The Continental Divide Trail, known by its abbreviation the CDT, spans from Mexico to the Canadian border, traverses five states, and was established by Congress in 1978. Totaling 3,100 miles, of which 627 lie within Montana, runs from Idaho to Canada, winding its way through beautiful and wild wilderness areas, small towns, and national parks.
I spent time recently on a couple of sections of the CDT, finding out what makes this trail unique and why thru-hikers say this trail is by far one of the hardest to hike out of any of the long-distance trails in the U.S. I decided that thru-hiking a section I used to work in called the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, just outside Anaconda, would be a great place to start.
The CDT meanders through the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness for 45 miles. We decided to do 20 miles of it, which by thru-hiking standards is not a good mileage day, but with dogs in tow, 20 miles usually ends up being plenty, given the amount of time needed to stop and roll and or eat something only a dog could love. I was also hoping I would find a couple of hikers to chat with along the way.
I loaded up Charlie and Ranger in my truck with all of our belongings, and we set off for a popular section of the trail at which locals like to camp. As we pulled up to the lake and I noticed all the other people around, I started to get a bit worried about my decision to start here. We all jumped out of the truck, and I proudly put Charlie's panniers on her with her bedroll, not thinking of the lake. As I was busy fixing my own backpack and making sure I had everything, I heard a guy say to me, “Your dog is in the lake with her panniers on…” I turned to see Charlie happily floating in the lake, bedroll and all soaked. I tried to keep my cool as I yelled for her to come over to me, just as Ranger decided that wandering into someone's camp to find treats was a great idea. This trip was not starting out as planned, and I probably looked like a train wreck.
Another guy asked if I was hiking the CDT and when I said yes, he looked a bit concerned, mumbled something, and walked away. But we started hiking away from people, and my anxiety started to fade away. As we entered a wide-open meadow, I saw two hikers heading in our direction. But as I tried to talk to them, it became clear they wanted to keep going to meet their mileage and destination, so we parted ways without really any discussion. We kept hiking up to a pass called Twin Lakes. I sat there in complete silence listening to the mosquitoes hover around me, and soon became aware that this trip wasn't about finding other thru-hikers or why this trail is hard, but rather was more about why I was on this trail and why I chose to be here.
I found that most thru-hikers were on this trail to heal, find peace, experience life, and enjoy being in the wild with nothing other than their own thoughts, occasionally joining up with other hikers to share a meal or a beer, swapping trail stories or advice before heading out on their own path at their own pace. The CDT is a form of therapy for most. As I met up with hikers along the way who had trail names such as Blue Collar, Cruiser, and Greg In Wild, we would chat about why they were on the trail and what was next. Most didn't really know where they would go after the CDT. Some were between jobs and trying to make a decision. Some were on the trail to heal from past traumas, from bad relationships, or from war and PTSD.
When asked why I was on the trail with Charlie and Ranger, I at first said it was to see the trail and experience its beauty. But my answer evolved over time into letting other hikers know it was to heal from a climbing accident I’d had four weeks earlier that had left me without part of my left ring finger and how I felt uncertain about my future – something I had kept well hidden until hiking on the CDT.
As we hiked further and I let myself become more immersed in the wilderness, I lost myself in the sheer beauty of the area. Wildflowers seemed to go on forever, creating what looked like rivers flowing down into the valleys below. There were sunsets that had even Charlie stopping in her tracks to take them in. The CDT became home. A comfortable place to lay my head and listen for the night to come alive with the hoot of an owl in the distance or the hooves of elk as they ran past us.
Our days were spent briefly chatting with others and laughing about the drama that sometimes followed them along the trail. I met one woman who was searching for a hiker and asked if I knew him. As she tried describing him, I asked if she knew his name, and she said, "No, I don't actually know his real name…" I looked at her, and we both burst out laughing. She eventually found who she was looking for; I remembered him because he liked to keep his shirt unbuttoned to his navel. I called him Don Juan. Probably not his real name or even trail name, but it fit.
I found out that trail magic can be anything from a cold beer to Snickers bars left by trail angels, people from the community who support the thru-hikers by leaving items at certain stops. Charlie and Ranger became a hit on the CDT and a great ice breaker for most people. We settled into a routine; I didn't find myself seeking others, but enjoyed my own company with Charlie and Ranger to talk to.
As we ended our thru-hike in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness and I was putting everything back into the truck, I was sad to leave and started thinking of where I could go next to catch the trail. I headed north to hike it through Glacier National Park. Sadly, Charlie and Ranger could not go with me, so I decided to do a day hike instead and camp at Two Medicine.
I ended up doing an 18-mile section starting at Many Glacier that wound its way up Swiftcurrent Pass and hit a side trail to an overlook. This section of the trail is well traveled but still wild with thick brush well over my head in areas. The day I went called for highs in the 90s, so I started early, which meant I might encounter wildlife on the trail.
As I started the switchbacks up the pass, a lone bull moose passed by me and disappeared into the trees, silently heading wherever big moose go. This part of the CDT is like a piece of nirvana in its beauty, and I didn't want to leave.
Hiking back out, I stopped along the way, picking huckleberries sweet from the sun's warmth. I met tourists excited to be on the CDT, as it was always their dream to do the whole hike from Mexico to Canada or vice versa.
I sat in the parking lot after my hike cooling off from the heat of the day and remembered the people I met, the days spent with Charlie and Ranger, and the beginning of my own healing, and realized just how much nature can provide us with respite from our own troubles or anxieties from everyday life.
We have such a special and unique section of the CDT here in Montana that thankfully has the support of so many people, including the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, which provides volunteer opportunities to help work on sections of the trail, donate or become a member. The CDTC holds events in different towns designated as Gateway Communities for the CDT, to raise awareness to keep protecting this beautiful trail. I personally can't thank them enough for giving this trail the protection it needs in order for people to enjoy and find themselves.
If you get a chance to do a section of the CDT, I believe you will find yourself in agreement with Charlie, Ranger, and myself that the CDT brings one joy, solitude, and often inner awareness.
Adrienne Hall said it best in her book, A Journey North: One Woman's Story of Hiking the Appalachian Trail. "If you face the rest of your life with the spirit you show on the trail, it will have no choice but to yield the same kind of memories and dreams.