Hiking the Continental Divide Trail is, quite simply, amazing. While the Pacific Crest Trail is beautiful, the Continental Divide Trail is rugged, intense, and real in ways you wouldn’t expect. Although I’m unlikely to thru-hike the PCT again, I would jump back on the CDT in a heartbeat.
The Continental Divide Trail is a choose-your-own-adventure Thru-Hike that runs typically between 2500 miles and 3100 miles from the Mexico and New Mexico border to the Montana and Canadian border. Most hikers typically hike the trail Northbound, from Mexico to Canada.
I intended to thru-hike the entire trail Northbound from New Mexico in 2021. At the end of June I caught Giardia and had to get off trail near the Wyoming-Colorado border. I went back to the trail in 2022 to complete it.
Rather than continuing the trail from where I left off, continuing to hike north (near Steamboat Springs), I decided I would hike Southbound from Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, the trail had different plans for me. One day before catching my Amtrak to Glacier in mid-June, a winter snow storm came through closing down much of the park. Additionally, 30 miles of trail was off limits due to a Grizzly Bear Buffet that didn’t clear up until July 5th — a pack of Grizzlies was feasting on 6-ish cow carcasses right next to the trail.
Because of these developments, I decided to “flip flop” around the trail to complete it, optimizing weather and hiking conditions. That means I hiked long sections of trail out of order create a continuous footpath. From this experience, I learned a whole lot about accessing different sections of the trail from remote trailhead locations.
Yee Old Table of Contents
- Planning a Thru-Hike
- Time Needed to Hike
- CDT Resupply Boxes
- Getting to/from trail
- What to bring
- What’s the trail like?
- Planning Alternates
Planning a Thru-Hike
A 3100 mile, multi-month hike can sound daunting. Like with any large project, it’s important to break it down into completable goals. A more detailed discussion on backpacking planning can be found here.
For hiking the Continental Divide Trail, you’re going to:
- Ensure you have sufficient time to complete your goals
- Determine the direction to hike in and your start date
- Develop a resupply plan
- Figure out transportation for getting to/from the trail
- Get your gear list fully figured out
- Make a list of permits you will need and how to get them
- Go Hiking
Ensuring You Have Enough Time
The hiking window to complete the hike is around 125 to 130 days. In general, the best time to start hiking Southbound is the last week of June or the first week of July. The best time to start hiking Northbound is the last couple weeks of April or the first week of May. If going Southbound you will want to get out of Colorado by mid-September, or first week of October at the latest. if you are hiking the CDT as a Northbound thru-hike, you will want to be hiking through Glacier National Park before September 15th.
Recommended Southbound Hiking Duration: July 1st to November 5th (or earlier)
Recommended Northbound Hiking Duration: May 4th to September 8th (or earlier)
Direction of Hiking
Are you hiking the Continental Divide Northbound or Southbound?
The main difference is going to be your experience in Colorado, and your experience in Glacier. Because my hike had me flip-flopping over two years, I got to experience both. I personally think that a quick Southbound thru-hike is probably the best opportunity to enjoy all elements of the trail.
Southbound start dates are heavily influenced by the level of snow in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. My 2022 Southbound hike was during a high snow year in Montana. I originally planned to enter Glacier on June 14th, which was too early, and instead entered Glacier on July 4th, when conditions were ideal. I needed microspikes for only one section of trail.
The major bottle neck for hiking the Continental Divide Trail Northbound is the snow in the San Juans. The San Juans are too snowy to safely hike before, approximately, the second week of June. this means you really shouldn’t start hiking North from Lordsburg until late April. I started the trail Northbound on May 5th, and entered the San Juans June 4th, 2021. This was about as early as was possible to enter the San Juans in a relatively low snow year. Colorado is seriously tough hiking. Adding a lot of snow to a difficult hike can make the experience downright miserable.
