mexico (820 miles)

    continental divide trail map - new mexico

    From Crazy Creek Monument and the border of Mexico to Cumbres Pass/Chama

    New Mexico is considered the desert section of the CDT. Desert hiking conjures thoughts of a lifeless hot, barren place and this is only partly true. The red rocks and colors of the sand and surroundings (especially during twilight) are beautiful. It feels like every plant wants to stick to you or scratch you. 

    The water sources are notorious in NM. They do exist but many are gross, to say the least.

    Since 2019 it’s necessary to obtain a Recreational Access Permit to hike through New Mexico. They cost 35 USD.

    NOTABLE AREAS / HIGHLIGHTS:

    PIE Town - I don’t love this place just because we share a name. It’s the home of one the only hiker hostels on the trail, the quirky Toaster House, as well as the Pie Town Cafe. Get yourself a slice!

    Gila River - This unique section of the CDT is actually an alternate but you should definitely do it. You'll be walking alongside and often in the flowing river as it winds through the canyon. Soak in hot springs and try not to smile.

    Ghost Ranch - Used as a shooting location in several movies—it is evident why, almost immediately. You feel like you’re walking through a western movie with towering sandstone cliffs all around.

    Common Resupply Towns:

    • Chama
    • Cuba
    • Doc Campbells store
    • Grants
    • Silver City
    • Ghost Ranch

    Colorado (800 miles)

    continental divide trail map - Colorado

    From Cumbres Pass/Chama to the Wyoming Border in the Mt Zirkel Wilderness

    The Rocky Mountains are what really stand out about the Colorado Section of the Continental Divide Trail. Snow and rugged terrain is the major difficulty of Colorado, especially in the San Juan's. Hikers are often forced to take the Creede Cutoff to skip heavy snow and potentially dangerous conditions in the San Juan's.

    The Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park require overnight camping permits if you sleep in those areas. They can be obtained easily via walk-up.

    NOTABLE AREAS / HIGHLIGHTS:

    Grays Peak - The highest point on the CDT at 14,278 ft. Getting to the top of this peak gives a great sense of achievement and once you’ve caught you breathe, you can drink in the epic views.

    San Juans - Despite having to bail out early from the San Juan mountains in 2017, I remember them fondly. Sweeping valleys and high mountain pass with Elk call echoing throughout.

    Common Resupply Towns:

    • Steamboat Springs
    • Salida
    • Grand Lake
    • South Fork
    • Leadville and Twin Lakes
    • Pagosa Springs

    Wyoming (550 miles)

    continental divide trail map - wyoming

    From the Wyoming border in the Mt Zirkel Wilderness to the Idaho Border in West Yellowstone

    Wyoming on the CDT is a mixture of classic National Parks and open range with little water and rolling terrain. Prepare to be wowed by the Winds and try to avoid the crowds in Yellowstone. You’ll likely spot some cowboys on the horizon.

    NOTABLE AREAS / HIGHLIGHTS:

    Winds - Probably my favorite area of the CDT. The winds have the power to simultaneously make you feel really tiny whilst making you feel glad to be alive. I wish the CDT spent more time in them.

    Great Divide Basin - Love it or hate, most hikers won’t forget The Basin. 120ish miles of brutal desert hiking with very little water. Prepare to night-hike.

    Yellowstone - The Country’s’ first national park gets busy for a reason. Geothermal features scattered throughout and waterfalls and bison in certain areas. Avoid the crowded spots by passing through very early or once everyone’s gone home. And, luckily, the CDT hits some cool spots that most tourists don’t go to.

    Common Resupply Towns:

    • Pinedale
    • Rawlins

    Idaho (180 miles)

    continental divide trail map - idaho

    From the Idaho Border in West Yellowstone to the Anaconda Mountain Range

    Northbound Hikers leave Wyoming in West Yellowstone and start following the Idaho/Montana boundary. Eventually, the trail starts heading northeast into Montana proper through the Anaconda Mountain Range.

    In Idaho, hikers are often following a fence line and hiking across rolling hills with views far off to the horizon. 

    Exposure to long hours of harsh sunlight is likely so hikers need to cover up. There are some stretches with few water sources which means you'll have to carry plenty of water.

    NOTABLE AREAS / HIGHLIGHTS:

    Lemhi pass - The highest point that the Lewis and Clark expedition went through.

