Some Common Questions
If I don't answer your question in this document or in any of the others, or you can't find the answer, please feel free to email me.
- What is the Great Divide Trail? The GDT is an ambitious attempt to create a long distance trail running along the Continental Divide through Canada. However, almost all development of the trail has ceased, although I was told that in the late summer of 2004, after I had passed by, a trail crew of volunteers worked on developing the trail in the North Fork Pass area of the GDT. There is no trail association or official body that oversees the trail, it having been disbanded in the late 1980s due to a lack of interest and governmental support, both at the national and provincial levels. There is no official route for the GDT. There are no trail blazes. Many people will have no idea what you are hiking if you tell them. However, there is a commonly accepted direction and route and it is best to think of the GDT in this sense: You are going to hike in the general vicinity of the Continental Divide, generally following a standard route, but detouring when conditions and desires demand it.
The southern terminus of the GDT is generally accepted to be at the US-Canadian border in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The northern terminus is less clear, with choices including a parking lot in Jasper National Park (indeed, the only GDT sign I saw was here, and it proclaimed that it was the northern end), Mount Robson Provincial Park (containing the highest point in the Canadian Rockies and also the original end of the GDT), and Kakwa Lakes Provincial Park (further north and advocated by Dustin Lynx). All of these end points makes at least some sense: Jasper is provides easy transit, Mount Robson a symbolic point, and Kakwa Lakes a wild end and the last place that it is feasible to get off. All three have their downsides. In Jasper there is plenty of good trail to the north and it isn't fun to simply end in a parking lot. From Mount Robson, there is still good trail to the north. Kakwa Lakes requires a helicopter to come and get you, or a long, long ATV track walk out to a highway where a car can get you.
I favor Mount Robson for its symbolic value, and for the fact that extraction out of Kakwa Lakes is difficult or costly. Moreover, the descent from Mount Robson to the park headquarters is one of stunning beauty.
In between the terminii, the route passes through Waterton National Park and Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Parks before striking out through mostly unprotected, undesignated lands, with a few exceptions, on its way to Elk Lakes Provincial Park, in Kananaskis Country, a heavily visited area epitomized by Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The GDT enters Banff National Park via Palliser Pass, after passing through Heights of the Rockies Provincial Park. The route strays into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, re-enters Banff, and then traverses through Kootenay National Park on the Rockwall trail and Yoho National Park, which it leaves at Amiskwi Pass. The GDT then passes through Forest Reserve land (essentially not protected) and picks up the fancy sounding David Thompson Heritage trail and crossing back into Banff National Park at historic Howse Pass. The trail crosses into the southern end of Jasper National Park and follows, depending on the route, established trails into the town of Jasper. For those heading north, there are two choices: The wilder, burned out version described in Lynx's book heading over Colonel Pass, and the lower elevation, equally wild, more pedestrian, and longer North Boundary Trail. Both routes link up near Robson Pass, from which good trail leads down to the park headquarters and a road. Lynx describes a route that heads further to the north and ends at Kakwa Lakes Provincial Park after traversing through part of the Wilmore Wilderness.
- What is the trail like? The GDT varies in trail quality from extremely high (Waterton, some parts of Banff and Jasper) to extremely poor (parts of Banff and Jasper). There is quite a bit of ATV track walking along with some gravel road walking. There is some active road walking, although the amount depends on the route you take. Generally speaking, the gravel road walking is fairly pleasant and most Canadian highways seem to have massive shoulders. There is a fair amount of cross country hiking involved as well. I was surprised at the very poor condition of some of the trails in Banff and Jasper, as these are the flagship Canadian parks and are supposed to have world class facilities. Some of the trails had not been maintained for many years and were thickly overgrown. A two man trail crew with a chainsaw could fix a lot of the problems on some of the trails in a weekend, for example on the route down from Howse Pass to the Howse river. Other areas would require a significant amount of manpower, such as the NBT. Given how difficult Parks Canada makes it for people to enter the backcountry, and how much money they demand for the privilege (ostensibly for trail maintenance), I was surprised by their lack of work in many areas.
- Is there a guidebook? Yes, and it is a good one, written by an actual long distance hiker. Dustin Lynx's Hiking Canada's Great Divide Trail is published by Rocky Mountain Books and is the only guidebook to the trail. You will want to buy it you are planning a hike of the GDT. Although it was written in the late 1990s, I found it to be mostly accurate and I could not imagine trying to plan or execute a long hike, especially outside the national parks, without it.