Pros and Cons of Different Directions
|Starting Southbound||Starting Northbound|
|Pros||1. Your pack is only going to get lighter|
2. You start off your trip in one of the most beautiful locations
3. There are fewer people
4. There will be more water for you in Montana
5. If you’re quick, you will hit an amazing, snow-free hiking season in Colorado
6. You might avoid most of the fire season
|1. New Mexico water is going to be better and more accessible|
2. You will likely get to the Great Basin for better temperatures than SoBos
3. There are more people
4. You can hike Glacier without permits by doing 35 mile days
|Cons||1. Your pack is heaviest when you’re most out of shape|
2. You’re going to have to get permits for Glacier, which can be annoying
3. The Bob Marshall Wilderness may have dangerous river crossings
3. If you don’t get through Colorado before October, you run into real snow storm dangers and risks
4. New Mexico is going to be pretty cold
5. Wyoming’s great basin is going to be very dry and hot
6. There are fewer people
|1. You are going to be waiting for snow to melt in the San Juans|
2. Snow on trail in Colorado and Thunderstorms in Colorado
3. Montana is going to be really hot and dry
4. You will likely have smoke and fire closures in Montana
5. There are more people
CDT Resupply Boxes
You are typically going to be able to hit a resupply point every 3 to 5 days along the CDT. Assume that most resupply stops along the trail likely have food selections similar to what can be found in a well-stocked convenience store or gas station.
People often ask me about resupplying and sending resupply boxes. Unless you’re vegan, or have other food allergies or sensitivities, hiking the Contintental Divide Trail can be done without sending yourself any food resupply boxes. If you are vegan — definitely send yourself packages, you’ll need to. I’m a vegetarian, and had no problems finding food across trail.
The only food resupply box I sent to myself on the entire trail was for Pie Town. The hiker box at the Toaster House is likely good enough to resupply out of for the 110 miles (4 days) to Grants. If the hiker box is inadequate, you can always hitchhike the 22 miles into Quemado. You can also pickup a pack of beer while there to bring back for Toaster House friends. You might also be able to borrow a truck in Pie Town to pickup some things from Quemado.
If you’re going Southbound in late June or early July, and are finished hiking Colorado by mid-September, you can likely avoid sending yourself any packages on trail — you’ll bring your snow gear and bear gear with you to Glacier National Park, and will send snow gear home from Augusta, Montana (or earlier), and Bear Gear can be dropped in Pinedale, Wyoming.
I sent resupply boxes only to the following locations:
- Pie Town, New Mexico (food box) – 2021 Northbound
- Chama, New Mexico (Ice Axe, Microspikes) – 2021 Northbound
- South Pass City, Wyoming (Bear Gear, sent back home when I didn’t make it) – 2021 Northbound
- East Glacier, Montana (Ice Axe, Microspikes, Bear Spray — never arrived) – 2022 Southbound
If you are sending a box to Toaster House, here’s the address
YOUR NAME (CDT HIKER) ETA:MM/DD
The Toaster House
603 South of US60
Pie Town, NM 87827
For other resupply box locations, Stephanie Langner pulled together a great resource with shipping information and details. In general, I would strongly discourage mailing boxes for general delivery. Working around Post Office hours can often take days. It’s almost always preferably to call up a private business in the area, and see if they will hold a package for you.
Getting to and From Trail
Jeffrey Sharp (Lordsburg, NM): (575) 519-9111
Wyatt (East Glacier, MT): (406) 854-3905
The easiest option is to take Amtrak to East Glacier, Montana. Stay at Luna’s Looking Glass Basecamp when you arrive. — there will be tons of other thru-hikers there. You can spend some time coordinating with other hikers for a shuttle service to bring you to the border and to figure out permits for the park, etc.
From East Glacier, Wyatt can be used for arranging shuttling.
If you fly into Kalispell, the most assured option to get to trail is is to get a taxi to Whitefish, and then to take Amtrak from Whitefish to East Glacier. It took me about 10 minutes to find someone to hitchhike with from Kalispell to West Glacier. There are very few flights into Kalispell, so make friends with your seatmates and others on the plane, and see about getting a ride with them to Whitefish, West Glacier, or East Glacier. It took me an hour and a half to get a hitchhike ride from West Glacier to East Glacier. I could have caught an Amtrak in the morning had that not worked out.
