The Great Divide Trail is more demanding than many other long trails in that it requires more planning of those who would hike it than do the other trails. The guidebook has much, but not ALL, of the information needed to plan the hike. So the prospective thruhiker will have to do some of their own research. To that end, we've put some information here that we might have liked to know before we started the hike. But, as usual, we won't be giving you "everything you need to know."
Before you start planning:
You might want to check out some of the available information. Like the GDT website and Chris Willet's website and Trippin' Ant's journal. Chris hiked northbound - Trippin' Ant hiked southbound, so you can get both flavors.
If you're reading this, then the Spirit Eagle GDT journal is also available.
And for those who are looking for the video - so are we. A group of 2006 GDT hikers filmed their hike, with the intention of selling a video on the experience. It was supposed to be out several months ago (summer 2007), but we've been told they had production problems. In the meantime check out the website. Just looking at it makes me want to go back.
When to Start?
For a northbound hiker, the best time to start is early/mid July, depending on snow levels. This year, snowmelt was late, so our July 11 start date worked well for us. Starting earlier wouldn't have worked well since there was still 5 feet of snow in the high country on June 29. Unless you’re willing to carry an ice axe, and use it, June is generally too early to hike the GDT.
Starting in August means a shorter wildflower season. This year (2007) by mid-August the flowers were fading fast. A later start or very early start may mean fewer mosquitoes, which is a consideration. But in any case, you might want to plan to finish before mid-September. At that point there is a risk of serious snow, though in fact, it can snow any month of the year. For us, July 2007 was a much warmer month than August. We had three snowfalls on the peaks around us in mid-August and the nights were cold. OTOH, it was 90 degrees (F) our first day on the trail (July 11).
How long does it take?
The distance for the Great Divide Trail is about 560 miles if you stop at Jasper or 655 miles if you stop at Mt Robson as most hikers do. If you go on to Kakwa Lake it's somewhere between 700-750 miles, depending on which trail you take north of Jasper. You should add the 85 km roadwalk to the highway since there is no guarantee you'll get a ride out. The road is very little used. A few hikers have done the trail as far as Jasper in a month, but the guidebook author recommends a two month itinerary for the route from Waterton to Kakwa. Most hikers will find that something in the middle is more comfortable. In 2007, we took 42 days to get to Jasper. YMMV
You'll need a passport for this trail. US law has changed, and as of 1 Oct 2007, a US passport is required to come back across the border into the US. If you don't intend to come back, you should discuss that with the Canadians before you leave.
This was one of the reasons we hadn't hiked the trail previously. From previous hikers we got the impression that the permit process was both complicated and expensive. From other hikers we heard that "you don't really need the permits" - which we definitely do NOT recommend. Hiking without a permit can get one ejected from the Park system - and creates a REALLY BAD reputation and probably a lot of hassles for the thruhikers that follow. Don't do it.
As we found out, the permits are not cheap - but they're not nearly as expensive as we thought. The following is a summary of the permit process and costs that we encountered. All dollar amounts are Canadian dollars. That translates to something less (or more) in US dollars, depending on the exchange rate. Note that the Canadians do not use $1 paper money. Instead, they use $1 and $2 coins - called, respectively, loonies and toonies.
1. Parks Canada requires a Park Entry Pass in the National Parks. The GDT passes through five National Parks (Waterton, Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper). They sell an annual pass for $62.40 per person ($68.35 in 2008) or about $123/family. You'll be required to buy this pass when you enter Waterton International Peace Park if you're northbound.
2. To camp in the National Parks also requires a backcountry camping permit which cost us $62.40 each. This was better than paying a per night fee of $8.90.
3. Reservations are required at campgrounds in the National Parks. The backcountry permit covers the cost of these sites, but you still need a written permit listing all the campsites in the Parks that you intend to use. Some National Park sections allow random (stealth) camping, but it is also a good idea to include those on your permit i.e. Amiskwi, Howse River, Miette Lake, etc. It saves hassle if you run into a Warden/ranger. We made our reservations by telephone (403-522-3833) a couple weeks before we started. We found the Parks Canada staff very easy to work with. They faxed us our completed permit. Lake Louise Information Center can make all the reservations for all the parks at one time, though we broke ours up into two separate permits, one for Jasper that we made directly with them and then the rest of the trail through the Lake Louise office. They charge a service fee for their time – ours were about $16 and $11.
