What's it like to walk through the Rockies? In this bit, I'll share my experiences with resupply, weather, altitude and expectations during my hike on the CDT.
In case you missed it, in Part 1 I talked about navigation, information sources, alternates and water.
Contrary to what I’d heard, hitching into trail towns on the Divide wasn’t a major barrier to resupply. It’s true that the towns are a good distance from the trail passes (20-30 miles), making it tricky to get there AND back in a single day. Some of the dirt road hitches can be intimidating, but I had no issues. There were a few occasions where there were very few cars, so I found myself needing to be upfront about needing a ride. The longest I waited for a ride was actually out of Steamboat Springs, maybe 1.5 hours? The resort mountain towns have a little bit of a “higher than thou” feeling to them and that’s where most hikers seemed to be having a tougher time. Be assertive when you need to, and always outgoing and friendly. Locals love to help.
Many towns along the CDT are what I imagine the PCT to have been like in the early years: supportive and intrigued locals, few but reliable resources, and real genuine hospitality. Many people you’ll meet on the Divide have no idea the magnitude of the trail or who the people are hiking it… despite being in close proximity to it. I would encourage hikers to enjoy this aspect of the trail as an opportunity to both educate locals about the trail and it’s community, and learn from them about the local economy and areas we travel through. In many parts, I met people who had been in one location since their birth, and knew detailed and thorough histories of the area. It can be a real treat to experience their conversation. I recently put together a list of my favorite stops along the trail, based on a number of criteria including cost, friendliness, comfort and local experiences.
Resupply on the CDT isn't too difficult, however there a few things to prepare for. Unless you have specific dietary restrictions, you can get away with only a few boxes along the entire trail. Going North to South, here are the spots I would recommend sending boxes (*I’ve starred the ones you really have to send boxes):
1. Leadore, Idaho: They have short, but reliable hours at the Post Office (115 S Railroad St. 83464) here. This is not a necessary spot for a box, there is a convenient/general store across the street. If saving a few bucks isn’t important to you, the store will be grateful for your business, however I found their prices to be one of the highest on the trail (very hiker friendly though). With the distance going either direction out of Leadore around 130 miles, must of us are usually buying a lot of food here. Again, not necessary… but I wish I’d sent a full resupply box here.
2. Lima, Idaho: There is a gas station here you can resupply at if you’re not picky. However, the Mountain View Motel will accept your packages (406-276-3535). The owner, Mike, picks most hikers up at the highway crossing and takes them back to his place to either camp or rent a room at a reasonable price. The gas station has adequate food options, but is among the priciest spots. I was happy I’d sent a box here and only supplemented at the store.
3. Encampment, Wyoming: Everything here is a bit spread out, like the walk to Riverside to resupply at the gas station, or 17 mile additional hitch into Saratoga for legitimate grocery. If you want to avoid all the hassle and get in/out quickly, it’s worth sending a box to the Post Office here or find a motel who will accept one.
4. Twin Lakes, Colorado: If you are planning to pass through here during the height of Colorado Trail season (July, August, early September), consider sending a box. The general store is super hiker friendly and leaves boxes accessible to hikers even when they are closed. But, selection is limited… which you could make work if you weren’t in a bubble of hikers to beat to the shelves. You could potentially hitch to Buena Vista from here if needed.
5. Ghost Ranch, New Mexico*: If you take the Ghost Ranch Route, which is really beautiful, you 100% have to send a box here. There is no resupply option. They are super friendly, but an expensive resort-type place. It’s easy to pop in and pick up a package, and move on. Be sure to call for the current mailing address.
6. Pie Town, New Mexico*: You’ll walk right into town along the trail, where the closest resupply is a general store about 3 miles down the road you could hitch to with limited resupply available (or 22 miles hitch to Quemado). Nearly every hiker will send a box to the Post Office (17 Frontage Rd. 87827) or Nita’s Toaster House. It’s a good (100+ miles) long stretch to the next resupply point south of here, so you’ll want to be well stocked. Update: Word was that Pie Town is losing their PO Spring 2018, which is very troubling to the folks who live there. If this turns out to be true, boxes will have to go via UPS to Nita's.
7. Doc Campbell’s Post, New Mexico*: Along the Gila River Route, Doc’s (575-536-9551) is the only formal resupply stop along between Silver City and Pie Town. He has a few snacks, but not enough to restock on food altogether. This is a spot you really HAVE to send a box to. Call for the current mailing address.
You’ll notice that I left out Benchmark Ranch, the only possible stop within the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I opted to skip the additional 3 miles each way off trail to pick up a resupply box here. They charge you a hefty $20 to send one here when it’s really not necessary. I thoroughly enjoyed my 180 miles and 7 nights through this remote region, and I’d encourage others to do the same, as it is a unique experience to the CDT. If you are going northbound, your miles will be big enough by now to easily bypass.