    Common Resupply Towns:

    • Leadore
    • Mack's Inn

    Montana (800 miles)

    continental divide trail map - montana

    From the Anaconda Mountain Range to Waterton Lake / Chief mountain and the border of Canada

    The mountains of Montana make for some wonderful hiking and the state doesn’t disappoint. Abundant wildlife, rugged terrain in the remote Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Montana deserves its title of big sky country. Blown down trees are often an issue—as is sun exposure.

    Northbounders finish their hikes with a bang in Glacier National Park. Be aware of grizzly bears in the area and keep your fingers crossed you can organize backcountry permits that fit your schedule. 

    NOTABLE AREAS / HIGHLIGHTS:

    Chinese Wall - This imposing monolith comes up out of nowhere and is one of the most photographed spots on the CDT.

    Glacier National Park - One of the gems of the Continental Divide Trail. It flew by on my thru-hike in 2017 and it is one of the areas I’m most desperate to return to. It’s astounding.

    Common Resupply Towns:

    • Helena
    • Derby
    • Lima 
    • East Glacier

    Major Alternates on the CDT


    Alternate routes play a huge part in the CDT. Some are necessary to go around impassable areas. Some take you to see cooler sights. Some are there to seemingly facilitate skipping huge portions of the primary route. Here are the main ones.

    Southern terminus - most people hike from the official southern terminus at crazy cook. One alternate if you want to avoid paying for the shuttle or you want a little less hassle is to hike from the town of Columbus. This will be a long section of road walking.

    Gila River Wilderness -  The official route through the Black Mountains Is meant to be quite beautiful. Rumors suggest there is little water on the official route but this is not necessarily the case. Most hikers will choose to hike the Gila River wilderness, a beautiful winding section of the trail that follows the Gila River. We hiked it in 2017 and it was one of the most memorable parts of my thru-hike.  Resupplying is also much easier with the Gila River alternate as you walk past Doc Campbells store.

    Ghost Ranch - Most people hike to Ghost Ranch to pick up a re-supply. This area is also very beautiful and is a great spot to take a break, eat a meal in the restaurant, check Wi-Fi and all that stuff before getting back on trial. We did it and I highly recommend it.

    The Creede Cut Off -  Unfortunately, many hikers have to take this alternate to avoid heavy snow or potentially fires in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The Creede Cut Off passes through lower elevations with some snow still possible. It should only be taken if absolutely necessary as the San Juan's are incredibly beautiful and shouldn't be missed.

    Collegiate Route see description and map here.

    Rawlins Road walk (to avoid the Great Basin) - Plenty of Hikers take the Road walk instead of hiking through the Basin, this is because there is more water available on the road. It, however, involves camping by the roadside and it's still very hot and exposed. 

    Cirque of the Towers and Knapsack Col in the Winds -  However you choose to hike the Winds, it will be epic. These two alternates will add in difficult mileage but reward you with epic views. If there is a lot of snow, ice axes and microspikes might be necessary for both routes. If you're unsure, take the official route but these alternates are well worthwhile

    Super Butte Cut-off - This alternate cuts out of hundreds of miles in Idaho/Montana. It is more rugged hiking and skips some of the boring sections of Idaho. If you are really short on time, this is an option. But do you really want to skip that much mileage?

    Anaconda Cut-off - This alternate skips about 90 miles and has you walking directly through the cool town of Anaconda. Otherwise, the official route takes you on the Butte Circle which does a weird unnecessary loop around the town of Butte. We hiked the Anaconda cut off in 2017, I enjoyed the town and I would recommend it.

    Northern Terminus - Both of these are official start and end points. Waterton lake has you going into Canada but is often closed for Northbounders due to fires. Either way, Glacier National Park is beautiful. Chief Mountain is a little bit more accessible.

    continental divide trail river crossing
    © Paul "Pie" Ingram


    Resources


    There is a plethora of good information available on the interwebs about the Continental Divide Trail. I believe the Guthook App and Yogi's guidebook get you 95% ready when planning your hike. 

    Don’t worry and don’t plan too much though. Many people have hiked the CDT before you and it is NOT the scary unattainable feat it is made out to be. It is a wonderful, challenging adventure that you should approach with excitement.

    A few more valuable resources:



    pie's profile picture

    By Paul Ingram (aka "Pie"): Pie is a British thru-hiker living in Finland. He hikes all over the world and has way too many action figures for a man of his age. He completed the AT in 2015 and the CDT in 2017.
    About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

    Affiliate disclosure: We aim to provide honest information to our readers. We do not do sponsored or paid posts. In exchange for referring sales, we may receive a small commission through affiliate links. This post may contain affiliate links. This comes at no extra cost to you.



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