4. Two of the Provincial Parks require reservations: Peter Lougheed and Mount Robson. There is a fee for the campsite plus a reservation fee. It ended up costing us $24 for a backcountry site at Peter Lougheed ($8 per person plus the $8 reservation fee).
5. Some of the Provincial Parks have walk-in campsites with a fee but no reservation required. Those campgrounds were usually $5 per person per night. There is sometimes a warden stationed nearby who checks to see whether you have paid.
6. The guidebook states that many of the car camping sites in the Forest Districts require an $8 fee, but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more. We didn’t see any registration stations at the ones we stayed in.
7. Random Camping: Although reservations are required in the National Parks and a few of the Provincial Parks, about half the trail allows "random" (stealth) camping. The guidebook lists “Campgrounds” in the Forest Districts which are often nothing more than a small flat spot with a fire ring. Don’t expect bear poles or outhouses except at car camping sites. You are not required to stay at those campgrounds, but they often are convenient. Canadian forests can be very dense with a lot of brush so finding a stealth site may not be easy. In a couple places you can exit a National Park at the border and camp legally just the other side of a pass in a Forest District. (i.e. on the Rockwall Trail, Wolverine Pass is ½ km from the Trail so you can camp legally just outside Kootenay Park. )
8. Finally, it really isn't that difficult to create an itinerary and make reservations. Parks Canada was quite willing to work with us. It will save you a lot of hassle if you have a permit. If you are not exactly on schedule, chances are the wardens will give you the benefit of the doubt. If you have no permit at all, it gives GDT hikers a bad reputation and does the future of the trail a disservice.
Northbound vs. Southbound?
Personal opinion is that it’s better to hike the GDT south to north. Why?
1. Guidebooks are written south to north and the author recommends that directon. As with other trails, trying to read the guidebooks backwards can be a problem.
2. You can start earlier in the south. When we made our reservations on June 29, we were told that the mountains around Jasper still had 5 ft of snow on them. When we started July 11 in Waterton, we had only a few snow patches to deal with. But there was still snow at some of the passes north of Saskatchewan Crossing in August, despite a very hot summer.
3. Bog. The area north of Jasper can be very wet. We were told that the ideal time to hike there is in September. June is simply too wet and you are likely to find yourself wallowing in mud and bog. There are also a lot of river crossings in the north, which are more easily done once snowmelt has finished e.g. August or September.
4. Steep climbs vs. steep descents. We found that, more often than not, the south side of the ridge is much steeper than the north side. We would rather go steeply up than steeply down. YMMV
5. The area north of Jasper gets very little use or maintenance. Especially if you start at Kakwa Lake PP, it can be a very difficult start to the trail. If you start at Waterton, you have some hard climbs the first week, but it is not as remote a start as Kakwa or the Miette River. OTOH, if you have a friend who is willing to drop you off at Kakwa, it might be worth starting there to take advantage of the ride since it can be very difficult to get a ride out of there.
Getting to/from the GDT trailheads is no more easy than getting to the trailheads for any of the other long trails.
Flying:The easiest way to access the north end of the trail may be to fly in and out of Calgary. There are buses (Brewster is best) from Calgary to Jasper on the north end. For the south end of the trail, Greyhound leaves Calgary and stops at Pincher Creek, about 50 km from Waterton Lakes Park at the south end of the trail. But it drops you at Pincher Creek at 1 am - and in 2007 there was only one very expensive motel open in town at that time of day.
If you can get a one way ticket, it is possible to fly to Kalispell, MT and catch Amtrak from nearby Whitefish to East Glacier where you can pick up a shuttle to Waterton. Then at the end of the journey you can get a bus to Calgary or Edmonton to fly home.
Train: Amtrak goes to East Glacier. There is a train that goes to Jasper from Vancouver or Winnepeg.
Car: We drove to East Glacier and took a Park shuttle north to Waterton. Mark Howser agreed to keep an eye on our car while we were hiking and we had no problem leaving it there for two months. At the end of our hike, we took buses to Calgary and Pincher Creek then hitched across the border.
Buses: There is a bus that goes from Jasper to Mount Robson a couple of times a day and vice versa. There are also buses to Coleman, Field, Lake Louise and Banff if you want to section hike the trail or need to cut your trip short.
There is no public transportation to Lake Kakwa, but once you have walked the 85 km out to the highway, you can hitch to McBride to catch a bus south. Or maybe just hitch into Jasper. It's possible to get a ride for some part of the 85 km road walk out, but don't count on it. You won't get a ride all the way because the road is closed at a washed-out bridge. Another option is to helicopter to/from Lake Kakwa.