Other resupply suggestions: At Chief Joseph Pass in Montana/Idaho, don’t be intimidated by the long hitch to Darby. In Wyoming, skip Brooks Lake Lodge and instead hitch to Dubois or Jackson for a zero. When you hit 287, hitch to Lander for full resupply and great town vibes, rather than sending a box to South Pass City or Atlantic City. In the National Parks (Glacier and Yellowstone) there are adequate but expensive resupply options, I had no issues stocking up there.
I did send boxes in addition to these, but only with my dog’s resupply. I’m a vegetarian and felt like I had plenty of choices at any of the stops I didn’t list here. Through the middle of the trail, much of Wyoming and Colorado, has full-service town stops with large grocery stores and food resupply boxes are not needed at all.
With an average elevation above 10,000 feet, the Continental Divide is a sizeable upgrade from her Triple Crown counterparts. Unless you already live at high elevation, you’ll probably notice the change in altitude. The Northern areas vary between 8-10k feet before the Winds in Wyoming send you up over 12,000. Colorado keeps you above 10,000 entirely, before you drop down around 7-8k for most of New Mexico. Even though the gains are gradual in either direction, the impact on hydration and appetite are strong (for some more than others). After weeks of hiking, I expected to be cruising up steep climbs, but oxygen at 12,000 feet impacted my breathing and overall rhythm.
If you’re able to train with some climbs at elevation prior to the CDT, your body will thank you later. Prepare to carry and consume more calories than usual, and have a ravenous or perhaps no appetite. Remember you’ll need to replenish electrolytes and drink more water than usual too. Lastly, the sun exposure. I think my nose was in a constant state of peeling for a number of weeks on the trail. It’s arguably BEYOND sunscreen and a hat for exposed stretches above tree; I wish I’d had straight-up zinc for my nose and neck. Protect yourself from that cancer stuff.
With higher elevation comes more extreme weather; there’s no way around it. The CDT threw just about everything at me in 2017- wildfires in the North, old snow, new snow, hail, rain, blistering heat, and toppling winds. If you’re lucky enough to experience mild weather, praise the trail gods. Most of us will need to endure some uncomfortable days to complete our hikes; it’s the name of the game. That’s likely a big factor that (allegedly) less than 100 people complete the CDT each year. The most to date, there were 75 reported thru-hike completions in 2017 (my guess is that number is actually ~100).
What it comes down to is preparing with the proper gear, having a backup for dead phone batteries, and using common sense. Read weather reports when possible (Mountain Forecast is a great resource), use visibility above ridge lines to watch the clouds, read a map, hide under Tyvek with friends to avoid hailstorms… I got by. There’s only so much we can prepare, and in the end it’s mental resilience that’ll keep optimism high during these times. Gratefully, we learn a lot by DOING.
ULTRALIGHT PHILOSOPHY & GEAR
To be most blunt, there are a fair amount of ultralight gear-snobs on any of the three big trails. I’ve certainly had my own moments getting obsessed with counting ounces and dialing in my kits. However, the CDT forced me to loosen up a bit more on the weight I was carrying. On the PCT and AT, the margin for error is smaller… with more traffic, community support, and bail-out options. On the Divide, you’re often on your own. Heading into the San Juans in early October led me to carry a few more “just-in-case” layers and extra gear (like a stove). My base weight varied from 7-14lbs on this trail. I think it’s entirely possible to uphold an ultralight philosophy on the CDT, but I’d warn folks to not to obsess and allow that to cloud judgement.
I won’t go too into gear here, because I wrote about that already. But I will say this: expect everything. Expect snow, expect rain, expect hot, expect cold, expect wind. Pack for it or practice mental resilience. If you were a no-phoner (no battery pack, didn't rely on it) for ages like me, know that it’d be tough NOT to carry a battery pack on this trail. Best piece of advice I can give is to set aside some 'conditional' things at home and explain to someone back home the possibility of needing to have items mailed out to you. Or, budget to make purchases along the way. Unless you plan to flip-flop or hike at Anish’s speed, you’re bound to run into something (for reference, I hiked it in 4.5 months with 10 zero days).
With any trail, and even those that you can’t reference a dozen books and hundreds of blogs, creating clear expectations is dangerous. That’s right, it’s DANGEROUS to your mental state. I 100% believe this is why a lot of people quit their hikes... because the experience they are having is not what they had pictured for themselves. Sometimes it means that a different opportunity comes about during the hike that leads you in a different direction. There are so many pieces to this trail that are unpredictable that setting strict expectations will often leave you disappointed. For most of us, our hikes don’t go perfectly planned and sometimes they even take an alternative course all together. There's something to be said for taking the path less traveled. It’s important to remind ourselves of this when it comes to route choice, weather, water and milage (on the CDT it varrrrries.. ).