At one time, someone asked us to compare the CDT to the PCT and the AT. Ginny had too much time on her hands, so she tried to set down some thoughts - and she couldn't stop. It's long, but if you're serious about hiking the CDT, it's also well worth reading.
This is a "ramble" through the thoughts of someone who loves the CDT.
The CDT became MY trail in a way that the others never could. On the AT and the PCT I was following in other people’s footsteps. On the CDT I was creating my own trail. I loved being able to pick my own routes, change the plan on the spur of the moment, get creative when we got lost, etc.
I know that before we hiked, I heard very few people saying, “The CDT is a terrific experience.” Mostly I just heard how hard it is. Few talked about how incredibly beautiful it is. The reality was a revelation to me. That is one reason I want to share my experience with the trail.
Some hikers talk about the PCT not crossing a road for 200 miles – but the fact is that we never felt nearly as isolated on the PCT as we did on the CDT. The CDT is a much more remote, more isolated trail than the others. Except for the desert, we saw more backpackers every week on the PCT than we saw on our entire CDT hike. The total number of long distance hikers we met in six months on the CDT was eight, including 3 long section hikers (13 of us finished in 99 - and that was a very large number for the CDT). On our second thruhike we met a lot more people, but it still wasn't the kind of crowds that you see regularly on the AT and the PCT. If you are a southbound hiker you will have a much more solitary experience than as a northbound hiker
Mostly we were too early in the season to meet weekenders in northern Montana. (We met 7 people on the 4th of July weekend in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, and felt indignant at the crowds!) Southern Montana doesn’t get crowds, just a few fishermen. Northern Wyoming in early August (Yellowstone, Teton Wilderness and Bridger Wilderness) was very busy; but we had southern Wyoming almost entirely to ourselves (I think we met one jeep, one hunter and three long distance bicyclists in 300 miles, except in town).
Colorado was mostly just us because of the snow and cold, except in the north where we met several backpackers in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness on Labor Day weekend and a few others in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Rocky Mtn. NP and then several hunters in the south in late September-October. New Mexico we had almost entirely to ourselves. I don’t think we saw another backpacker all month, except the four thruhikers who caught up to us there, and we didn’t see them on the trail.
As northbounders, we met only other thruhikers in New Mexico, several Colorado Trail hikers in Southern Colorado, only one section hiker in the Red Desert, lots of southbound thruhikers in the Winds, then few other hikers until we reached Glacier. Colorado was busy because we were there in prime season - July - which can be a reason for hiking north if you want to meet people or south if you don't. It still rarely felt crowded, even in prime season.
On the PCT, after Kennedy Meadows we met 5-10 people every day and occasionally 30-50 a day, complete with dogs, llamas and/or horses. It got to be another source of amusement. This translates to a very different experience for the thruhiker. For the solo CDT hiker, it means that chances are you will be alone for most--if not all--of the journey. That can get VERY lonely, especially since there are very few people in the towns along the way who have the slightest clue about the trail. It also creates safety issues – if something happens, it may be weeks before someone comes along to help. In grizzly country, it increases the danger. I really recommend you find others to hike with, unless you really really like solitude.
The CDT is a much more scenic trail than the PCT, to my mind. On the Divide there were hundreds of “Oh wow, this is incredible” moments. On the PCT that didn’t happen to me until the Sierras – 700 miles up the trail. The land in southern California was pretty with all the wildflowers, and I liked some of the mountain ranges (San Jacintos and San Gorgonios) but I wouldn’t call that part of the trail awesome, especially with the constant smog and signs of human presence (highways, windmills, motorbikes, etc.)
The areas on the PCT that were truly awesome were few and far between, while on the CDT it was most of the trail. (Of couse, if we had been able to actually see more of Washington state, I’d probably have a few more places to add to my list of incredibly beautiful places, but our trail reality was that most of that state was buried in cloud, and thus invisible.)
