Reflections On Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

The CDT runs 3,100mi along the spine of N America from Mexico to Canada.

The CDT runs 3,100mi along the spine of N America from Mexico to Canada.

The Continental Divide trail is an intimidating trail. Still shrouded in a veil of mystery, relatively few have completed the 3,100 mile, high elevation trek that runs the spine of North America. Said to be 70% completed, it is touted as one of the most rugged and remote trails out there. Stories of extreme remote deserts, thunderous snow-capped mountains, and cross country hiking with no trail is what filled my head whenever I thought of the CDT. Even though I had one long distance trail under my belt, having done the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 (a record high snow year), I assumed the CDT was out of my league and never considered it as an option. Then things began to change.

 It took Wired 134 days to hike from Mexico to Canada.

It took Wired 134 days to hike from Mexico to Canada.

After completing the PCT, I had more confidence in my abilities and comfort with the wide range of elements to be faced outdoors. I met fellow hikers who had hiked the CDT and heard their firsthand accounts. I read online trail journals and corresponded with those who have been on the trail recently. The veil of mystery slowly lifted and the trail was no longer the scary monster I was expecting. A lesson I learned on the high snow season of the PCT is that there is a lot of fear mongering for things that are unknown. I realized that if I just tried something and hiked up to it myself, it usually wasn’t all that bad. It was with those thoughts in mind that I headed toward the CDT, GPS in hand, new light gear on my back, and a few fellow apprehensive, yet prepared and capable thru hiker friends.

Having friends to start the trail with was great.

Having friends to start the trail with was great.

Starting with friends definitely helped. The CDT has a learning curve and it took a week or two to adjust. It was nice to have others to hike with and I gradually gained more confidence in navigating on my own. For the most part, I think we all enjoyed the cross country hiking. I didn’t feel as lost or deserted as I thought I would. There are actually cairns out there and even oversized CDT blazes to help guide the way. There may not be a physical trail to walk on at times, but you definitely knew you were on the right track. It was like a fun scavenger hunt that kept our minds occupied with the “eye spy” of a distant cairn, in what could have otherwise been long and boring days. It wasn’t long before I started venturing out on my own at the end of legs where I knew I’d see my fellow hikers in town. In my gut, I wanted to see if I could do it on my own and I found out that I could!

 Finding reliable water sources was one of the biggest challenges in New Mexico.

Finding reliable water sources was one of the biggest challenges in New Mexico.

The rest of New Mexico varied with a lot of road walking (both dirt and paved), some trail, and some cross country with cairns. The heat was not too strong, but there was no lack of dust in the air. Probably my biggest challenge in New Mexico was the mental one that came along with a low water year. My strategy was to carry as much water as I could as a precaution, since many sources were either dry or disgustingly contaminated by cows. In addition to the weight, the constant unquenched thirst of drinking warm water was a mental toll. I stayed motivated knowing that it was temporary and that each step north was bringing me closer to the cold mountain springs that I thirsted for. Just as I was gaining confidence, a new fear set in…the Colorado San Juan Mountains!

Hikers along a snowy traverse in Colorado.

Hikers along a snowy traverse in Colorado.

I had never experienced the Colorado Rockies. Images filled my head of dangerous peaks, deep snow, steep traverses, and looming clouds that could erupt in a storm of lightning, rain, snow, and hail at any moment. Again, it was reassuring to have my friends around me and to know that most of us were experiencing this for the first time together. Fortunately, it was a low snow year with just one late snowstorm that blanketed the mountains about a week before I entered them. The few days I spent in the “mashed potato” consistency of the San Juan snow were tiring with a lot of deep postholing. There were only eight days of significant hiking through snow (compared to the thirty days I experienced on the PCT), but it felt like a lot more with how tiring it was and how slowly we moved. What I wasn’t prepared for was how cold I would be. The month I spent in snow along the PCT was in compact snow with eighty degree temps when the cool feet were a welcomed respite. In the San Juans, there were days that I wore every piece of clothing I had. There was little to be done for my cold numbed feet that only had mesh trail runners and thin running socks to keep them warm. Grocery bags made for a good band aid on the temporary problem, but if I had it to do over, I’d be more prepared to keep my feet warm. The consistently high elevation also had an effect on me. When I was over 10,000ft, which happened often in Colorado, I experienced a hacking cough and eventually had to get an inhaler to help my respiratory system cope with the dry air and consistent winds. The weather was not as challenging as I had expected. Someone told me that if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, just wait ten minutes because it changes so often. They were right! We called it bipolar weather because you’d be getting snowed on one minute and then have clear skies and hot sun beating down on you the next. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself. Overall, Colorado was a great challenge with even greater rewards. When I look back on it, and see some of the photos, I still can’t believe I was there and actually hiked through the San Juans.

