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What is the Continental Divide Trail?

Yellowstone National Park is a highlight of the Continental Divide Trail.
A trekking staff can help hikers navigate the rocky terrain found in the New Mexico portion of the Continental Divide Trail.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 August 2014
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The Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, when completed, will be the second largest contiguous hiking trail in the United States. Spanning the length of the country from the Mexican-New Mexico border to the Montana-Canadian border, the trail is just over 70% complete as of recent estimates. Along with the Appalachian Trail in the East and the Pacific Crest Trail in the West, the CDT forms what hikers refer to as the “triple crown” of American hiking.

Appalachian Trail visionary Benton MacKaye and members of the Rocky Mountain Trail Association began plans for the CDT in the late 1960s. The group hiked what would become part of the trail, marking it by nailing blue-painted cans to trees for later approval by the United States Forest Service as trailways. In 1966, lobbyists for the trail were successful in having the plans brought before the US Congress.

Plans for the Continental Divide Trail incorporated over 1,900 miles (3,057 km) of existing trails and rural roads in an effort to cut down costs. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, which is meant to provide a more comfortable hike when possible, the Continental Divide Trail is deliberately primitive. The total length of the trail is estimated to be 3,100 miles (4,988 km) across five US states. In 1978, Congress designated the Continental Divide Trail as one of the US National Scenic Trails, and created a protected, 50-mile (80 km) wide corridor on either side of the trail.

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In New Mexico, the trail covers 775 miles (1,247 km) and travels through mountains, canyons and desert. Highlights include the volcanic El Mapais National Monument, and the Big Hatchet Mountains Wilderness, believed to be the home of Native American Chief Geronimo. This part of the trail is notoriously dangerous because of high temperatures, and volunteers have established water reserves at frequent intervals. Common wildlife of the area includes roadrunners and pronghorn antelope.

The Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail meanders through the enormous Rocky Mountains and stretches 800 miles (1,287 km) across the state. The Colorado trail boasts the highest point on the CDT at the 14,270 ft (4.34 km) high Gray’s Peak. Other highlights include the gold-strike village of Beartown and the eight mountains of over 14,000 ft (4.26 km) in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.

The CDT crosses Wyoming in 550 miles (885 km,) crossing through the Routt National Forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest. One of the biggest highlights of the entire trail is Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is the oldest park in the United States and is filled with fantastic natural features, such as the Old Faithful Geyser and the stunning Mammoth Hot Springs.

After crossing Wyoming, the Continental Divide Trail follows the border of Idaho and Montana for a few hundred miles, before crossing into Montana for the final stretch of hiking. The 800 miles (1,287 km) of Montana hiking travel through forests, mountains and wide plains. Glacier National Park, the endpoint of the trail, is considered spectacular for its craggy, ice-carved peaks. Fishing throughout the park is believed to be magnificent, and the majestic vistas are a suitable grand finale for the CDT.

Unlike the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, which are completed fully by 200-300 hikers per year, only a few dozen attempt thru-hikes of the CDT. The trail remains somewhat incomplete, with each state containing a significant amount of unfinished trail areas. Still, an increasing amount of hardy hikers try the trail each year.

If you are interested in hiking the Continental Divide Trail or any other trail, be sure to consult a doctor for a certificate of good health. These trails, while relatively safe, are wild areas and can be dangerous. As the CDT remains fairly unused, you may see other hikers rarely. Consider bringing a hiking buddy, and be sure to plan your supply reserves carefully, to ensure you have an emergency store of food, water and necessities.

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