Hiking the Continental Divide – Finding a Route

Hiking the Continental Divide – An epic 3000 miles along the Continental Divide Trail: the history, the politics, the reality.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail may one day exist to the same standard as its more famous cousins, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. But at this point, much of it exists only on paper or in the most preliminary stages of planning and construction.

Appalachian Trail

On the Appalachian Trail white blazes lead you from Georgia to Maine. You’re hardly ever out of sight of a marker, and you don’t even have to know how to read a topographic map. The Pacific Crest Trail isn’t marked as frequently, but it is sufficiently well blazed to allow even a novice hiker to manage with the aid of a guidebook and not much else. If you get lost on the Appalachian Trail or on the Pacific Crest Trail, and if you are lucky enough to run into a ranger, you can ask”Where is the trail?” and the ranger will know what you are talking about.

In contrast, on the Continental Divide Trail, the hiker has one small problem: Most of the trail’s route has yet to be determined. There are a few published guidebooks that describe recommended routes, and sometimes government agencies, particularly in Montana, provide information about sections of trail that have been designated or completed. But in its entirety, the Continental Divide Trail exists only as a hodgepodge of plans, alternate routes, jeep tracks, cross-country bushwhacks  and yes, sometimes, cut footway. Through most of its length, if you were to get lost and ask a ranger “Where is the Continental Divide Trail?” the response would most likely be a blank stare.

For us, the fact that the trail is not yet a hiking highway was one of its attractions. An unfinished trail promised adventure and discovery; it promised that our journey would be unique. But it also added an unbelievable amount of frustration and confusion to the planning process. We decided to enlist the help of Jim Wolf, director of the Continental Divide Trail Society (CDTS) and author of the society’s series of guidebooks to the trail. A lawyer based in the Washington, D.C., area, Jim is, more than any other individual, responsible for the inclusion of the CDT in the National Trails System Act. His work on behalf of the trail can only be called a labor of love, and he is knowledgeable not only about hiking concerns, such as trail conditions, but also about the Continental Divide’s environment, botany, zoology, and history.

Jim agreed to help us identify a route. In some regions, like parts of Colorado, several viable alternatives exist. In Montana, the Forest Service has officially designated a preferred route but has not finished construction. In New Mexico and Wyoming, very little work has been done beyond the preliminary planning stages.

On most established hiking trails, route selection is a matter of buying the guidebooks: long-distance hikers on something as well traveled as the Appalachian Trail need only concern themselves with whether to hike solely on the official, white-blazed trail, or whether to sometimes take one of many alternate, blue-blazed trails. Debate over the status of a hiker who has taken blue-blazed detours for part of his hike  is he, or is he not, a true thru-hiker?  can fill many hours of discussion on a rainy night in an AT shelter.

On the Continental Divide, such issues are moot. Since there is no official trail to follow, there is no trail to deviate from. Perhaps a half dozen or so hikers attempt the entire trek each year, and each group must decide its own route, based on the interests and goals and abilities of its members.

Selecting a route thus becomes a process of balancing issues of practicality  is there a trail or a jeep road or a cross-country stretch that is navigable ?  with the goals of a trek. It was a process intrinsically connected with the question of why we were doing this in the first place. We wanted our route to take us through the spectacular scenery of high mountain passes, and through the places that were most representative of the Divide’s environment, culture, and history. And although we wanted to stay as close to the Divide as possible, we decided that we would be willing to stray somewhat away from the Divide if another route promised to be more interesting or more scenic.

There was also the issue of shortcuts. As the crow flies, the distance from Mexico to Canada is 1,200 miles; as the Divide meanders, it is 3,100. We intended to follow the Divide’s serpentine wanderings, although we knew that meant more miles of walking and a greater chance of snow up north. Later, we would learn that other factors would also enter into the equation, chief among them the availability of water and the fact that many trails that are marked on Forest Service and BLM maps are so badly maintained that they have, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. Trails deteriorate with neglect and time, as well as with more dramatic events like forest fires, timber clear cuts, new reservoirs, rock slides, and sand dunes. We were to learn that the route we intended to follow was not always possible  or even identifiable.

But that was still far in the future. For the present, we had Jim’s description of his proposed route through New Mexico, guidebooks for the other states, and a list of maps. We turned our attention to the next task: corresponding with the Geologic Survey (USGS), the Forest Service, BLM, the Park Service, state highway departments, and various county offices. Our 3,000-mile trek was going to take us beyond telephones, bureaucracies, fax machines, order forms in triplicate, and all the other annoyances of everyday life, but first we were going to have one last waltz with”the system.” We were going to have to collect maps and information from the government.

