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Thru-Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is the longest and considered the most challenging of the three long-distance hiking trails making up the triple crown trails in America (Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and Appalachian Trail (AT)). It is more remote and rugged than the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, which have numerous challenges not encountered on most other trails. I have thru-hiked the CDT twice and fully endorse the tough yet epic adventure. It is an incredible journey into the wilderness with few distractions.

What is the Continental Divide Trail?

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a 3,100-mile route established initially by congress in 1978 that follows the Continental Divide of America. One end of the trail sits at the Canadian/USA border on the north end of Glacier National Park. The CDT goes through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico, all the way to the New Mexico/Mexico border. The Continental Divide Trail passes through 25 National Forests, 21 Wilderness Areas, and 3 National Parks. Thru-hikers often see moose, grizzly, and mountain goats in the northern sections and can encounter lingering snow through the San Juans of Colorado.

The hikers on the Continental Divide Trail

The thru-hikers and backpackers that attempt the Continental Divide Trail make up a much smaller community than the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. The Continental Divide Trail is the least thru-hiked trail of the triple crown trails. The resupply locations are further apart, and the water is more scarce when following the spine of the divide. The CDT is less marked, less maintained, and the terrain is more challenging. Altitude is an issue throughout the trail, but it also leads to some of the most incredible views. This all means that the thru-hikers who take on the Continental Divide Trail are some of the most experienced. But first-time thru-hikers have been successful.

Pros and Cons of Hiking the Continental Divide Trail


  1. Ability to completely disconnect

  2. The most diverse wildlife

  3. It connects some of the most beautiful areas of the United States

  4. Strong and growing governing organization: Continental Divide Trail Coalition

  5. Fewer crowds than on the other long trails


  1. Remote in sections

  2. Tougher to resupply than the AT and the PCT

  3. Smaller weather window

  4. Variable weather, including lingering snow, thunderstorms, and cold.

  5. Very little cell service

Continental Divide Trail in Colorado

Continental Divide Trail in Colorado

When should you start the CDT?

Most hikers start the Continental Divide Trail Northbound in April or southbound in June or July, dependent on the snow year. Compared to the PCT and the AT, more thru-hikers opt to hike the CDT southbound because it offers a little better window between the lingering snow in the spring and the potential early storms of winter.

Do you need permits to hike the CDT?

Permits are only needed to hike the portions of the Continental Divide Trail that pass through national parks. These are often competitive and difficult to secure from backcountry ranger offices in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

Tips for hiking the Continental Divide Trail

Planning is the key for a trail as remote as the Continental Divide Trail. The access points are hard to reach and sporadic. The distance between water sources and resupply points can often stretch an uncomfortable number of miles. Simply showing up at the trail ready to hike, like the PCT or AT, is not advised since the trail travels through some of the most remote, elevated, and rugged terrain. Many hikers start and quit their CDT attempts simply because of a lack of experience. While the landscape is remote, much of the water sources are shared with cows. Sweeping grasslands connect many different mountain ranges down the spine of North America. Camping is far from easy when accounting for water access, acceptable location while also putting in enough miles per day to have a chance of making it from border to border in one year. There are no shelters like the Appalachian trail, and the number of towns is drastically diminished from the Pacific Crest Trail. 

There are some excellent section hiking opportunities along the Continental Divide Trail. With a multitude of bucket list hikes along its length, many people opt to explore on and around the CDT instead of directly hiking its entire length. A few of the most notable and explored sections (from north to south) are Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yellowstone National Park, Teton National Park, Wind River Wilderness, Collegiate Wilderness Area, San Juan Wilderness, and the Gila River Wilderness. Separating many sections along the CDT is often monotonous and desolate cow pastures and high-altitude plains with salinated water.

Continental Divide Trail Camping

Camping on the Continental Divide Trail is dispersed camping outside of the National Parks. This means, within Leave No Trace Principles, that the requirements for camping are strictly dependent on the location. Within the majority of the public land that makes up the CDT, the conditions are to be off the official trail and within the public lands corridor. In the national parks, an official backcountry camping permit must be issued from a rangers office or visitor’s center. Depending on the national park, these can be hard to obtain or simply a walk-up permit. Glacier National Park is well known as a difficult location to get backcountry camping permits issued for the desired camp spots. 

The Continental Divide Trail is separated into five different segments by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. In a north-to-south direction, the segments are Northern Montana, Idaho-Southern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. The CDT is full of alternates, continual reroutes, and added pieces along the way, but the general segmentation of the current route includes the 575 miles in northern Montana, down to the border of Idaho and Montana. From there, 504 miles straddling the Idaho and Montana Border lead straight into Yellowstone National Park and the 508-mile Wyoming section. Then the high point and one of the most difficult sections of Colorado is entered for 722 miles before the trail concludes with a 773-mile segment through New Mexico. 

Continental Divide Trail Segments


The northern section of the CDT provides the most remoteness, challenge, and diverse wildlife. Snow sticks around late into June and begins to fall again in September. For this reason, this section is often the most difficult for hikers to plan for and to navigate on a traditional thru-hike. Northbound hikers hit it in September and often find themselves in the midst of the first snowfall of the year, and southbound hikers often have to wait until the snow finally melts enough to hike through. But despite the challenges, weather, remoteness, and likelihood of seeing mountain goats, moose, and grizzly, this is also arguably the most striking section of the entire trail. Massive high mountain passes, raging rivers, remote wilderness, granite peaks, and pristine wilderness describe the entirety of the section through Montana. It is quite a distance between resupply opportunities, but that aids in the escape and immersion into some of the most remote areas of continental America. With Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, this section offers some of the best section hikes on the entire trail. 