On the CDT, I had some idea that the Rockies were beautiful, because of my reading and from slide shows, but the reality was so much more than I imagined. On the PCT it seemed like the reality was less than I imagined.
Yes, the beautiful places I had seen in books and slide shows, like the Sierras, the Russian Wilderness, Crater Lake, Three Sisters and Goat Rocks, did exist and were really grand, but there was so much utterly forgettable 'connector' trail in between.
On the CDT, it seemed that in every section there was something unique and beautiful. Glacier, the Bob Marshall, the Anaconda-Pintler, the Bitterroots, the Centennials, Yellowstone, the Teton Wilderness, the Wind River Range, the Great Basin, Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Eagles Nest Wilderness, Holy Cross Wilderness, the San Juans, the south San Juans, the Gila Wilderness, Ghost Ranch, etc. There was one beautiful wilderness area after another. There were some short connector stretches, but not day after day after day.
On the CDT, much of the trail is in the open, either on ridge tops or in open meadows and sagelands. The view is of mountain range after mountain range or open rangeland and skies that won’t quit. There are few towns, few paved roads, no smog, and little sign of ‘civilization’ except the occasional ranch or mine. It feels like wilderness – even when it’s not.
On the CDT there are animals galore. It was 400 miles before we saw our first deer on the PCT. We saw deer, herons and antelope on our first day on the CDT. One of the things that sold me on the CDT before I went was a line in the McVeigh video that said, “We saw more wildlife in a week on the CDT than we saw on our entire PCT hike.” It was often the case, though not always. This was true both northbound and southbound.
We did see a lot of animals – bears, moose, elk, antelope, deer, wild horses, javelina, mountain goats, mountain sheep, badgers, coyotes, eagles, etc. -- and of course the ubiquitous cows. On the PCT we mostly saw a lot of lizards and rattlesnakes – though to be fair, we did see a couple of black bears in northern California, some deer, a couple of coyotes and one fox in the course of the trip. It didn’t begin to compare though.
The CDT is not a finished trail. Jim and I hope it never will be. Parts of the trail have not been designated, parts of it that are designated haven’t been built, and the parts that have been built are often not maintained. With only a dozen or so hikers each year going the whole way, there are sections that get so little use there is nothing in the way of treadway.
Because of the altitude and weather extremes, in many places that have been marked, the markers are destroyed within a year or two. (Carsonite posts aren’t really very durable.) This means that it is very easy to get lost, and all the CDT hikers that we’ve heard about do get lost, usually more than once. Being able to read a map helps, and is in fact a necessity before you do the trail, but doesn’t always help as the maps sometimes lie like a rug! We learned that as long as we were heading south, we weren’t lost; we had just temporarily misplaced the treadway. (We know one hiker who was seriously lost for days - and out of food, before being rescued by a local family out fishing, but that's rare.)
There are also a lot of alternate routes – sometimes more scenic, sometimes safer in times of bad weather, sometimes with much better water resources than the “official” routes, sometimes just shorter. A CDT thruhike can be anywhere from 2400-3000 miles. Some hikers choose to do a lot of bushwhacking from peak to peak, others choose to follow a lot of roads. Right now, everyone gets to choose what they want out of their hike – and there are a lot of variations. A fast hike usually means lots of road walking, a scenic hike is slower and usually more difficult, but more beautiful.
If you try to follow the Divide as much as possible, you end up doing a lot of bushwhacking (and pass through a lot of private land.) Most end up doing a combination of official trail, alternate trail, road walking and impromptu bushwhacking, with a few side trips just for fun. Combined with the frequency of misplacing the trail, and the fact that weather can force a change of plans at a moment’s notice (we were driven off the Divide twice by extremely high winds and dark clouds, and once by a blizzard) this means that every hike is unique. No one will make the exact same choices that you make. There is a power to that and it was a lot of fun for us, but some people can’t handle the uncertainty. They don’t want to constantly think about where they are, or make choices, or worry about being lost; they just want to follow blazes or an established treadway and mindlessly make miles. You can’t do that on the CDT, unless you do a lot of road walks.People who don’t like to read guidebooks or don’t know how to use maps spend a lot of time lost and without water – both books and maps are a necessity on that trail. We often hiked with map in one hand, guidebook in the other. The navigation wasn’t that hard – just constant. We often rechecked our whereabouts at least every 15 minutes, if not more often. The day before we finished our first thruhike, we had a brain cramp, missed a turn and ended up not being able to get back on track until the next morning – and it didn’t take more than a half-hour for us to realize what we’d done.
