Canada's Great Divide Trail runs for roughly 740 miles from the US/Canadian border to the Lake Kakwa Provincial Recreation Area. The trail is a concatenation of Provincial Park, National Park, Wilderness Area and Forest District trails, with some sections having been abandoned or at the very least, unmaintained for years. While the trail started with the support of the Canadian government, that support ended all too soon, and the trail is now officially abandoned.
We knew all that - but we've still wanted to hike the trail ever since we watched a GDT slideshow about 10 or 12 years ago. So 2007 was our year. And these web pages are some small part of what we brought back with us.
More than 30 years ago, an attempt was made to create a long distance foot trail following the Canadian Continental Divide along the Alberta/British Columbia border. The original idea for the Great Divide Trail was proposed in the 1960ís by the Canadian Girl Guides. At first, local enthusiasm and government support was high. Scouting began and a preliminary route description was published in 1970.
In the mid-70ís a group of college students spent the summer exploring more than 4800 kilometers of trails through the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, scouting various routes and a tentative route from Waterton to Mount Robson was determined. Construction of the trail began in the mid-70ís. However, there was resistance by some important participants to the idea of a long trail through the Rockies. The National Parks were concerned with overuse of their trails. Some of the Forest Districts wanted no restrictions on logging and mining activities. By about 1980, the Canadian government dropped its support and funding, so volunteer efforts to build and maintain the trail almost ceased. Only 95 km of trail, in Forest Districts in Alberta and British Columbia between Coleman and Kananaskis, was completed. That section of the Great Divide Trail still exists and is sporadically maintained.
Although officially dead, the idea of the trail lived on. In 1996, Dustin Lynx, an erstwhile PCT thruhiker, hiked from Waterton to a new terminus in Lake Kakwa Provincial Park and wrote a guidebook which described that route, linking the 95 km of blazed GDT trail with a series of trails in the National Parks, Provincial Parks and wilderness areas. Logging roads or cross-country routes completed the connection, making a single journey from the U.S. Ė Canada border in Waterton Lakes International Peace Park to Lake Kakwa (and beyond) a possibility.
For today's thruhiker, it feels like the trail has a split personality - part tourist path, part backcountry hiking trail and part crosscountry route. The three types of trail create a very diverse experience. Hiking on the popular tourist trails like Mt. Assiniboine, the Rockwall Trail or the Skyline Trail is a very different experience from backcountry bushwhacking up La Coulotte Ridge or Owen Creek. Dodging ATVs near Castle Mountain feels quite different from lollygagging along the remote head of the Spray River. The National Park tourist paths are generally easier and the scenery is guaranteed to be good, but there are also a lot more people sharing the campsites and more regulation. The backcountry areas in the Forest Districts and Wilderness Areas generally have less developed trail, but also allow random camping, which for a thruhiker translates into more freedom. But we learned that even in the National Parks there was wide diversity, from busy popular tourist trails to remote areas that allow random camping because there are no established campsites to erstwhile trail sections that havenít been maintained in years.
There are very few people thruhiking the GDT. We know of only one hiker who hiked all the way from Waterton to Mount Robson this year (2007). There were several we knew about who intended to hike the trail but never started. We heard about a few hikers who were behind us but they didnít send boxes to Field or The Crossing, so they may have been section hiking the trail. Very few of the backpackers we met had heard of the trail, even among Canadians.
The Great Divide Trail is beautiful, remote and very challenging. It is, in theory, what some thruhikers want in a trail. Reality is that it has more of the "remote and challenging" parts than some thruhikers care for. Which is good - it keeps the traffic down.