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The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

In 1979 Congress established the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This 3,100-mile trail crosses through 5 states and is considered to be one of the most significant trail systems in the world.

While the Appalachian trail gets tons of press, not many people are talking about the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

In this article we’ll give you some helpful information about the trail and where and how it passes through the state of Montana.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Facts

continental divide national scenic trail facts
Image: Greg Willis

The Continental Divide, which is considered the backbone of the Americas, is a geological feature that separates the watersheds that travel to the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific oceans.

While the Continental Divide actually spans the entire length of the North American Continent, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail only spans from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) was established through a congressional order in 1979.

This order established a number of Scenic Trails throughout the United States, but the establishment of the Continental Divide Trail came on the coattails of the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trails that were developed long before the Continental Divide Trail.

The Continental Divide Trail is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and is assisted by volunteer organizations like the Continental Divide Trail Society. These groups work together to establish a safe and sustainable route from Mexico to Canada.

For established thru-hikers, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is part of what is known as the Triple Crown of Hiking.

These are three trails (The Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail) that traverse significant parts of the United States, and all three require a significant amount of time and planning to complete.

While many people complete both the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trail, only a small number of hikers also complete the Continental Divide Trail.

Hiking the Continental Divide Trails is fairly difficult, because parts of it are incomplete, and there are few places where thru-hikers have access to basic facilities.

In 2019, only 150 people completed the Continental Divide Trail, while thousands completed the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails.

While few people attempt to hike the full trail, many people hike sections of the trail as it traverses through the five states between Canada and Mexico, including the portions that pass through Montana.

Where Does the Continental Divide Go Through Montana?

continental divide
Image: Bureau of Land Management

Around 800 miles of the CDT pass through Montana. The trail crosses through some of the state’s most rugged and important national forests and wilderness areas.

The CDT enters Montana south of West Yellowstone, from here it travels west where it crosses into Idaho just north of Dubois. The trail travels 180 miles through the Idaho wilderness.

The trail reenters Montana southwest of Anaconda in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. From here it wanders through southwestern Montana, passing south of Butte, and then making a turn to the north.

From Butte, the trail travels north through the Helena National Forest, and past Helena, MT. The trail then continues north separating the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains of Montana. South of East Glacier Park Village, the trail crosses into Glacier National Park.

The CDT through Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. Hikers on this section of trail cross over a high mountain pass, and wander past high-alpine, glacial lakes, iconic glaciers, and breathtaking valleys.

In Montana, the CDT has two endpoints, depending on whether you are done hiking the trail or if you want to continue further into Canada.

Hikers at Piegan Pass have the option of taking either the trail to the east which ends at the US/Canada Border on highway 6, or to the west where the trail passes over the Canadian border into Waterton Lakes National Park and the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

From here the CDT continues north through Canada and into the Arctic wilderness.

As the trail passes through Montana, it maintains a relatively high altitude. The lowest point on the trail sits at 4,215 feet at the US/Canada border, and the highest point on the trail in Montana sits at 9,324 feet in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.

The trail through Montana is maintained by the Montana Wilderness Association and their group of partner organizations.

Hiking the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

the continental divide national scenic trail

Hiking the CDT is not a trip for the faint of heart or the weak of feet. The trail is 3,059 miles long from the southern to the northern terminus of the trail.

As of 2020, the trail was 95% complete with just 164 miles yet to be protected on public lands. In Montana, the trail extends 800 miles, much of which are at high elevations.

For thru-hikers that wish to hike the complete trail, this adventure takes around five months to complete.

Hikers wishing to cross from Mexico to Canada are encouraged to plan many months ahead, acquire backcountry hiking and camping permits and work with a support crew to resupply critical items such as food, water, and clean clothing.

However, if you are not interested in traveling the complete 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, you can choose to hike shorter sections of the trail.

Many people enjoy hiking small, 10-to-30-mile sections of the trail through Montana. These smaller sections may take a day to a week to complete and allow you to enjoy some of the most pristine scenery in the state and the United States.

Even though you may be choosing to travel a much shorter distance along the CDT, you should be well prepared for the hike. Taking the proper gear with you will make your journey more enjoyable and safer.

Here are some suggested items to carry with you if you’re hiking the CDT in Montana:

  • Water and equipment for purifying water in the wilderness
  • Food
  • First-aid kit
  • Bear repellant spray
  • Good hiking shoes/boots
  • Clothing
  • Winter coat, hat and gloves
  • Rain gear
  • Bug Spray
  • Shelter (tent)
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad
  • Cellphone or other means of communication

This is a basic list, and you may want to bring other gear like crampons, hiking poles, snowshoes, or cross-country skis.

This list will certainly change depending on the length of your hike and how many days you are planning on being out on the trail.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Highlights

There are a number of outstanding features that you will pass as you traverse the CDT through Montana.

  • West Goat Peak (10,793 feet): You’ll pass this peak in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. It is the highest peak near the CDT in Montana.
  • Anaconda cutoff: If you’re hiking, this is a great alternative route. Many hikers take this cutoff and use it as an opportunity to resupply and enjoy a night sleeping on an actual bed.
  • Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and Great Bear Wilderness Areas: These are some of the most remote parts of the CDT through Montana. They are inaccessible by roads and motorized vehicles are not allowed through these areas. However, they are home to some of the most pristine alpine and forest ecosystems in the United States.
  • Chinese Wall: 1,000-foot limestone cliffs that cross 22 miles of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Not many people get a glimpse of this massive geologic structure, but those who do are usually on the CDT.
  • East Glacier Village: This is another point where most hikers take time to resupply and enjoy a night in an actual bed. This is not an alternate route, the CDT routes hikers through the Village to prepare for many miles of hiking without access to supplies.
  • Glacier National Park: This is one of the most popular parts of the trail for thru-hikers and backcountry hikers. There are tons of amazing views, and the trails are maintained by the National Park Service, so they are generally in better condition than other parts of the trail.

Conclusion

Though not an easy hike, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is one of the most spectacular adventures in the United States today.

For the robust hiker, this trail offers 3,100 miles of spectacular views and pristine ecosystems.

Not everyone wants to spend 5-months hiking, so if you’re looking for a way to experience the trail, with a shorter time commitment, the CDT through Montana is a great way to experience the trail with only a portion of the time required.

 

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