 Staying wired in high San Juan Mountains. Photo credit to Rockin'.

Staying wired in high San Juan Mountains. Photo credit to Rockin’.

By northern Colorado, I was ready to break off from the larger group and set out on my own again to see what I could do in Wyoming. My body and mind felt surprisingly strong. I wanted to capitalize on that and keep the momentum going. Wyoming went by fast because much of it was road walking in the Great Divide Basin. I ended up overlapping with other hikers who also wanted to keep a higher pace in Wyoming and that was motivating. The highlight of Wyoming is the Wind River Range. A “mini Sierra” I’ll definitely be returning to, since we only scratched the surface of as we passed through. Before we knew it, we had hiked passed geysers in Yellowstone and made it to Montana and Idaho.

Mtn Rat on the knife's edge or back of the dragon as he calls it.

Mtn Rat on the knife’s edge or back of the dragon as he calls it.

By the time I hit Montana/Idaho, I felt like I was in the homestretch. That was both a good and bad thing. It was the final state, but there was still over 900 miles left. I was motivated and felt like I was within reach of the finish line, but then I felt like it was taking forever to get there! I still wanted to hike independently, but wanted to be safe in areas that were said to have a presence of bears. I found a good balance in hiking on my own for half or most of the day and then usually camping with others at night. I really enjoyed the time alone and the freedom of doing things at my own pace. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of trail in Montana. There was still some dirt road walking and cross country, but at times, it had some of the most maintained and well signed trail along the whole trail. Montana also held some of my most tiring days with plenty of steep ups and downs along the Divide. Ending in Glacier was perfect. The epic mountains and beautiful landscape were like a finishing reward for all our efforts. In the end, I had completed a trail that I once thought was out of my range to even attempt. Maybe I’m in shock, but still a month later, I feel little emotion from this. The more I reflect on the journey and look back on my photos and journal, the more it’s hitting me.

Ending in Glacier National Park was the perfect EPIC ending!

Ending in Glacier National Park was the perfect EPIC ending!

Why did this trail feel so different and unattached for me? Why did I feel little emotion after living on the CDT for over four months? It’s been a month and I’ve had time to reflect on why this may have happened. I hadn’t connected with the CDT the way I did the PCT, so when I finished, I think I had just disconnected emotionally from the trail. I think the source of my disconnect was that I was more accustomed to feeling at home on the trail, but on the CDT, I always felt like an unwelcomed visitor. This was due to the fact that my guard was constantly up on the CDT. I like consistency and reliability in my daily life and the CDT has many unknown variables. Some find this very appealing about the CDT, but it hit a sensitive nerve in me. In addition, a big part of what I enjoy about the trail is living in the moment and being present. On the CDT, if I relaxed or lost my focus on what was coming up next, I’d end up missing a turn or water source. I couldn’t live in the moment. In daily life, if I find myself in situations where it hits my nerve of consistency and reliability, I’m able to walk away. On the CDT, I couldn’t walk away. I just had to live in it for 24 hrs, day after day. That was the challenge that I was sensing, but couldn’t fully realize until I got off the trail. Not being able to fully identify the source of my discomfort, it took its toll and I just stopped putting trust in the trail. I removed myself from it emotionally and just wanted to finish. I don’t know if this all makes sense, but it’s the best way that I can think to explain of how it has felt for me to hike the CDT. It was an amazing experience and one that has given me more confidence in hiking challenging trails independently. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can do as a hiker and I look forward to finding more challenging adventures to share with the world.

This post was written by Trail Ambassador Erin “Wired” Saver. You can follow all of her adventures on her blog, Walking With Wired.

13 Responses to Reflections On Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

  1. Dana November 6, 2013 at 2:34 am #

    Thanks for sharing the trip, particularly the emotional aspect of it.

  2. letshike2 November 6, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    Wired, it was a wonderful article. The Mariposa is on sell too, so a great time for Gossamer to feature you. And this is just my opinion from your written feelings of the trail but…
    The one major thought that comes to my mind is simply that you just did not “fall in love” with the CDT. You were unable to form trust with it, so never grew to love it. But really out of all the hikers out there I think the CDT “bent you over” the least. Except maybe Mntn Rat! And you kept a great attitude and enjoyed it anyways.
    And I used to get goosebumps when I thought of hiking the CDT it scared me so bad knowing someday I will try it. Since this CDT class of 2013 hikers went through so has my fear. So Thanks.

  3. Christopher "iPod" Condap November 6, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    Yay, Wired! It’s lovely to hear your views on each section of the CDT, especially since I’m not in the Portland area. Since this was posted on Gossamer Gear, I figured it’d be more about equipment but it was surprisingly personal.

