The Continental Divide Trail is frequently thought of as the most difficult of thru-hiking’s “Triple Crown“. As part of this year’s Continental Divide Trail Hiker Survey, I asked hikers about their lowest moments on the trail and the moments on the trail that made them legitimately fearful (whether this was for their life or for the sake of their making it to town before the pizza place closed).
If you’re wondering what the worst parts of thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail are, then you’ve come to the right place. If you’re considering hiking the CDT but don’t know if it’s a good fit for you, then you’ve come to the right place. If you’re a concerned parent wondering whether you should endorse your child’s decision to hike the CDT, then you definitely should (and also, stop reading now), and also, you’ve come to the right place.
So what is it? Is it the high-elevation trail? The lightning storms? grizzly bears? Sketchy trail communities? Yes, friend. It’s all that and more. Here is what CDT hikers had to say when asked, “Was there ever a time you felt unsafe on the trail?” and “What (if anything) was your lowest moment on the trail?”
- The sketchy trail coming into Wolf Creek Pass was super exposed, on a scree slope, and there were gale-force winds blowing through when we got there. It scared the shit out of me, it felt like I was going to be blown off the mountain and turned into a pine beetle tree kebab.
- Thunderstorm in the San Juans (Colorado) while far above treeline.
- Lightning storm on a high Ridge in Colorado. The ridge was completely socked in with clouds so I couldn’t really see the lightning just hear the thunder.
- One time lightning struck within 100 yards (~100 m) of me. I was in the Indian Peaks Wilderness right at treeline filling up water. I ran down further into the tree line and instantly felt safer. Also, the road walk north into Steamboat Springs had barely any shoulder.
- Oh god yes. We thought the thunderstorm was over so we went up to a high elevation in southern Colorado AND THE THUNDERSTORM WAS NOT OVER AND IT WAS NOT OK.
- Whiteout snow conditions high up in Glacier National Park.
- South San Juans (Colorado) we got in freezing rain/snow and I didn’t have the right gear and had to bail.
- I took an uncontrolled fall down a snowy traverse in the San Juans for about 15-20 ft / 5-6 m. I’ve only ever used my ice ax once, but it worked!
- I went off the trail to go around some snow and ended up climbing some very loose rock for about 100 feet with a big fall behind me. That was scary.
- When we realized that south of Pie Town the water sources ahead were all dry (we hadn’t checked the comments on Guthook) and we were headed for dehydration whether we went forward, back or off trail.
- Crossing the swollen south fork of the Buffalo River in Wyoming.
- Cross-country alternate on the Big Sky Cutoff was stupidly dangerous.
- The ridge from Mount Edwards to Grays Peak (Colorado) was very sketchy. I felt it was dangerous for the average hiker.
- Walking on steep icy sections in the South Juans (Colorado) required being crazy brave sometimes.
- I was really scared that I may die when I happened to be between two wildfires in Bob Marshall Wilderness and didn’t know which way to escape.
- Knapsack Col. Slipped and snapped a hiking pole. Should of had my ice ax.
- Rumors of a strange guy apparently going SOBO reached me right before I crossed paths with him. I was hiking with a group by then, so I knew I’d have someone near who knew where I should be. If I didn’t have anyone I knew on the trail, I would have been far more frightened.
- Getting a hitch with some dudes who were definitely a little drunk.
- A guy tried to steal my pack hitching into Butte.
- We got a hitch with a creepy older man out of Dubois.
- New Mexico meth heads shooting guns in the air at 1 AM.
- Walking into Grants (New Mexico) and a persistent driver wanting me to camp with him.
- On the Great American Divide near the Forest Service Campground in Alamos Canyon I decided to pitch my tent. The only other user was strange and mentally not all there. Was living in his car, had removed back seat for sleeping, and told me mice lived in his car. The person was not right and did not want to overnight near him. Hiked another three miles and pitched tent way off-road.
- Getting charged by a moose once.
- Charged by a bear, and another bear waking me up in the morning.
- I felt scared of grizzlies but I think that was mostly in my head.
- Yes. Sheepdogs chased after us, and the fucking cowboy (sheepboy?) just sat on his horse and laughed at us for a few minutes before calling them off. What a jerk.
- A little near an elk carcass with a broken neck. It looked like it weighed 300 lbs and had been dragged across the trail.
- In the Winds (Wyoming) after being in the immediate vicinity of a deadly grizzly attack. We were stopped by search & rescue looking for the victim.
- We got spooked by animals around our tent at night when we were in grizzly country, but never definitely saw one.
- That one time a grizzly was moaning outside my tent just after I finished my meal (which I was eating in the tent).
- Highway road walking.
- The entire city of Butte, Montana.
- Dogs on the outskirts of towns or near in the wilderness.
- Around Lordsburg I saw some shady people.
- Cuba is a straight up dangerous town. It would be wise to not talk to strangers there.
- Road walking on the highway to Rabbit Ears Pass (Steamboat Springs, Colorado).
LOW POINTS ON THE TRAIL
As a part of the thru-hiker survey, I ask hikers, “What (if anything) was your lowest moment on the trail?”
If you go into a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike believing it to be some wonderful vacation of which every moment will be more incredible than the one before, then you are mistaken, my friend (and even though some of you may return and claim that every moment was, in fact, special and incredible, we all know you’re lying).
Read the following knowing that any one of these things could happen to you, should you find yourself on the CDT (yes, there’s a good chance you will shit your pants).
