Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

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By Ellie Greenwood

I met Leslie Gerein when I moved to Banff in 2008 and blogging was still cool. Leslie (Banff TrailTrash as she is known on her blog) sent me a welcome message and invited me for coffee. Anyone who knows Leslie would not be surprised – we’ve all enjoyed coffee in her kitchen – because the door is always open. The conversation often turns to Leslie’s recent adventures and her months hiking long distance trails, and I was excited to hear more about her thru-hike on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT):

Why the CDT?

As a mountain lover, the CDT had tremendous appeal. The idea of connecting the mountain and high desert ranges through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana was irresistible – walking through the high country of Colorado, across the Great Basin of Wyoming, through the Wind River Range and following a river system into Yellowstone. Then you get to travel the remote high country between Idaho and Montana, cross many small mountain ranges in Montana, explore the Bob Marshall Wilderness and then Glacier National Park.

What were some of your favorite sections of the trail?

The places where I had zero expectations were the ones that I loved the most. I loved the Gila River Canyon – the diversity of a river canyon through a desert environment is an amazing thing. The night skies, stars, sunrises and sunsets of New Mexico are truly spectacular. People are often surprised to hear that I loved the Great Basin. Wide open spaces are amazing, and the Great Basin is certainly that – the grasslands and flowers were beautiful and seeing antelopes and wild horses was incredible. Northern Colorado was awesome – the big pointy mountains of the Zirkel Wilderness and the rolling foothills of the Medicine Bow Forest were a surprise. Walking the true divide between Idaho and Montana in the high country of the Bitteroot Mountains was very memorable.

Photo courtesy Leslie Gerein

What were the highlights of your time on the CDT?

I spent a lot of time swimming naked in high alpine lakes! In Colorado I was getting up ridiculously early during storm season, so I frequently found myself high above the tree line before the sun came up. Little things like finding a new flower, hearing a new bird sound, seeing otters play in a creek were also a treat. While seeing grizzly bears up close can be unnerving, it’s a pretty good day when you get to see one. One of the most memorable things about any hike is the people you meet who you wouldn’t normally connect with in your day-to-day life. I met a woman in Pie Town, New Mexico, who openly wore matching pearl pistols around her hips while serving pie and giving out hugs.

Surely it wasn’t all amazing?

I had a low point in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The immensity and size of the wilderness was suffocating, and because I wasn’t seeing many people and noticing lots of grizzly bear scat and prints, it was hard to relax. My pack was heavy with food, I wasn’t sleeping well, and was just plain exhausted. I then began to smell and see smoke, the visibility vanished, and I got really scared. It turns out there had been fires lighting up all around me, including in front of me. I found a detour and made my way out of that big claustrophobic wilderness, but I was mentally and physically shattered.

I know you are back home in Banff. What’s your next adventure?

I plan to spend April hiking the Arizona Trail. After that, my hubby is going to pick me up in our camper and we’ll spend some time mountain biking and exploring Southern Utah. I’m thinking about riding home along the Divide – I want to see more of Idaho, and bikepacking on dirt roads seems like a great way to do it.

CDT FACTS

  • Location: Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, passing through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana
  • Length: Approximately 3,100 miles (the trail is only 76% complete so distance can vary)
  • Terrain: Mix of trail, forest roads and cross-country travel on a line of sight. Remote and wild.
  • Most popular direction: South to north (This was Leslie’s choice, and it took her four months to complete the entire trail.)

GEAR

  • Leslie’s pack, excluding food and water, weighed 12 lbs. As she says, “when the weight goes down the fun goes up.”
  • One set of clothes plus an extra pair of socks, long underwear, mid layer, puffy jacket, waterproof shell, gloves, waterproof overmitts and a warm beanie
  • Sleeping bag, light shelter, water treatment system, smart phone (for navigation), battery pack and inReach (satellite communication device)
  • Luxury items: down pants and a rain poncho
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About Author

Ellie Greenwood ran her first ever ultra on January 1, 2004, at a Fat Ass 50k event in Vancouver, BC. She was immediately hooked on trail and ultrarunning, and has managed to make it to the finish line of over 50 ultras and marathons to date. Supported by several sponsors including Salomon and Clif Bar, Ellie balances her own training and racing with coaching runners of all abilities online for Sharman Ultra. Ellie’s racing highlights include a course record win at Western States in 2012, a first place finish at South Africa’s Comrades 89k and winning the IAU World 100k Championships in 2014.

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