When you end at the Southern Terminus, you will need to get a shuttle ride back from the terminus. I encourage calling/texting with Jeffrey Sharp, who runs the Hacita Bike Ranch, once you’re in Lordsburg.
The easiest option is to take Amtrak to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Stay in the Econolodge, and request the backpackers rate. Coordinate with Jeffrey Sharp to get a ride to the trailhead.
If flying, you will fly into Tucson, and then take Amtrak to Lordsburg. There are also some buses to Lordgsburg, but I recommend Amtrak.
The most common flipflop location is to hit the Great Wyoming Basin/Red Desert. This section goes from South Pass City to Encampment. You have several options that do not just involve trying to hitchhike from wherever you are to get there:
- Greyhound Bus to Rawlins. Get the Greyhound from Denver, CO or Salt Lake City, UT
- You can also fly into Riverton, then take a shuttle, taxi, or bus (depending on time of day) to Lander. You will then hitchiking from Lander to South Pass City — this is a very easy hitch.
The hitch from Lander to trail is very reliable. Lander is a great trail town with tons of outdoor enthusiasts that will give you a ride. Getting to Lander from trail is a bit harder, but also very doable. I strongly encourage Stopping in/Resupplying in Lander when hiking this trail.
The CDT technically has a handful of permits you need.
- Permit for camping in New Mexico ($)
- Permit for going through Blackfeet land in Montana ($)
- Permits when camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park ($$)
All the National Park permits, with the exception of the Yellowstone permits, can be avoided simply by hiking long miles. RMNP is about 25 miles of trail. It’s possible to slack pack this section starting and ending in Grand Lake (hitching back into town)
For Yellowstone permits, you should call ahead by at least a day, and see what you can get. Backcountry permit office: 307-344-2160. You can also use Recreation.gov to get a permit, but rangers are much better at dealing with CDT hiker quirks on the phone or in person. Have an idea on a few campsites you want to hit. Here is Yellowstone’s campsite map, and a caltopo file with all the Yellowstone Backcountry campsites and names.
For Glacier, you can book campsites in advance, but they also save numerous campsites for walk-ins the day-ahead. When you get to East Glacier, you can shuttle to Two Medicine (call Wyatt), get the permits, and head back to East Glacier.
Permits go fast in Glacier, so you likely need to be at the permit office before 9:30 AM for the following day. Two Medicine has a backpacker’s campground that you can stay at, which will not be a problem to get.
You can avoid the main Glacier Campsite Permits by camping in Two Medicine (11 mi from East Glacier), camping in St. Mary’s (35 mi from Two Medicine), and camping in Many Glacier’s backpacker’s campground (32 mi from St. Mary’s). If you are going into Waterton you may need permits. If you are Shuttling back from the Chief Mountain border crossing, you are in good shape.
What to Bring?
My Southbound CDT Gear List from 2022 is embedded below. I have other information about gear on my website. In general, I would encourage a backpack that is 40L or less, and going from there.
What’s the Trail Like?
While hiking long trails, I keep friends and family informed of my ongoings through an email listserv. My trail writing is now posted on this website. I encourage you to read my Afterwards to the Continental Divide Trail if you’re interested in hiking the Continental Divide Trail. The full list of emails I sent while hiking the CDT is 👇
I have a shit-ton of photos from the CDT. They have been curated into a slideshow. Short videos I made from my time on the CDT have also been compiled and posted to Instagram.
Hiking the Continental Divide Trail is unlike other long trails because the culture readily embraces deviations and alternative routes from the “official route”.
If you are hiking the CDT, I would encourage downloading this GPX file for a list of Common Alternates.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose what alternates you want to take. The main trail is typically great! Many of the “Guthook” alternates exist to reduce trail miles, or are to get around various closures. The following alternates are seriously great:
I heard great things about combining the Teton High Route into the Wind’s.
Although the “Big Sky” or “Super Butte” alternates will cut several hundred miles of trail, I advise against this alternate. “Big Sky” avoids the Pintler Wilderness, which is genuinely great backpacking.