- How long is the GDT? Because there is no standard route, this is difficult to answer. It isn't made any easier due to the fact that cross country travel is involved. However, I estimate that I hiked about 1020 kilometers on my version, which took the NBT and ended at Mount Robson, along with some significant detours. My route is shorter than the route as spelled out in Lynx's book.
How many people thruhike the GDT each year? Very few. I ran into two other GDT thruhikers and we ended at Robson together. They had met two others, but it is unclear if they finished or not. A friend of a friend hiked the GDT, but he started behind me and I have confirmation that he finished as well. I do not know of others, but there might be. I suspect that somewhere between 0 and 6 people generally attempt a thruhike per year. Compare this with the 3000 or so who start the AT and the 300 or so who start the PCT.
- Do I need to be an expert map reader to hike the GDT? No, certainly not. I was never really truly lost, although I did have to spend a lot of time with my compass out and looking at maps. You will want to know which part of the arrow on your compass points north, and what a topographic map is, but that is about it. You do not need a GPS system, although Lynx provides GPS waypoints in his guidebook for you to use. What you need is a healthy spirit for adventure and a willingness to go your own way. Many times I was far away from the route as spelled out in the guidebook, but was heading in the right direction. If not being exactly on trail bothers you, you should try a different trail, like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails. Cross country hiking was sometimes very easy in terms of route finding, but very hard physically. Other times, the hiking easy and the route finding challenging.
- How tough is a thru hike? How long did it take? The climbs on the GDT are steeper than those of the PCT, although not as high. I would estimate that, in terms of grade, the average climb on the GDT is about as steep as an average climb on the AT. However, they are generally much higher than the AT, so you have to work hard for more than 100 meters. The difficulties from the trail are potentially very high. Route finding, while not much of an issue, may present difficulties for those expecting a blaze system like the AT. River crossings can be present a significant hazard. I had excellent weather, mostly, but the potential for extended bad weather is high. Large parts of the GDT are very remote and help is far away if you get into trouble. There is no trail culture. People will not be out doing what you are doing. Even weekend backpackers were rare. Except for Blairemore/Coleman and Elkford (far, far from the GDT), you will not find the towns very inviting or restful. Forget about getting a motel room. Resupply can be hard. Trails might not be maintained. Mosquitoes are worse than anything on the AT or PCT.
Parks Canada (with the exception of one warden in Jasper) was uniformly unhelpful and annoying, unlike the Park and Forest service personal along the PCT.
All this being said, however, I think that the GDT makes for an excellent hike, particularly if one has experience on something like the PCT or CDT. Snow was not an issue for me, unlike the Sierra section of the PCT. It took me 30 days to complete the trail, with four of those spent not hiking. I met two women who completed the trail in about 10 more days than I did. Dustin Lynx, on the Rocky Mountain Books website, has a two month itinerary.
- What is the season for hiking? I started hiking on July 9 and found little snow in Waterton. Weather had become stable and there were few afternoon lightning storms. It was generally warm during the day and cold at night and in the morning. I finished August 9, in cold, wet weather at Robson, although it cleared a few days later. The two women I met on the GDT started 10 days before me and had a lot of snow and bad weather. Hiking season depends on the year, but I would say that a July 1 start would be good, and hiking could be extended through mid September. I would not want to be caught in an early winter in northern Canada, however.
- Do most people hike south to north, or north to south? Almost no one hikes the trail, so this answer is really up to you. However, I think south to north makes the most sense. People in recent years thought otherwise. The further north you start, the more snow you will probably have to deal with. Transport to Waterton is fairly easy, as is transit to Jasper and Mount Robson. Kakwa Lakes is tough, however. If you are determined to go to Kakwa Lakes, you'll probably want to start in the north, if you have some cash. Schedule a helicopter ride into Kakwa Lakes, and then hike south. Getting into Kakwa on foot takes awhile.
- What kind of permits do I need? See the permits page for an answer to this question.
- How do I get to the southern terminus? Getting the US-Canadian border in Glacier-Waterton is possible from both ends. I hear that one can take a train to East Glacier, MT. From there, you'd have to get a taxi or shuttle into Glacier National Park, pick up a permit, hike to Goat Haunt Ranger Station in northern GNP, then cross the border and deal with immigration in Waterton. I think this is the long way around. The option I took was to drive into Calgary, clearing immigration when I drove across. I have friends that live in Calgary and one gave me a lift to Waterton, about a two to three hour drive from Calgary. In Waterton, there is a short trail to the border, which you can hike to and back in less than two hours. If you don't have friends in Calgary, you can fly into the city and then take a Greyhound bus to the town of Pincher Creek, which is not far from the park. I was told that during the summer a shuttle bus runs from Pincher Creek to Waterton, or you could hitch.
