Whether you’re in it for a day to hike a segment of the Continental Divide Trail or are taking on the immense challenge of thru-hiking the entire 3,028-mile, five-state border-to-border trail, you’re in for an experience that you’ll never forget. The CDT goes through 25 national forests, 21 wilderness areas, and three national parks. It is the most challenging, highest, and most remote of the United State’s 11 National Scenic Trails.
What is the Continental Divide?
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) runs from New Mexico’s border with Mexico to Montana’s border with Canada along the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide follows the Rocky Mountains in the United States and continues into South America. Basically, it divides the continent into two watersheds. Rain that falls on the western slope of the Rockies will flow toward the Pacific Ocean while rain that falls on the eastern slope runs toward the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
We’ll focus this story on the CDT in general and locations you can hike in New Mexico and Colorado.
The Triple Crown of Hiking
Serious hikers know that the triple crown for thru-hiking (hiking the entire route in one go or over a series of years) includes the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the longest of the three, the Continental Divide Trail. There’s even an award you can earn for completing all three from the American Long Distance Hiking Association – West. As of the end of 2022, the organization has recognized 575 hikers who have completed the triple crown.
Each trail has its own challenges and rewards. One hiker noted that the CDT doesn’t have shelters like the Appalachian Trail nor as many towns along the way where hikers can restock as the Pacific Crest Trail.
Water is essential, of course, so thru-hikers will need to make sure they know where to access water and be prepared to filter water from a variety of sources. At the southern terminus, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition notes that thru-hikers usually stash water on their way to the border to access as they begin hiking north.
Another hiker pointed out that the CDT doesn’t have one set route, but offers alternate routes and side trails that can help you go around a problem area (perhaps one experiencing a forest forest) or add more challenging sections featuring tall mountains the main route skirts. These options can change your route by as much as 1,000 miles! If you’re looking for that Triple Crown award, you should stick to the entire 3,028-mile route.
Another recognition you can earn is for hiking the complete CDT, either thru-hiking or section hiking — or even doing the entire trail by horseback. Join the list of hundreds who have completed the CDT here.
Leave No Trace
It’s essential for anyone hiking or enjoying the outdoors to follow the Leave No Trace principles. Nobody wants to hike along a trail scattered with trash left by previous hikers! Leave cultural artifacts where you find them. Travel and camp on durable surfaces and minimize campfire impacts. Respect wildlife and other visitors and be prepared for your adventure.
As they say, “Leave only footprints. Take only memories.” Make it your goal to leave any place you visit better than you found it.
Dealing with Altitude
We did warn you that the CDT is the highest of the country’s National Scenic Trails. In fact, according to the National Forest Service, the lowest point along the trail is 4,200 feet above sea level at the northern endpoint of the trail at Waterton Lake on the Canadian border. The highest point is Gray’s Peak in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado at 14,270 feet above sea level.
High altitude hiking requires that you pay attention to things like staying hydrated, and protecting yourself from the sun with sunscreen, sun protective clothing, hats, and lip balm. Give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude before pushing yourself.
You’ll need more water at high altitude to avoid altitude sickness, which shows itself with nausea, headache, lack of hunger or thirst, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing, confusion, and vomiting. If someone in your group displays these symptoms, it’s time to rest, drink more water, and eat some high-calorie food. The best treatment is to get to a lower altitude.
When to Hike the Continental Divide Trail
Timing is everything when it comes to thru-hiking the CDT. You’re looking for the sweet spot between snow seasons in the northern, high-elevation portions of the route. Generally, the CDT season is considered to be between April and October.
You can start from the south in April since there’s less chance of snow and to avoid the blistering Southern New Mexico heat or head out from the north in June or July depending on snow. If you’re thru-hiking the CDT, plan for five or six months to complete the entire trail hiking 20 or more miles per day.
Only about 30 to 50 percent of the people who attempt to thru-hike the CDT complete it, but the list is still in the hundreds of those who have succeeded.
Of course, many more people will hike segments of the trail rather than attempt the entire route. You can make a pleasant day outing by finding a segment of the trail to tackle when the weather is just perfect where you are.
The CDT in New Mexico and Colorado
The CDT’s southern terminus is in the bootheel of New Mexico at the border with Mexico where the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts meet at the Big Hatchet Mountains.
Hikers will go through a long stretch of desert as they work their way to Lordsburg, then follow routes that take them through a series of national forests, wilderness areas, and national monuments, serpentining their way through New Mexico and Colorado. In fact, 95 percent of the CDT is on public lands and the U.S. Forest Service serves as the primary managing agency of the trail.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition highlights areas of the CDT that are great for day and overnight hikes in each state. If you want to enjoy just a portion of the trail, find the route that’s right for you. The trail is marked with distinctive medallions that help you find the way.
Popular sections in New Mexico include routes near Silver City, El Malpais National Monument (the trail there shares a path with the ancient Zuni-Acoma trail), Mount Taylor, and the Cumbres Pass. There are many day-trip routes in Colorado to explore, including sections in the Gunnison National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Some of these suggested routes are out-and-back hikes, others are point-to-point, and some are loops. You can find family-friendly hikes as well as challenging routes, some that require overnight camping.
There’s a lot to learn if you plan to thru-hike the CDT and there are numerous resources available, including the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. You can also learn more about the CDT on the U.S. Forest Service website, where there is information about each state’s section of the trail and much more.
For a day excursion, you can pick a section, grab your gear, lace up your boots, and go exploring!