On our second hike we noticed that a lot of the trail has become better marked, more worn, easier to navigate. We had a lot less trouble following the route. There were still challenges - but for the most part we could follow our noses and end up in the right place. In the '90's there were only 20 or so thruhikers. Last year there were more than 50. It makes a difference.
On the PCT, the constant checking isn’t necessary. You can just check the guidebook a couple of times a day to see how far it is to water, then (even in the snow) follow the footsteps of the people ahead of you. It is much simpler, but not as much fun. The only navigation challenge we had on the PCT was picking out Donohue Pass.
In terms of difficulty, the PCT and CDT have some of the same kind of challenges: snow travel, river crossings, sometimes long distances between towns, water concerns, etc. Since I had had no prior experience with serious snow, the CDT seemed harder, but it probably wasn’t much different from the PCT. Starting so early, and on a high snow year, we carried an ice axe for the first six weeks – and needed it.Most southbounders start later and only have to deal with snow for the first two or three weeks. The difference again is that if you have trouble, there is no one to help. We had an eight day stretch through the snow-bound Bob Marshall Wilderness where we didn’t see another human footprint until the seventh day. Even in Glacier NP, the rangers won’t look for you unless someone reports you missing. (And by that time, you’ve probably already been eaten. It is an interesting experience to not be at the top of the food chain.) We were only the second people over some of the passes in Glacier, a week behind two other CDT hikers (and it had snowed since they went through, in mid-June.) We were the first to go through the Bog (the Bob Marshall Wilderness).
On a southbound CDT hike, there is less concern with having to finish before October, which means that you don’t have to push to do 20-25 mile days, unless you start late. We ended November 30 after a six-month hike, and were very happy with our timing. Northbound hikers do have a time crunch though, much like the PCT, since they can’t really start too early because Colorado is snow-bound until mid-July and winter can settle in by mid to late September in northern Montana. Flipflopping of some sort is common.
We were told before we left for the CDT – you have to be flexible, you have to make compromises. This is true for any hike, but on the CDT it is especially true. There is so much you have no control over – weather, fires, drought, grizzlies (i.e. they closed a large chunk of the trail through Glacier for months because of active bears), etc. You have to be willing to change your route or your plan when it is necessary, and accept that things may not go the way you expect. A lot of northbound hikers reach Colorado with no idea that the mountains are more or less impassible – what now? Road walk? Jump over the state and come back later? Buy snowshoes and hope the food will hold out? We know people who have done all three. We know hikers who were unable to hike through the Gila in New Mexico because it had been closed due to drought. Again, that’s not that different from the other trails--it happens on the AT as well, though not as often -- but on the CDT there is almost a certainty that something is going to happen to upset your plans. Like the fires one summer that closed Montana, stopping most of the northbounders.
Water can be a problem on both the PCT and the CDT. On the CDT we generally had shorter distances between water sources – there were a few that were more than 20 miles, most were 15 or so -- but water quality on the CDT was sometimes really bad. Many of the water sources are shared with cows. The worst sources on the PCT are pretty typical water sources in the desert stretches of Wyoming and New Mexico. (Remember the cow pond on Hat Creek Rim with the signs saying not to drink because the water was contaminated? On the CDT,that would have been the best source all day, in some places.)
Like the PCT, there are sections with scarce water in every state, including Montana and Colorado. We used a filter the entire way on the CDT because of the issue of cow/wildlife contamination. On our first hike we rarely drank without filtering, while on the PCT we only filtered in the desert and out of lakes. (And we still got sick more often on the CDT.) On our second thruhike we were less careful, but we still were willing to carry the weight of the filter because of the many places where cows had contaminated the only viable water source.