- About one month in, I wondered why the hell I was doing this crazy trip since it was going “fine” but I wasn’t enlightened yet nor enthralled by daily beauty on New Mexico road walks.
- 90% of the trail sucked. Only our motivation to finish (and get our triple crown) kept us on.
- Feeling like a piece of shit, not seeing the beautiful surrounding as beautiful no more, not knowing what the hell you’re doing.
- Having the shits, in the rain, over rocky terrain, with mosquitoes attacking me relentlessly. I pooped myself.
- Getting back on the trail after 6 days off to celebrate my Grandma’s 100th birthday. Phew – that was a low point! It took a couple of days but then it got better and we got back into it.
- When I had 9 blisters after 85 miles (140 km).
- When I decided the my injury wasn’t getting better and decided to get off trail.
- Meeting other hikers who were jackasses. They probably thought I was one too, so that’s probably a wash.
- Ditching a hiker that wouldn’t de-couple.
NEW MEXICO SHITTINESS
- The cold rain and stress of New Mexico caused me to get sick. One night south of Silver City the wind blew at a constant 50-60 mph / 80-100 km/h and it rained all night. I laid in the mud under my tarp and coughed all night never falling asleep.
- Without a doubt getting laid low by Giardia for three days in New Mexico. And having to figure out a way to get off the trail to antibiotics.
- Road walking in New Mexico.
- Bootheel dehydration.
- I was alone through almost all of New Mexico due to a late start. All of the road-walking and the heat of the desert (not that PCT high desert shit) with no one to commiserate with made me really want to quit.
- Bored, lonesome and homesick. Honeymoon phase was over. After Mount Taylor (New Mexico) to ~20 mi / 32 km south of Trujillo water cache.
- Dealing with no sun for 4 days in New Mexico! Cold frozen feet for days. So cold in New Mexico in October.
- I struggled at the beginning getting away from the heat of the New Mexico Bootheel.
- Colorado is like that awkward friend that everyone has who’s really lovely but takes too many drugs and makes you unsure if they’re awesome or crazy. It ripped me to pieces both emotionally and physically. Whoever built that trail really loves going straight up mountainsides. Switchbacks were unheard of. It trashed my Achilles and made me want to cry from lack of oxygen. Once or twice a week through Colorado I’d consider quitting the trail altogether, despite how stunning it was.
- The persistent wind on sketchy ridges started to drive me insane. The constant wind was torture, it would last for hours.
- Road walking on the highway to Rabbit Ears Pass.
- Deciding to keep going in Colorado – every single day. I found out that Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) presents as asthma for me, which I see as a lucky break – at least I’m not throwing up.
- Colorado was a hard state for me. I was alone all the time except for all the really fast people running by trying to get their 35 mi / 56 km days in. The elevation change at high altitude was exhausting. I couldn’t carry enough food to feed my hunger and was low on energy all the time. Everyone around me was, either way, faster or way slower and in the mindset of running to Canada. No one seemed to be enjoying themselves or their time on the trail. I nearly quit several times.
- Being stuck in a massive storm/thunderstorm between 12,500 – 13,000 ft (3,800 – 3,960 m) elevation on an exposed plateau in southern Colorado with no place to hide.
- Colorado mountains beat me up pretty badly. I got altitude sickness, didn’t like walking on the snow when it was steep, never seemed to be on the ‘red line’ for very long before I had to take an alternate or rest and it was the only time I felt lonely out there.
- Going through Colorado because I live there. A real pull to just go home. Grand Lake was the lowest point.
- While in Colorado I was very solo, I only saw thru-hikers every few days. It got a little lonely.
- Got altitude sickness and respiratory infection in San Juans and ended up in the hospital.
- Near the end of Great Divide Basin heavy rain 48 hours with a high temperature of 45°F / 7.2°C. Hiking into to strong wind. No place to hide, no rocks, no trees, no leeward hillsides. Was a meteorological anomaly.
- Knapsack Col and Cirque de Towers, it was just exhausting. I couldn’t enjoy it.
- Facing the blood-sucking devil mosquitos sans head net or DEET in the Winds.
- In southern Wyoming I had just gotten a different style of shoe. I had blisters, arch pain, soreness. I also had nerve pain in my hip. I was hurt and sick and dying and probably dehydrated and I laid down on the side of the road and cried. Then I got up and walked while crying because everything hurt so much. I really didn’t know if I was going to make it to the end.
- Getting caught in a lightning storm in the Basin.
- Shitting pants beside the highway on road walk out of Whitehall, Montana and having to quit 70 yds / 80 m from the border because of snow.
- Missing the Chinese Wall because of fires.
- I really hated the meadows and pastures around the border between Idaho and Montana, especially north of Lima, where I could see how devastated the nature was (no trees, no animals, only a few cows).
- The Bob (Marshall Wilderness). It was the beginning of my hike and I carried from East Glacier to Lincoln. Heavy pack. Everything was flooded from the snowmelt. Constant wet feet combined with bad shoes gave me huge blisters. Blowdowns on blowdowns. No people to commiserate with. I wasn’t ready for the loneliness. I also had a sinus infection but didn’t realize it. I was a mess.
- Montana Idaho border – couldn’t see the landscape for weeks because of forest fires.
- I was miserable most of this trail, but the closest I came to quitting was after skipping two fire sections and there were still fires in the Bob Marshall and in Glacier.
Have your own tale of woe from a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike? Leave a comment below and warn future CDT classes of the awfulness that awaits them on their thru-hikes.