    I’m very much looking forward to hearing about your upcoming AT hike (I’m assuming that’s next) and your views having hiked the PCT and CDT first, which is my plan too. It’s been very convenient for me to read about your PCT experience as a newcomer to through-hiking, and now hear about the CDT being your second hike.

    Okay, so I’m actually just doing the same hikes you do but a year afterwards so I can read your blogs first. I’m not ashamed of this. :-)

  4. Caroline / Puppy November 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Wired! You are so talented at reducing things to their elements, and such an inspiration to me and so many others. When I called you from Wasington last month to (mostly) vent about fear-mongering, your advice was to “just do it” (hike the PCT). I thought it was hilarious that someone in the room with me was a Huge fanboy of yours, having skipped studying for an economics exam once to instead read your entire blog. Those words are so valuable to people in doubt. It really is just one foot in feont of the other.

    Your writing is still one of the only online sources of info for people curious about US thru-hiking, and it’s so good and thorough. I appreciate how realistically you present the trails: no, they aren’t easy. But you do fall in love with them. And sometimes you don’t. You don’t need to miss the CDT, you just need to enjoy the moment. And though you probably didn’t enjoy all the moments on the CDT, I’m sure you would never look back and regret your hike.

    You’re amazing! You hiked the CDT! All downhill from there…

  5. Wired November 6, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    All your comments are so wonderful! Sorry I am unable to respond to them individually here. So happy I can honestly share the trail with so many future hikers and have such amazing support:) Lifting that veil on the big scary monster:)

  6. Rodgwood November 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Wired, I really enjoyed your GG Trail Ambassador article. It must be tough to summarize 3000+ miles in a short narrative, but it was well done and very honest. I was wondering, who took the final photograph in your article? What an amazing shot — seems like that could be award winning! The mountains are so striking and intimidating, yet your pose says “Veni, vidi, vici” — you came, you saw, you conquered. Congratulations!

  7. Diane November 8, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Loved your candor and honesty. And I really love that picture of you on the peak in Glacier! Beautiful!. I have now hiked Glacier and the Winds and seem to have the bug growing in me to hike the rest of the CDT. Your story only adds fuel to the flames.

  8. David Spratt November 11, 2013 at 1:33 am #

    Last picture is great, great, great!!! Could be the cover photo for an outdoor magazine. I enjoy reading your trip reports. They give me inspiration to hike the AT next year during my seventh decade before I get too old. Thanks.

  9. Warren November 11, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Erin, as always, loved reading your article. And I can’t wait to read more of you on trail and off. Thanks for sharing about your own personal evolution on the trail. Not only did it inspire me, but I think it inspired those who have posted above. Go!Erin!Go!

  10. b.d.w.ren November 13, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

    Wired, Great hike and great synopsis. I think I have an inkling of your mood vis-a-vis the CDT when I did about 150 miles of the GET this September. Serious business it was; hard to let one’s guard down and just relax and enjoy. I found this last sentence of yours to indicate that, while you didn’t enjoy the route finding requirements of the CDT, you feel compelled to embrace similar trails. To wit:

    “It was an amazing experience and one that has given me more confidence in hiking challenging trails independently. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can do as a hiker and I look forward to finding more challenging adventures to share with the world.”

    So, which is it? Do you want that added burden of the challenge that comes with sketchy trail, or instead to hike well-signed tread that allows the worrying mind to relax?

  11. Peter November 16, 2013 at 2:04 am #

    I work at the library you stopped at in Grants, New Mexico. It was enjoyable meeting you and reading your updates. Congratulations on finishing the Continental Divide Trail!

  12. Wired November 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    Hi again everyone:) I just love all these comments. Thank you so much for letting me know you’re out there in the blogosphere. B.D.W.Ren, your question is a grand one I contemplate often. I absolutely love the trail on many levels for different reasons. On the PCT, I think I most needed that time to wander inward as long as outward. I was surprised by my reaction to the CDT. I knew it would require more attention, but I didn’t realize how it would hit my trigger/nerve of needing to trust and feel welcomed in my surroundings. I find myself wanting a balance of both as I enjoy both the challenges and the meditative aspect. I will feed my worried mind with the AT this summer where a map isn’t even needed and I will finish it by hopefully adding on the more remote Long Trail in Vermont…thinking in 2015 of doing the lesser traveled Pacific Northwest Trail and Great Divide Trail in Canada.

  13. Barefoot Bushcraft Radio November 23, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    We would love to have you as a guest on the Barefoot Bushcraft Radio show to talk about this adventure! Please email us and we can set up a time for you to be a call-in guest!

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