The Great Divide Trail is a 702-mile trail (1130 km) stretching from Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta to Kakwa Provincial Park in British Columbia. The Great Divide Trail is the Canadian continuation of the Continental Divide Trail, meaning the Northern Terminus of the CDT is the Southern Terminus of the GDT.
- Length: 1130km (702 miles)
- Time to Hike: 6-10 weeks
- Start and End Points:
- Southern Terminus: Waterton Lakes National Park
- Northern Terminus: Kakwa Lake Provincial Park
- Highest Elevation: Unnamed Pass (known as Michelle Lakes Pass) - 8458 feet (2578 meters)
- Lowest Elevation: Old Fort Point 3461 feet - 1055 meters
The GDT is a remote wilderness trail traversing through the rugged Canadian Rockies for its entire duration. It is known for being one of the most challenging yet spectacular rainstorm thru-hikes in North America.
With many river crossings, alpine ridgewalks, cross-country route finding, countless glaciers, variable weather, and extended stretches between resupply points, it hosts many challenges experienced hikers are looking for. Additionally, cell service can only be found a few times through the entire hike.
Planning Your Thru-Hike
WHEN TO GO: Timing, Weather and Seasons
The summer is exceptionally short in the Canadian Rockies which doesn’t leave a lot of room to hike the GDT. With an average duration of just over 50 days, most hikers start at the beginning of July.
The weather in the Canadian Rockies is notoriously unpredictable. It is common for snow to fall 12 months out of the year. Expecting snow and rain storms is essential. Daily temperatures can range from around the mid-80s (30C) to 23F (-5C), with most days somewhere in the middle.
One of the hallmarks of the GDT is the vast, uninterrupted, sweeping alpine and glacier views. The trail also hosts several alternates, which, if the weather cooperates and you are up for the challenge, offer unmatched alpine experiences. The most popular alternates being Barnaby Ridge, Northover Ridge, Kiwetinok Alt, and the 6-passes Alt.
Usually, mid-July each section will have at least one alternate.
Leaving in mid to late June, you will likely encounter snowpack in the alpine, with substantial elevation gain and some of the most challenging ascents in the first section. If the snowpack is lower, it can be beneficial to take advantage of the long days in June and early July with the sun setting around 10:00 P.M. As long as you can handle the bugs!
Leaving in early- to mid- July, it is less likely you will encounter much snowpack in the alpine. However, it is much more likely you will have storms, including snow, in late August or early September.
GETTING THERE: Transportation
Still by and large one of the largest off-trail challenges with a GDT thru-hike. As the trail is so remote, there is not a lot of infrastructures built around hikers.
The closest major airport to the Southern Terminus is Calgary, Alberta. From the airport, it’s a 3-hour drive to Waterton Lakes National Park. There is a shuttle service from the Calgary Airport to Waterton Lakes National Park, it can be quite expensive so linking up with some other hikers from the Facebook page can be a great way to save some money.
Kakwa Lake is one of the most remote areas on the entire GDT which creates unique logistical challenges. From the terminus it is 28km (17 miles) to the trailhead. From the trailhead, it is a minimum of 3-4 hours drive on a rough logging road to reach the closest highway.
While it is only 68 km (42 miles), the road has very little maintenance and should not be attempted without 4x4 and significant high clearance. You will scratch your vehicle and will be driving through a brush for hours.
Thankfully, Robson Valley Adventures Unplugged, a hunting outfitter in the area, provides a shuttle service from the trailhead to the highway or other towns in the area.
Once you reach Highway 16 at the Walker Creek FSR, near the town of Crescent Spur, BC, it is about 165 km (100 miles) to Prince George, BC which has the largest airport in the area.
DIRECTION TO GO: Northbound or Southbound?
Northbound: Most popular. The sections are a bit shorter and more straightforward at the beginning, it is also likely to be much warmer and less snowpack.
Southbound: Very uncommon. Only a few people attempt a SOBO hike each year. Some of the most challenging and remote sections will be right at the beginning including the longest food carry which is around 10 days.
NAVIGATION: Maps and Apps
The ruggedness and remoteness of the Great Divide Trail are part of its charm. The GDT links several trails together so there are no consistent GDT markers throughout the hike.
