Continental Divide Trail

Key information: Continental Divide Trail

  • A fabulous trail through five US states, following the line of the continental divide (watershed) from the border with Canada to the border with Mexico (or vice versa).
  • Visit the forest-swathed mountains, prairies, deep lakes and streams of Montana and Idaho, seeing the (yes) glaciers and agile mountain goats of Glacier National Park, the sharp peaks of the Bitterroot Range and the impressive Chinese Wall along the way.
  • In Wyoming, cross the pioneer trails followed by thousands on their quest for new life in the west, marvel at the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone and the lakes and glaciers of the Wind River Range, and descend into the impressive Great Divide Basin.
  • The Rocky Mountains of Colorado are a tribute to the power of the Continental plates, and the trail traverses 800 miles of their grandiose peaks. Numerous abandoned gold and silver mining 'ghost towns' dot the beautiful alpine tundra.
  • Visions of the Wild West are conjured up as you pass through New Mexico's many wildernesses, seeing on your way wildlife including the roadrunner and turkey vultures, and walking through cottonwood, aspen and prickly pear.
  • This is a tough walk: there are areas throughout in high, remote mountains and bears can cause big problems in the north. The trail is still not cleared in places, and badly marked in others. Research thoroughly, and come fully prepared. 

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating82
  • Beauty36
  • Natural interest16
  • Human interest0
  • Charisma32
  • Negative points2
  • Total rating82
  • Note: Negs: altitude, heavy loads to carry, water often difficult to obtain

Vital Statistics

  • Length: 5,000km (ish)
  • 4-6 months
  • Maximum Altitude: 4,081m (Colorado)
  • Level of Difficulty: Variable
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WALK SUMMARY

To summarise 5,000km and 6 months of hiking seems almost as difficult a task as the undertaking itself: one of the world's premier long distance trails, the CDT spans five states - beginning in the snowy peaks of Montana, following the continental divide through Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado, and finally ending in the arid deserts of New Mexico.

Scenery and wildlife is stunning and varied, and the human history of the trail encompasses thousand-year old trade routes, inscriptions carved by 15th century Spanish explorers, and tracks followed by some of the first American pioneers.

Below are some of the best sections of the trail, including links to our more detailed individual pages; see the Routes section for details on the full route.

Glacier NP

Despite the increasing impact of climate change on the glaciers which gave this park its name, the stunning panoramic landscape of Glacier NP still possesses the power to awe and inspire. With dangers around every corner, whether the grizzly bears or the freezing temperatures and deep lakes, the 700 miles of trails provide a supreme wilderness adventure.

Chinese Wall

Rising abruptly more than 300m from the ground, the 35km long escarpment of the Chinese Wall runs through the beautiful landscape of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. Hike through alpine meadows, past craggy peaks and tumbling waterfalls.

Bitterroot Mountains

Lying on the border of Montana and Idaho, the Bitterroot Mountains are the most famous section of the larger Bitterroot Range. Named after Montana's state flower, and often referred to as the 'Montana Alps', these jagged granite peaks encompass cascading waterfalls, freezing lakes and miles of wilderness. With the highest peak at 10,157ft, there are some amazing summit hikes.

Yellowstone NP

Yellowstone, the first and perhaps the most famous of America's stunning national parks, is a landscape of staggering scale. Bears, wolves and elk roam the steep slopes, deep canyons and thick forests, whilst the thermal areas and their fabulous geysers attract more than two million visitors each year. This deserved popularity, however, has not impinged on the timeless isolation of Yellowstone's backcountry wildernesses. 

The Tetons

Although the Continental Divide itself passes through the Teton Wilderness, a detour is well worth contemplating. Yellowstone's neighbouring Grand Teton NP is dominated by the dramatic, jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons themselves, and their reflection in the spectacularly still waters of the lakes in Jackson Hole. Wilderness wildlife wanders through the park, and the beautiful Cascade Canyon area provides an ideal base for both day walks and longer hikes, taking in the gorgeous lakes, desolate peaks and richly carpeted canyons of the Tetons.

Wind River Mountains

New Mexico

In New Mexico, the human history of the area has left behind more evidence, and the results are fascinating. With a slight variation from the main route, the Continental Divide Trail can go via the Gila cliff dwellings in Gila National Forest, whilst the El Morro National Monument has inscriptions dating back to the Spanish visitors of the 1500s.