- How do I get back from the northern terminus? This depends on where you think the northern terminus is. If you think it to be Jasper, there is nothing to do. You walk into town, where there is a rail station and Greyhound station. Note that some of the charter tour companies will be able to get you to Banff or Canmore a lot cheaper than Greyhound. From Banff, there are a lot of airport shuttles to Calgary. Remember, this is tourist central in the summer, so transport isn't hard. From Mount Robson, I believe that Greyhound operates a flag-down bus (you have to flag the bus down). It doesn't really matter, as there is a ton of traffic heading between Robson and Jasper. I got a lift from Robson to Jasper, then caught a charter tour bus that was heading from Jasper to Banff, empty. It had finished its tour and the driver had to get home, so I went along.
Kakwa Lakes is the tough one. Unless you have arranged (and met) a helicopter to take you out, you'll have to hoof it along Walker Creek Road, which runs about 85 K out to the Yellowhead highway. Walker Creek is supposed to be a hard rough for 4x4s to drive, so don't expect a hitch or much traffic (although if you do run into a car going out, you'll probably get a ride). From the Yellowhead, you'll have to hitch or walk a long way to Prince George (in the north) or to McBride (in the south), where you can pick up a bus. It will take you probably three or four days to get out from Kakwa Lakes if you are walking.
- Is there a good online source of information? No, not really. Rocky Mountain Books has some information and a forum. I didn't find much else, other than a few short emails from a few years ago. Parks Canada has a website where you can get out of date information about the national parks and misleading information about the permit system. There are no mailing lists for the GDT. If you need help, I will help you. Just email me. Dustin Lynx was very helpful with email suggestions. You can find his email address easily enough online if you look for it.
- What sort of temperature range do you get on the GDT? Most nights were below 40 F (about +5C), but above freezing. Some were warmer, in the upper 40s (+ 8 to 10 C). Most days were mild (around 60 F or 15 C), except for some very hot days in the Crowsnest Pass area, where it might have been all of about 85 F (or 30 C). There were some cold days at the end, near Mount Robson, where it probably didn't get above 50 F (10 C). Of course, every year is different and you should be prepared for very difficult weather in the Rockies.
- Did you treat your water? No, almost never. The water sources on the GDT were usually fairly good and I rarely treated it. There were a few times when I had to get water out of a lake, and then I used iodine. Rangers in Jasper warned of a Giardia area on the NBT, and I treated in the area, but think the warning was overdone. There were a few swampy creeks where you wouldn't want to get water, but they usually had beautiful ones close by.
- Did you ever get sick? No, I was healthy the entire time. About the only time I got close to being sick was when I walked into Jasper and was disgusted with the tourists in town.
- What is the prettiest place on the GDT? No one can answer that. But, a few places spring to mind. Almost all of Waterton is spectacular. The area just before LaCoulotte ridge is great, and LaCoulotte Ridge itself is unbelievable. North Kananaskis Pass, with its view of the Royal Group is pretty amazing. Hiking into Assiniboine and down the Og Valley was a highlight. Coming up over Citadel Pass and into the start of Sunshine meadows just after a rainshower was powerful. Hemlet Creek was great. Sleeping on the banks of the Kicking Horse. The climb up Amiskwi Pass. The Howse Flood Plain. Jonas Pass and Shoulder. Maligne Pass. All of the Skyline. Snake Indian Falls and Pass. The descent from Robson Pass. Plus, all the places that are special to me and me alone. If you want a single, short hike with drop dead, oh-my-god views, just hike the Skyline Trail in Jasper. If you can get a permit.
- What kind of footwear did you use? I started with a pair of Asics Gel Trabuco VI trail runners that I had used on the AT earlier in the summer. In Field, I switched to a pair of Asics Eagle Trail III trail runners for the rest of the way. I see absolutely no need for boots, unless you plan to get lost a lot and do a lot of bushwhacking. In that case, having boots might be useful. I'd still go with shoes, considering the river fords (faster drying time).