With cell service only a few times throughout the entire hike, navigation is entirely dependent on preparation. As with many other popular trails, Guthook Guides is the primary method of navigation on the GDT.
In addition to the app, there are also maps available through the Great Divide Trail Association. With inclement weather and river crossings, it is necessary to have a non-electronic mode of navigation (ie. a map and compass) in addition to the skills required to use them.
PERMITS: Requirements and How to Get
There is currently no single “thru-hiker” permit for the GDT.
The trail goes through multiple parks and protected areas all requiring different types of reservations. On an average itinerary of 50 days, at least 20 reservations will be made for a complete GDT thru-hike. While they are not particularly expensive, ranging from $5 to $25, they can be exceptionally hard to reserve.
The trail passes through Waterton Lakes, Kootenay, Banff, Yoho, and Jasper National Parks, as well as Peter Lougheed, Assiniboine, and Mount Robson Provincial Parks. Each of these parks has its own bookings.
Campsites can be extremely sought after, typically booking up within hours or even minutes of being released. It is imperative to check the Parks Canada and Provincial Park websites ahead of time to be sure you can reserve the sites immediately.
PACKING: Gear and Clothing
With each resupply typically over a week, it’s important to pack for all the elements.
- Pants. Shorts with leggings will not cut it. With stretches of bushwhacking and exposure in the alpine, a light pair of pants is necessary. They are also incredibly helpful for protection against bugs. The same goes for a long sleeve top.
- Insulation. Many mornings and evenings will be quite chilly, bringing a light fleece is a great way to stay a bit warmer while hiking. You also won’t have to worry about tearing it as you walk through the brush. Additionally, a puffy is necessary: down or synthetic will work but make sure to understand the limitations of down in wet humid environments.
- Rain Gear. Dependable, durable rain jacket and pants. Rain and/or snow is expected so bringing rain gear you can depend on for multi-day storms.
- Pack. Make sure you can fit up to 10 days of food and all your other gear in your pack. You will want to line your pack with a trash compactor bag or use dry sacks to keep your gear dry during downpours and river crossings.
- Sleeping Bag/Quilt. A 3-season 15F Sleeping Bag or Quilt
- Sleeping Pad. Along with the sleeping bag, a 3-season sleeping pad
- Tent. A storm-worthy tent. Ultralight single-wall tents can be used but make sure they can withstand a storm. Most people opt for a double-wall tent. The Durston X-Mid is by far the most popular tent on the trail.
- Ursack. the entire hike is in grizzly and black bear territory and many campsites will not have facilities to store your food (or are above treeline). Most hikers will use the Ursack XL but make sure it is large enough for you for extended food carries.
- Bear Spray. All hikers are expected to carry bear spray. You cannot bring bear spray on airplanes or bring it into Canada, it must be purchased after your arrival.
- Battery Bank. Resupply sections will typically be over 5 days, be sure you have enough power to keep your devices charged.
WHERE TO SLEEP: Camping, Shelters, and Hostels
Throughout the average 50-day itinerary, there are 5 main resupply points with the option for 2 others. All of the other nights will be in your tent.
About half of the nights will be in a paid/reserved backcountry site through one of the many parks the GDT traverses. The other half will be in areas without a reservation or in wilderness areas. Most of these areas have established sites.
HOW TO RESUPPLY: Food, Water, and Towns
The Great Divide Trail is broken up into 7 sections: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. You can resupply between each section. (see Sectional Overview below)
The sections vary in length and services available at each town. Most hikers will mail their resupply boxes ahead of time rather than shopping on the trail.
SIGHTS: Nature and Wildlife
The Great Divide Trail is exceptional for seeing some of Canada’s most renowned wildlife. Nearly the entire trail is in grizzly habitat and the lower elevations are also home to black bears. Bear safety must be taken into account during the entire hike. Additionally, the GDT is home to several other large mammals such as elk, moose, caribou (if you’re lucky!), and deer. Some of the smaller animals you will likely encounter are porcupines, grouse, toads, marmots, pikas, and countless birds.
Section A: 144km (89 miles) Waterton Townsite
The start of the trail is in the small town of Waterton. You could resupply from the small grocery store in the town but you will have a better selection and better pricing outside of the park. Section A is commonly done in around 7 days.