*******

Many people walk the most famous sections of the trail, but few people undertake this very tough walk in its entirety, which is usually completed in around six months (covering around 17 miles a day). There are areas in high, remote mountains, on which you will have to be self-sufficient and where altitude can cause problems, and there are areas where the trail is not clearly marked or even cleared. In some places, water is very difficult to come by. Research thoroughly and come fully prepared.

Other accounts: share your experiences

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist. Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.

Guidebooks/maps/background reading

Suggest books and maps

Guidebooks

Jim Wolf, the founder of the Continental Divide Trail Society (CDTS), is known as producing arguably the best guidebooks available, obtainable from the CDTS website (although bear in mind, these describe a route slightly different to the ‘official’ one, particularly in New Mexico).

Hiking the Triple Crown: How to Hike America’s Longest Trails – Karen Berger/Mountaineers Books. (A guide to walking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.)

Montana and Idaho’s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide (Continental Divide Trail) – Lynna Prue Howard and Leland Howard.

Wyoming’s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide (Continental Divide Trail) – Scott E. Smith

Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide (Continental Divide Trail) – Tim Lorang Jones and John Fielder.

New Mexico’s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide (Continental Divide Trail) – Tom Till and William Stone.

Other books

Chapter in World’s Great Adventure Treks – Ed. Jack Jackson.

Hiking the Continental Divide Trail: One Woman's Journey - Jennifer A. Hanson

Maps

There are maps available at a scale of 1:24,000 which show the trail, and alternative routes, for the continental divide trail. These are free, although contributions upon receipt are appreciated to help cover costs. Email jonathan@phlumf.com to receive a CD-Rom. (We have not tried this, so cannot tell you how good they will be).

 

Best times to walk/weather

Best times to walk

Naturally, given the huge variance in latitude, different areas of the walk are best at different times of year – which is a relief considering the amount of time the full trail takes! Most people begin at the New Mexico trailhead, and head north in March or April, those who decide to reverse this tend to leave the Canadian border sometime in late June, although heavy snow or spring floods can cause significant delays. It has been claimed (as in ‘World’s Great Adventure Treks’) that following the trail from Canada southwards is the easiest option (and this is how we have described the route). Whatever you decide, be prepared to be flexible.

Weather

New Mexico: Winter is prone to bad storms, but is otherwise very good for hiking, with bright days despite the chilly nights. There is a windy season towards the end of March, which continues into April, but once this is over the dry weather is ideal for hiking. Mid and late summer brings the Monsoon season, with lightning storms and flash flooding, which require careful planning to stay safe. Late September through to the end of October mean cool nights and sunny days.

Colorado: The Continental Divide Trail here has generally good weather during the summer, warm but not humid; however the high elevation means freezing temperatures and snowfall can occur any time, and during the night the temperature can drop considerably. Winter sees heavy snow: from late September all the way through spring. As in New Mexico, July and August host afternoon storms, which can cause problems in exposed areas.

Wyoming: In Wyoming the trail goes from high mountains, down into the Great Divide Basin, and then up again into the Wind River Mountains. Rain and snowfall vary, with snow remaining all year in the highest places, but disappearing sometime in July slightly lower down, and below about 8,000ft will be gone by the end of May. The ideal time for trekking is towards the end of summer, when the days are long, warm and reasonably dry - however snow and cold are still possible, as in Colorado.

Montana/Idaho: The heavy snow that falls here does not shift from the trails until well into the summer, depending on the winter’s dump. Once this has melted, it is possible to hike through the area, but even when daytime temperatures are higher, remain prepared for freezing cold and snow, and very low temperatures each night. Remember to keep a close check on how much snowfall there has been, as this will affect when you can hike.

For detailed weather information, have a look at: www.worldweather.org or www.bbc.co.uk/weather/world/country-guides

 

Getting there/transport/permits

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See our detailed walk pages.

Those starting the trail from New Mexico set off from Antelope Wells or Columbus, and detailed information on these access points can be found here. If you want to start the trail from the Canadian border in the north, then the access points are found in Glacier NP or Waterton Lakes NP, information on which can be found here.

There is no permit covering the entire trail; however, permits are needed for some areas of this walk, as it passes through national parks and other protected areas. The key ones to look out for are Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, and these will need organizing individually, and often up to a year or more in advance. However areas requiring a permit are not necessarily restricted to the National Parks, so research thoroughly for up-to-date information before you leave.

Walkers planning to hike the Continental Divide can register in the post offices at Lincoln, Tendoy or Leadore, although to do so is not compulsory.

 

Route(s)

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This trail follows the Continental Divide all the way to New Mexico from Montana’s border with Canada, including myriad fantastic routes that can either be done along the way, or can form separate side-expeditions. For an overview of the best areas, see the walk summary.