Continental Divide Trail in Montana

Continental Divide Trail in Montana

Idaho/Montana Border

For 504 miles, the CDT follows the spine that forms the border of Idaho and Montana. The section is full of remote lakes, constant passes, and difficulty in resupplying. The previous statement, “hiking the CDT takes planning and preparation,” proves especially important throughout this section. The views are pristine, and the woods are primarily untouched, but it takes lots of work and climbing to experience one of the hidden gems of the trail. Many trailheads are only accessed through a 4wd car or a long hike in, but once on the trail, one of the last authentic wilderness experiences is finally achieved. 


The CDT enters Wyoming at Yellowstone National Park and travels directly past Old Faithful Village and through the southwestern portion of the park. Despite the status of the most well-known geyser in the country, many other private geysers dot the route through the oldest national park in America. The CDT only gets better as it heads south through the Tetons and then the Wind River Range. These two locations are spectacular for hiking, backpacking, and fishing and are some of the world’s most sought-after bucket list hikes. Granite spires surround thru-hikers if they choose to take the Cirque the Towers alternate or climb over Knapsack Col. These northern two sections are not to be missed if picking sections of the CDT to hike. Many notable hikers describe the wind river range as the highlight of their entire Continental Divide Trail hike. 


Colorado is the most populous state, explored, expensive, and accessible of the CDT. Its’ Rocky Mountain National Park lies directly next to the trail and offers hikers the opportunity to travel through it or avoid the crowds by staying just east. The high point of the Continental Divide Trail is Grays Peak at 14,278’. But, many hikers also complete the quick 3-mile side trip to the tallest peak in Colorado, Mt. Elbert. The rocky mountain state concludes with a difficult section through the San Juan Mountains. This sub-range of the Rockies is one of the most beautiful in America, but also presents backpackers with late spring and early fall snow. But the views are worth it with sweeping meadows, alpine lakes, and rugged passes. 

New Mexico

New Mexico is the driest, often the hottest, and a true high-altitude desert. The CDTC puts out water caches along the most southern portion of the trail to aid in the ability for hikers to cover an arid landscape. The highlights of the region include the Gila River and the massive herds of elk that occupy so much of northern New Mexico. Hikers often complain of the sticker and thorns that are seemingly attached to every bush throughout the southernmost section of the CDT. Border Patrol can be seen on many of the roads intersecting the last 150 miles of the trail, and an anticlimactic barbed wire fence greets hikers as they either begin or finish their long hike. 

Day and Section Hikes on the Continental Divide Trail

The CDT is composed of epic sections and also those that pale in comparison. If you cannot get five months off, section hiking some of the best spots along the 3,100 miles trail can prove to be the most rewarding way to maximize your time and miles.

Glacier National Park

The national park touching the border of Canada is one of the most striking. Massive peaks, high ridgelines, a grizzly population, moose, and deep glacially dug valleys provide breathtaking views and routes. Since it is a national park, Glacier has an extensive trail system on and off the Continental Divide Trail. Many Glacier is one of the best places to start with its quick immersion into the backcountry and the proximity to some of the last remaining actual glaciers in the national park. To camp in Glacier National Park, a backcountry camping permit must be obtained from a ranger station. 

Bob Marshall Wilderness

The “Bob” is one of the most regarded wilderness areas along the entire trail. Featuring spectacular natural phenomena like the Chinese Wall, sweeping views, and excellent fishing, many visitors opt to use pack animals to bring in provisions to stay for extended periods. Its remoteness rewards those willing to travel into its depths with a pristine alpine environment full of bustling wildlife and raging streams and rivers.  

Wind River Range

The Wind River Range is widely regarded as many hikers’ favorite section of the trail. A number of alternates allow backpackers to explore a staggering number of lakes, granite peaks, and rugged passes. This is a fly fishing mecca, and spending weeks exploring the area only scratches the surface. The Winds are extremely removed and remote demanding access through only a couple of different trailheads, but once back in the heart of the jewel of Wyoming, most visitors are in awe. 

Snow on the Continental Divide Trail

Snow on the Continental Divide Trail

San Juan Mountains

The San Juans are located in the Southwest corner of Colorado on the edge of Durango. The variable weather, short season, and difficulty of the terrain often scare people away. But those brave enough to venture into the sprawling green and alpine lakes are rewarded with the experience of a lifetime. 

How long does it take to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail?

The Continental Divide Trail takes anywhere from four to six months to hike. Taking six months to hike likely means that hikers will encounter inclement weather on one end or another.

How dangerous is the Continental Divide Trail?

The CDT is not a dangerous trail. It is more remote, requires more planning preparation, and has the possibility of encountering more diverse wildlife than the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. But, if thru-hikers go into the trail with the correct knowledge, skills, gear, and mindset, the trail is statistically no more dangerous than thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

How well-marked is the Continental Divide Trail?

The CDT is the least well-marked of the triple crown trails. Although with the rise in GPS phone apps, it is reasonably easy to find your way along its 3,100-mile length. Most hikers will download the FarOut App and use it to navigate, plan and complete their hike. 

How do you resupply on CDT?

Most resupplies on the CDT require a hitch into town from a road intersection. Many hikers resupply on the Continental Divide Trail with a combination of resupply boxes and purchasing groceries along the way.

Is the CDT harder than the PCT?

The CDT is considered the most difficult and rugged and is statistically the longest of the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. The shorter weather window to complete the longer route makes the CDT the most difficult as opposed to the terrain and logistics. 

How much does it cost to hike the Continental Divide Trail?

Even though it is more complicated and longer than the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the cost to hike the trail is about the same. For $4,000-8,000, most hikers can complete a thru-hike. Although, with lodging primarily in destination and resort towns, this number can fluctuate largely depending on each hiker’s style and decision along the way. 

Continental Divide Trail Hiking Resources:

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