Bridging the Divide

Bipartisan legislation seeks to finally fill the gaps in the Continental Divide Trail

Bridger-Teton National Forest. Photo by Matthew Morelli.

Halfway through the Continental Divide Trail, having traveled over 1,500 miles through the plains of New Mexico and the rugged mountains of Colorado, tired, with heavy legs, hikers come to the 15 arduous miles of Muddy Pass between Jackson and Grand counties. The trail has temporarily ended, and at this point, hikers are forced to travel next to a high-speed roadway until they are able to join the established trail again in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. 

There are many gaps like this throughout the 3,100-mile CDT — in total, there are around 160 miles of missing trail due to gaps in public land. 

In August 2021, Rep. Joe Neguse introduced the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act. After passing the House this July, the legislation has made its way to the Senate, where legislators from across the aisle, Steve Daines (R-MT) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), have co-sponsored the bill this month. If it passes, the legislation will direct the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to prioritize completion of the CDT by the trail’s 50th anniversary in 2028. 

Established in 1978 as an addition to the National Trails System Act, the CDT begins in the high desert of southern New Mexico and winds its way through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, snaking to its terminus in Glacier National Park in Montana. 

The trail is considered the most difficult of the Triple Crown of Hiking: the CDT, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. Despite increased traffic on the trail over the past decade, CDT hikers often don’t cross paths with another hiker for multiple days; remoteness defines the sentiment of the trail.

“The CDT is home to beautiful landscapes and world-class recreational opportunities, serving as both a refuge for communities to experience being outdoors and an economic driver for the mountain towns and businesses that rely on visitors for their livelihoods,” Rep. Neguse said in a press statement. “By passing the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act, we ensure that more people have access to these recreational benefits and we invest in Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy.”

In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the outdoor industry makes up a major portion of state gross domestic product (GDP), with each being ranked in the top 10 for percentage of the economy supported by outdoor recreation. Montana ranks number one, with Wyoming being fourth and Idaho eighth in the country. Colorado lies just outside the top 10 at 11th. 

Glacier National Park. Photo by Heidi Zhang.

Over the span of the trail, there are now 20 official “gateway communities,” including Grand Lake, Colorado, that have partnered with the nonprofit org Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC). These communities are committed to the completion and protection of the Continental Divide Trail and act as pleasant stops for those hiking the trail. In a small survey of businesses in gateway communities, 78% of respondents said they believe that protecting the trail is important to the well-being of businesses, jobs and the community’s economy. Eighty percent of respondents said they have seen growth in their business due to the use of the CDT since 2014.

“We’ve seen a huge growth in first-time users of the trail, and also people just getting out from their communities and connecting with the trail,” explains Luke Fisher, trail policy program manager for CDTC. 

“It’s not only important for the community’s business and economy, but it’s also important for a lot of these community cultures; they have a huge connection with the Divide in this landscape.” 

Completion of the trail means not only more visitors and more money being invested into local economies, but will also protect other forms of outdoor recreation culture, Fisher says: “A lot of hunters and fishers use the trail to go get food and [for] cultural practices.” 

Fisher explains that the trail was only around 65% complete in the year 2009 and that over the past 13 years it has developed by an additional 30%. The CDTC works with gateway communities to designate the best areas for the trail to follow. Just 10 years ago, only 20-25 hikers would attempt the trail from start to finish. Now anywhere from 400-600 hikers attempt the through hike each year.

In 2018 Allie Ghaman, who has also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, completed the CDT in a little over four months with her husband. Ghaman, who also works for CDTC, explains that one of the major goals for the CDTC is to finish the trail gap that exists at Muddy Pass near Steamboat Springs. 

“We were doing it in the rain because we were being very stubborn about it, which was not the right judgment call in hindsight,” she says. “You’re walking on the edge of a road and there are a couple places where the highway gets quite tight as well.” 

Despite inconveniences like Muddy Pass, Ghaman highlights the beauty and remoteness that set the CDT apart from other National Scenic Trails. 

“Because there are areas in which people take alternate routes or explore different areas, you end up with places where you might not see another trail traveler for days on end,” she says. “At one point in Montana, I think we went eight or nine days without seeing anyone else.” 

Fisher, of CDTC, says they believe the end is finally in sight. “Just in the past decade we have almost completed 30% of the trail — I think that’s a real testament to the dedication of all our land managers and volunteers,” they say. “As CDTC enters our second decade, that’s the main part of our mission. I really think we can get it done by our 50th anniversary, but we’ll see how we get that.”