Unsurprisingly, many hikers vary on the exact path they take; the description below is of the ‘standard’ route from North to South:

Beginning in Glacier National Park, a vast area of stunning vistas, the Continental Divide Trail continues into the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness, where the astonishing Chinese Wall, a 1,000ft escarpment, dominates several days walking. Once the town of Butte is passed, the trail changes direction, heading west to loop around the Big Hole – the westernmost valley of the Mississippi-Missouri River system.

After entering the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the trail turns back south at Lost Trail Pass on the border with Idaho – notable as the spot where Lewis and Clark first crossed the Divide. The lofty Bitterroot Mountains are followed by an area of grassland, which gives way to the Centennials, the last obstacle before the trail reaches Wyoming and enters the stunning Yellowstone National Park.

Upon leaving Yellowstone, walkers will enter the Teton Wilderness, where it is possible to spend some time in the beautiful Grand Teton National Park. In this area hikers are faced with the astonishing ‘Parting of the Waters’, where North Two Ocean Creek splits and one branch heads towards the Atlantic, the other to the Pacific. The Wind River Range, the last of the Northern Rockies, lies mostly above 3,080m, and south of here the divide splits, with the trail descending into the resulting Great Divide Basin.

As the trail climbs again, it passes through the Sierra Madre Mountains into the Colorado Rockies. In Colorado, the trail is particularly well marked and maintained over a considerable distance. Walkers will experience Mount Zirkel Wilderness, and wander through the Park, the Rabbits Ears and the Never Summer Ranges, before reaching the stunning scenery of the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Continuing south along the crest of the Front Range, it is possible to divert from the main trail to climb one or both of the two highest Rocky Mountain Peaks, Mounts Elbert and Massive. Finally, the Colorado section culminates in a long circuit around the head of the Rio Grande Valley in the San Juan Mountains. With the descent from the San Juan Range, there is a dramatic change in scenery, giving way to the expansive vistas and huge skyscapes of the New Mexico desert.  

As the trail climbs into the Gila National Forest, there is an optional route via the fascinating Gila cliff dwellings. The final stretch reaches across dirt roads and desert, finishing at one of two possible points – Antelope Wells or Columbus.

 

Possible problems, health, other warnings

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  • Altitude: acclimatize appropriately, come prepared to cope.
  • Extreme mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year on much of the trail, and hypothermia is often a real risk. Lightning can also cause problems. Come prepared.
  • Flash flooding can occur on some parts of the trail, and stream crossing can also pose big dangers, so be aware of the conditions.
  • Heat, humidity and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
  • Heights: there are steep, hazardous cliffs in many places which can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
  • Dangerous/harmful animals, including snakes. Bears are a problem in some areas: come prepared to deal with an encounter and store camp food appropriately. There are plenty of websites with advice on hiking in bear country, and a particularly good one is the US National Parks Service site. Take all appropriate precautions.
  • This is remote country: although there are several more popular areas, you will have to carry all your food and other supplies and on many parts of the trail help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
  • Water is difficult to obtain along large areas of the trail, and is left out in large containers for walkers. Be prepared.

See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

Make sure you have appropriate insurance.

 

Guided or independent?

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Independent

As far as we can tell, there are no companies which do guided expeditions of the whole of the Continental Divide Trail, owing to its daunting length. Instead, this is something for individuals to undertake, but only after the most careful preparations. As well as dangers ranging from heavy snow and flash floods to bears and snakes, there are significant proportions of the trail which have not been properly set up and signposted, making this an extremely challenging trek.

Guided/supported

If you prefer to do guided/supported treks, then you have a number of options on parts of the Trail. For more information, see the best hiking areas as listed on our site:

 

Accommodation

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Camping is the only realistic option for the most part.

 

Other information and tips

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Useful websites and information

There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.

  • The Continental Divide Trail Society have a website specifically geared towards hikers at www.cdtsociety.org. Guidebooks etc. can be ordered from here.
  • The Continental Divide Trail Alliance website (www.cdtrail.org/page.php) – this is a brilliant website full of relevant information and invaluable for anyone considering the Trail.
  • Jennifer Hanson, author of 'Hiking the Continental Divide Trail: One Woman's Journey', has a website with a great photo gallery here.
  • The blog ‘Made in England’ has some good detailed information based on walking the CDT.  
Add a comment

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.

Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

OTHER ACCOUNTS
share your experiences

Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).

Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.

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