The correspondence for our journey fills an entire file drawer. Dan wrote literally hundreds of letters to Forest Service ranger stations, supervisors’ offices, and regional headquarters, receiving in return reams of information  a good deal of which was useless. While many individuals in the Forest Service have worked unceasingly on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail  particularly in Montana  the system has not yet figured out a way to make the necessary information available to hikers. Especially needed is some way of communicating the current condition of the trail. Where is the trail marked well enough that the hiker can follow it without constant reference to maps and compasses? When a section is referred to as cross-country, does that mean that it goes through pleasant open uplands and requires a basic map and compass skills, or does it mean bushwhacking through thick forests for three hours to cover a distance of 2 miles? When the Forest Service writes that a section of trail is marked from Muddy Spring to Swampy Gap, what happens at Swampy Gap? Does the trail continue unmarked? Must the hiker refer to maps to figure out which way to turn on a Forest Service road? Or does the trail lure the hiker to the edge of the swamp and leave him there?

Obtaining the necessary maps was no easier. Dan had begun ordering the maps in October. In March, we were still receiving maps, and Dan was still writing letters.

Some of the maps were out of print, out of stock, or otherwise not available. We called the Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., and learned that no, we could not order copies of maps for national forests from the Forest Service headquarters, we would have to write twenty-four letters and send twenty-four checks (usually for three dollars) to each of twenty-four national forests. Tubes of maps began arriving with dizzying frequency. Maps of Colorado, of New Mexico  of Kansas? Someone had mixed up our order.


You may not know what an orthophotoquad is. We didn’t either, when we received an order form from the USGS telling us that orthophotoquads were the only maps available for some of the remote areas we planned to visit. The clerk at the USGS explained to Dan that the orthophotoquads were”just like topographical maps, except we have to copy them one by one each time they are ordered.”

The maps arrived, and when Dan opened the cardboard tube he unrolled something that looked like a science-fiction alien’s vision of Earth. That was how he described it to me, and he wasn’t far wrong: Orthophotoquads are aerial images.

They could  I’m guessing about this-be used by an archaeologist, a geologist, or a pilot. Or you could throw some paint on them and sell them as art in a New York City gallery. What you cannot do is use them to plan a hike. It would be like asking an architect to work off an impressionist painting instead of a blueprint.

The USGS had sent us seven hundred dollars’ worth of orthophotoquads.

There were more letters and more phone calls. Replacement maps dribbled in. Finally, we had the information we needed to put together a route: the guidebooks, the maps, information from the Forest Service, and information from other hikers who had done parts of the trail. Dan did the initial route planning, thanks to a friend who had hiked the northern 280 miles of Montana with Dan back in 1987. John’s job for the U.S. Army used to be figuring out how to move NATO tanks around Germany; now he applied his cartographic skills to figuring out how to move a group of hikers up the Continental Divide. About three nights a week after work, Dan would drive 30-some miles to John’s house, and the two of them would try to transfer directions from the guidebooks and information from the Forest Service to the maps.

North to Canada

Once we had a route, we could begin to figure out how and where to resupply. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers don’t generally carry more than five days’ worth of food at a time, and often they carry far less. On the Continental Divide, towns are much farther apart, and getting to them is more difficult. Distances are bigger in the West, and the nearest town to the trail might be 30 miles away  or more. Our resupplies would have to last anywhere from five to thirteen days.

Fortunately for us, no one has yet managed to convince the postmasters in small western towns that they are government bureaucrats. We wrote to every post office within hitchhiking distance of our route, and all agreed to our request that they hold packages for longer than the ten-day period required by the U.S. Post Office’s general delivery system. A few sent back notes wishing us luck, or, with what we would learn was typical western hospitality, offering help. “if we’re closed when you arrive,” one wrote, “just come up the road to the white house, knock on the door, and we’ll get your package out for you.”

When there were no post offices near our route (which was the case in almost the entire state of Wyoming), we wrote to businesses near our route, places with names like Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, Sweetwater General Store, and Big Sandy Lodge, to ask if they would hold our supplies for us. We were complete strangers but even so, the West proved its legendary hospitality. Near the tiny hamlet of Muddy Gap, Wyoming, the owner of a gas station wrote back to us: He was going out of business, he said, so he wouldn’t be able to help us. But he gave us the address of another store 3 miles down the road that might hold our boxes. We wrote to them, and sure enough, they agreed to act as Food Drop Number 19.

Finally, we were ready. We had identified thirty resupply points: To each one, we would send between one and three boxes, depending on how many days’ worth of supplies we needed. The boxes  there were about eighty of them in all – needed to be packed with the appropriate maps, food, and anything else we thought we might need. Our living room looked like the warehouse of an outdoor gear store. Boxes were lined against the walls and the floor was covered with marginally identifiable piles of food: 400 freeze-dried dinners, 400 coffee bags, 70 boxes of crackers, 400 packages of instant soups, and thousands of snacks: candy bars, granola, packages of dried fruit, and cans of nuts. Also: dozens of jars of sun cream and bug repellent, extra socks, winter gear for the northern part of the hike, and an assortment of other necessities, real or imagined.

Slowly, the packages came together. One at a time, we tied up the remaining loose ends. We rented our houses. Our books and clothes went into boxes, our furniture into storage. Dan gave his last exam; I left my job. The first boxes were sent on their way.

Move on to >> Entering Colorado