Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Continental Divide Trail

Spanning from the Canadian border down to Mexico, the Continental Divide Trail is one of the most incredible hikes in America. And you don't need to be superhuman to do it.

By James Ross Gardner

You're never climbing Everest. There's no Arctic expedition in the cards. But the almost finished Continental Divide Trail you can do. No extensive training. No specialized gear. Just six months of doing what even the most accomplished long-distance hikers refer to as walking. Walking. Thirty-one hundred miles of walking, through some of the most rugged terrain in the country, from the Canadian border to Mexico.

Compared with the nation's other two big scenic hikes, the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, which see hundreds of annual through-hikers, the CDT sees about thirty people complete it each year. That will change as the trail improves. And this past spring, a new forty-mile section of trail in Wyoming opened, and another sixty miles are being blazed through the Colorado Rockies in time for the 2009 season. For now, hikers navigate "unfinished" sections with topo maps from the Continental Divide Trail Alliance (cdtrail.org) -- and in some cases circumambulate via dirt roads. Despite the improvements, the CDT will still be tough enough for lifetime bragging rights. Montana is especially grueling: In Glacier National Park, you cross snow bridges in mid-June -- only to endure 90 degree heat in thistle-choked cow pastures a week later.

Your concerns are mostly about survival. Will I make the next ridge by nightfall? Where will I find water? But you're asking those questions amid what is arguably the most spectacular and variegated stretch of land in North America: from the red-rock skyscrapers of New Mexico's El Malpais National Monument to Montana's Chinese Wall (twelve miles of thousand-foot limestone cliffs).

Expert hikers do it in 145 days. Expect to take 180. And to have a story no one can top.

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