Resupply is pretty similar on the CDT and PCT. We generally had 5-8 day stretches between resupply stops. We mostly resupplied as we went, except in a few small towns or resorts. There are fewer choices as to where to go on the CDT, but the towns were pretty good, though more spread out than PCT towns. It wasn’t unusual to have to walk a mile or two to the grocery from the motel. Often motel owners gave us rides though – they were generally terrific. Towns are usually a long long way off the trail – 20-30 miles was not an unusual hitch. It could take hours for cars to come along on some of the roads, much less stop. But then, that happened on the PCT as well, a couple of times.
Altitude is more of a factor on the CDT. On the PCT, the only place that is really high is the Sierras, and descend to lower elevations in a couple of weeks. And even in the High Sierras you don’t stay high, you bounce from 7000 in the valley to 10,000 up at the pass, then back down to the next valley. On the CDT, we were above 7000’ almost the entire way (except in a couple of towns off trail), and in Colorado we were above 9000’ for six weeks, with frequent climbs to 12-13,000’. (In one day we went over five 13,000’ peaks.) We spent a lot of nights sleeping at 12,000+'. There were at least six 14,000’ peaks that were easily accessible along the trail, for the peak baggers among us (San Luis, Elbert, Massive, Huron, Greys and Torrey). For practical purposes, the altitude means that the trail is much colder than the PCT and weather is more of a concern.
On the PCT heat was a constant – we got used to it, and because we were early starters it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it became a factor in our hiking style and speed for the first four months. We were rarely hot on the CDT because we were so high, even in the desert. In fact,in 1999 our last spring snowfall was on July 4th, our first autumn snow was Sept. 3rd and we had some freezing nights in early August up in the Wind River Range. This meant that while on the PCT the habit was to rise very early and hike till early evening, with a long break in the heat of the day, on the CDT we tended to sleep in a little to let the ice melt and then hike in the warmth of the sun. On our southbound hike we had little trouble with thunderstorms, but a northbound hiker who reaches Colorado in summer, or a section hiker doing the trail in July or August, is at constant risk from lightning. There is a price for all the open country!
There were good people along all the trails. There is less organized trail magic on the CDT than on the other trails, though that exists too in the form of a couple of trail angels who are extremely good to hikers, but we ran into a lot of impromptu kindness.
One final difference - the definition of 'trail' -- the PCT generally has good well constructed tread. There was a lot of good work done there. On the CDT, a lot less constructed trail has been built, though they tried to follow existing trails when they could. Anything goes for trail. We walked everything from paved highway to gravel road to rocky eroded dirt roads to long abandoned jeep track to good sidehill to no treadway but marked path to crosscountry bushwhack. We learned to appreciate the advantages of each and to curse some of the disadvantages. We knew what to expect before we went though, so we rarely let it get to us, whatever came.
Sorry to go on so long – but it’s something that we thought about off and on as we hiked the PCT. We tried not to compare the trails as we hiked. We wanted to just accept the PCT for what it was without saying, “the CDT was better” but the thought did come up. When we finished the CDT, our main thought was “When can we come back and do this again?" On the PCT I was mostly thinking, “I want to go home – soon!” There are a few places on the PCT I’d like to come back to – the Sierras, the Trinity Alps, and the Cascades especially – but we may never do another PCT thruhike.But we WILL go back to the CDT. There is still so much to see.
Home | About Spiriteagle | Contact Us | Links
The Thruhiking Papers | Trail Journals | CDT | GDT
Photo | Bun-bun
Southern New Mexico | Resources | Maps | Towns, Miles and Resupply
Wyoming Water Sources | 1999-2005 Trail Information
Created: Fri, 06 Jan 2004
Revised: 15 Nov 2009
Copyright © 2004-2009 Spirit Eagle