Section B: 179km (111 miles) Coleman, AB
Finishing Section A will put you in Coleman, AB. The trail passes directly through town, 2 great options for accommodation are A Safe Haven B&B and the Paddock Inn. If you can create your resupply boxes ahead of time, both the Paddock Inn and A Safe Haven will let you drop off (or mail) your box ahead of time. If you need to resupply in Coleman, hitchhiking to Blairmore is the best option. It’s only a few minutes away and also has a gear store. Section B is commonly done in around 8 days.
Section C: 201km (124 miles) Boulton Creek Campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Finishing Section B takes you directly to Boulton Creek. It is a large, spread out RV/car camping area. You will need a reservation as this campground is typically full all summer. As of 2021, you cannot mail a resupply box ahead of time but this may change for 2022. There are some trail angels that have offered to bring people their resupply boxes in the past, be sure to check out the Great Divide Trail Hikers Facebook page. You are able to resupply at the Boulton Creek Trading Post (Camp Store) however it is limited and it will be expensive. Pro Tip- reserve a site with power, otherwise your entire day will be sitting next to a power outlet waiting for your devices to charge. Section C is typically done in either 4 days if going to Banff, AB, or 7 days if going to Field, BC.
Resupplying in Banff mid Section C: The GDT will take you past Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff, you can walk down to the base area and try to catch a ride into town. From here you will have the amenities of the large resort town of Banff.
Section D: 105km (65 miles) Field, BC
At the end of Section C you will hit the highway and need to walk or hitch to the town of Field. Field is a very small town with only one small gas station. The Truffle Pig Bistro and Lodge is a small restaurant and hotel in Field where many hikers stay. Resupplying in Field is difficult. Although Section D is the shortest section on the GDT there are far more options if you hitchhike into the town of Lake Louise, AB about 20 minutes away. In Lake Louise, you will find the HI Alpine Hostel, a grocery store, a gear store, and a couple of cafes to stock up on treats. Section D is typically done in 4 days.
Section E: 188km (116 miles) Saskatchewan Crossing, AB
Finishing Section D you will end at the highway, a few miles from Saskatchewan Crossing Resort, most hikers will attempt to hitch. The resort is the only option for accommodation and they will hold a resupply box if you coordinate ahead of time. The store is outrageously expensive. For example, a standard isopro fuel can cost you $17. There is no cell service and resort wifi is almost non-existent. Section E is typically done in 7 days.
Section F: 122km (75 miles) Jasper, AB
The end of section E will put you in the best trail town of the GDT. Jasper has multiple hostels, many hotels, 2 grocery stores, and several gear stores. It is very easy to resupply here without sending a box. A lot of hikers take more than one zero in Jasper.
Jasper is frequently the ending point for many GDT hikers. Logistically it is easy to reach a major city via the many tour operators and busses available. However, ending here will avoid the most remote and rugged sections of the GDT, what many consider to be the true heart of the trail.
Sections F and G can be linked together and in 2021 the access to resupply after Section F was not possible. This may be fixed for 2022. If you choose to resupply after Section F you should plan for about 5 days, if you choose to push through to the end of Section G with an arranged pickup at the trailhead, plan for around 10 days, if you are walking out to the highway plan for around 12 days.
Section G: 160km (99 miles) Mount Robson Visitor Centre, BC
If the trail is repaired, resupplying at the end of Section F is an option however it involves a significant detour and difficult camping reservations. The Section F/G transition is at the Berg Lake Trail intersection. Resupplying at the Mount Robson Visitor Centre is about 25km (15 miles) and 800m (2600 feet) elevation loss down the Berg Lake Trail. This will add at least a day each way so be sure to plan ahead with your resupply in Jasper. From the visitor center, it is usually around 8 days to the Kakwa Lake Trailhead (end of Section G) and 2 more days if you have to walk the Walker Creek FSR. Resupplying here doesn’t save that much weight due to the logistics of hiking an extra 50km (30 miles).
Great Divide Trail Association: Excellent trip planning resources with sample itineraries
Great Divide Trail Hikers Facebook Page: Very active page with great support
Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail by Dustin Lynx: The guidebook for the GDT, a great read if you are wanting to know more about what to expect.
📸 The photos in this post are courtesy of Austin W. Hager, unless stated otherwise. All rights reserved.