- What about bears? There is no doubt about it, the GDT runs through bear country, including grizzly. However, I saw only two black bears and a single grizzly during my trek, though I encountered plenty of bear sign (scat, scratches, etc). The two other GDT hikers I met had encountered a grizzly sow and cubs. Almost every night I hung my food in trees with a length of utility cord. This was difficult at times, since most of the trees that one encounters on the GDT are of the pine variety. The branch structure makes a secure hang difficult to find at times. There were some nights when I had to hunt for twenty minutes to find a reasonable place. Carrying a bear canister would eliminate this problem, but adds weight to an already heavy pack. Additionally, because of the distance between some of the resupply points, some hikers might need to carry two canisters. I brought bear spray with me, but never had to draw it.
- How was the wildlife? Aside from the aforementioned bears, I saw a big horn sheep by the side of HWY 93, several moose, scads of deer, a few bald eagles, elk, coyotes, and other common wildlife, such as small rodents and a variety of birds. I was a little disappointed by the amount of wildlife and am unsure why I saw so little. I frequently sang or called out when I was in the backcountry as a precaution against startling a bear, which probably drove quite a bit of other wildlife away.
- What is the worst part of the GDT? Hands down, it is Parks Canada, although they are an annoyance more than anything else. Because of how far north it lies, there is much daylight during the summer time. This means hikers generally don't get to see sunsets and you have to get up very early to see the sun rise. I hated almost all the front country along the GDT as it was filled with tourists and their machines. The lack of protection for the land outside the national parks was disturbing, but instructive. Clear cuts and mining operations are common sights along the land in between the parks.
- What would be a good short trip on the GDT? I can only comment on linear hikes, but some loops should be possible.
- An excellent hike would be from the southern terminus to Castle Mountain Ski resort, complete with the traverse of LaCoulotte ridge, or with half the traverse and then a route along Barnaby ridge, as described in the guidebook. I took three days to reach Castle Mountain, but five might be more appropriate for short term hikers.
- From Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, into Heights of the Rockies PP, and then up and over Palliser Pass and into Banff would make another good one. The GDT leads very close to a major trailhead in Banff. This stretch took me a day and a half.
- The hike from the Watridge trail junction in Banff into Assiniboine, back into Banff via Citadel Pass and on to Sunshine Meadows is spectacular and fairly easy. Expect company in the Sunshine Meadows area. This took me about 3 days.
- From HWY 93, take the Helmet Creek trail up to Helmet Falls, then over Goodsir pass and down the Ottertrail fire road to HWY 1. This can be done in 2 days.
- Although I didn't hike it, the guidebook describes an interesting route (the GDT) from The Crossing into the White Goat wilderness and the southern end of Jasper. It sounds difficult, but also feasible in a weekend. From where the GDT runs into Nigel Pass, one could take the Nigel Pass trail out to HWY 93 (I came in this way). The river fords on this route dissuaded me from taking this route.
- The Skyline trail in Jasper National Park took me a day to hike, although most people spend two or three days on it. It is possibly the most spectacular trail that I have ever been on.
- How are the river fords? I encountered only one truly dangerous crossing, and that was the Cairnes Creek ford to get to the start of the David Thompson Heritage trail. I was nearly swept away. I splashed about a lot in other fords, including the Howse and Spray rivers. In general, there are fewer fords than in the Sierra section of the PCT, although they can be tougher. Some of the fords that were easy for me might be challenging or dangerous in other years.
- Is the GDT right for a first time long distance hiker? Probably not. The relative isolation, difficulty in resupply, lack of other hikers, and the sometimes difficult to follow trail are factors that might be too much for a first time hiker. Instead, spend a summer on the PCT. You won't regret it. On the other hand, there isn't much that a resourceful and relaxed hiker could not handle. I encountered very few situations in which some sort of technical skill was required.
- What kind of camera did you use? I used an old and battered Olympus Stylus Epic point and shoot 35 mm camera. It has a fixed (non zoom) lens and cost me about $70 a few years ago. I used a variety of slide film in it: Fuji Velvia 50, Sensia II 100, and some kind of consumer grade Kodak. After getting the slides developed, I scanned them in using a friend's high quality slide scanner.
- Why all the pontificating? See my note on the text section for an explanation.
- Why didn't you hike as fast as on the PCT? On the PCT I tended to walk all day long at a leisurely pace. Thirty miles a day was fairly easy there, but took me most of the daylight to do. As a result, I tended to write shorter journal entries and I didn't read at all. On the GDT I wanted to explore some ideas that I had been pondering for the last year and wanted time in the evening to read and to write. This meant that I stopped two or three hours earlier each day on the GDT than I did on the PCT.
My pace during the day was the same, but the time was shorter.