Continental Divide Trail

In 2007 I became the first person to yo-yo the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). That means I did a roundtrip, starting at the Mexican border, hiking to Canada, and back. It hadn't been done before because there never was anyone who was stupid enough to want to do it. I'm glad to be that guy.

I've left the rest of this page in its pre-hike state. I wrote this page before I started the hike. It explains my hiking philosophy, motivation, and goals behind the hike.

Four minute video summing up the CDT Yo-Yo

Francis Tapon's CDT Yo-yo - Continental Divide Trail from Francis Tapon on Vimeo.

Map of the Continental Divide Trail - CDT
Coolness: The sidebar has journal entries and photos. Hover your mouse pointer over the photos and watch them expand like magic! Also, hover over the maps (like the one on the this page) and see some cool stuff happen!

What does it mean to yo-yo a trail?

To yo-yo a trail means to thru-hike a major trail twice in one season. You start at one point, walk to another point, and then walk back to where you began. Like a yo-yo, you return to where you started via the same path. It's a roundtrip!

Why hasn't anyone yo-yoed the CDT? Because it's about 2,800 miles long,  one way. So yo-yoing the CDT entails walking over 5,600 miles in under seven months. Not exactly a walk in the park.

What is the CDT?

As the two maps on this page show, the Continental Divide Trail is a path that goes from Mexico to Canada.

However, the CDT is unlike most trails: it is only 70% complete and even the complete sections are not set in stone. On the Appalachian Trail, for example, there is no debate where the trail is. The CDT, on the other hand, is more a suggestion rather than a well-defined trail.

This is the great paradox of the CDT. Out of all the trails, there should be absolute agreement where the trail ought to be. After all, the Continental Divide is a geographic feature in nature that is clearly defined and universally agreed to. All rivers to the east of the Divide end in the Atlantic Ocean, and all rivers to the west end in the Pacific Ocean.

Other trails, like the PCT or AT, aren't so strictly defined by nature. For example, the AT aims to walk on the Appalachian Mountain range, which is over 100 km wide. This width gives trail designers substantial leeway on where to put the actual trail.

The Continental Divide, on the other hand, is only one meter wide. In theory there is absolutely no leeway on where to put the CDT. Nature has already shown us where it must go. However, the actual geographic Divide is not always ideal for hiking. For instance the Divide might be:

  • Too far from water: By definition, the Divide splits the waters, so it's rare to find water on it. There's only one place over 3,100 miles where you can find a creek on the divide (and yes, it splits in two and is called the Parting of the Waters). Therefore, it's uncommon to find water on the Divide. Without water, you'll have thirsty (or dead) hikers. If the CDT were always on the Divide, hikers would have to go significantly off the trail a couple of times a day just to load up on water. This would drive you nuts.
  • On the private property of a jerk: Thankfully most private land owners grant easements for the CDT to go through their land (usually enormous ranches). Unfortunately, sometimes the trail designers run into a jerk who doesn't want to grant an easement for the trail, even though the Congress authorized the government to do. So they have to route the trail around the guy's property.
  • Not scenic: Sometimes the Divide might go through a dull, monotonous landscape, while just a few kilometers to the east (or west) of it there might be a spectacular natural setting with waterfalls and exotic trees. Where would you want to go?
  • Too dangerous: Sometimes the Divide is on a knife edge mountain range or is insanely steep. Hikers are wimps. We're too lazy to carry around all the equipment rock climbers need. We want nice, well graded paths and don't want to die from a catastrophic fall. Dying of hypothermia though, now that's cool. We're good at that.

Therefore, even though nature tells us where the trail ought to go, the CDT usually goes elsewhere. There are multiple ways to parallel the Divide. Although there is some consensus of where you should walk, it's ultimately up to each hiker to decide how close to the Divide she wants to walk. More than any other trail, the phrase hike your own hike is the mantra.

Hence, it's important to make a distinction between the the Continental Divide Trail (the CDT) and the Continental Divide (the Divide). The Divide is clearly defined; the CDT is not. The Divide is nature's line; the CDT is a man-made trail that goes near or on the Divide. The CDT sometimes has multiple trails that are legitimate paths along the Divide.

There are various ways to follow the Divide, how will you decide where to go?

I have never had an interest in yo-yoing the AT or PCT because I don't like hiking the same trail twice. I don't even like out-and-back day hikes (which are effectively yo-yos). I prefer loops or thru-hikes. I've always thought, "Why would you want to yo-yo a trail? Why not use that time/energy hiking some other trail?"

In 1956, my dad, at the age of 26, was prophetic. He was in at la Divisoria de las Aguas, or the Parting of the Waters. However, this wasn't on the CDT, it was in Argentina! He lived there for 7 years. He loved to travel. I got my wanderlust gene from him. I dedicate my CDT Yo-Yo to my dad.

However, the CDT, unlike most long distance trails, has multiple options. Therefore, it gives one the option of taking one path on the way up and taking an alternate path back down! Variety! Yipee! Therefore...

On the way to Canada, I will take the longest and toughest route available. For example, in Glacier National Park the Highline Trail is the tough way to follow the CDT. There are lower elevation trails that also parallel the Divide. These are both legitimate and widely recognized ways through that section. On the way up, I will take the tough way (the Highline Trail); on the return, I will take a lower elevation trail. Similarly, there are three ways around the Great Basin. I will take the longest way on the way to Canada.

On the way back to Mexico, I will try to take a different route when I return. I prefer not walking exactly the way I came; variety is key. The only exception might be Colorado because the scenery will change so dramatically between the Spring (tons of snow) and the Fall (autumn colors); some places will be unrecognizable. So it will be fun to see the change in Colorado. (If I'm running late, Colorado might look the same - snow both ways!) Also, if there are places I want to revisit, then I'll walk through them again. I will avoid road walks, especially paved ones whenever possible. I abhor road walking. If the choice is between a boring trail that I've already walked on the way to Canada or a paved road that I've never seen, I'll take the boring trail.

I realize this strategy is time-consuming and inefficient.

  • By taking a different path on my return, I'll have twice as many opportunities to get lost and I'll lose valuable time since I will be taking infrequently used alternate routes that are longer than the standard route.
  • I also hope to hike with some friends, who will probably slow down my pace.
  • I hope to bag several big peaks along the way that are not part of the CDT.
  • I hope to enjoy the towns, take a shower and do laundry as often as possible!

All this assures that it will be easy for someone to yo-yo the CDT in less time. Speed records are fleeting and met to be broken. Being the first at doing something is not fleeting and can never been "broken", so I'll be happy to be the first. And if I'm not the first, that OK too!

Is the CDT really 2,800 miles long?

No. That's just an educated guess. The CDTA, the CDT's official governing body, estimates the Divide is 3,100 miles long.

However, most thru-hikers estimate that the trail is less than 3,100 miles long. I've heard estimates as low as 2,500 miles. Most experts seem to agree that it is longer than the PCT, which is about 2,650 miles long. It seems that 2,800 miles might be a good guess, but ultimately it depends on the route you take. I expect to hike about 3,000 miles on the way up and 2,800 on the way down.

How fast will you hike?

My strategy is simple: use New Mexico as the warm up and the cool down. Go like hell the rest of the time.

I'll start in mid-May and walk a decent pace through New Mexico, rest for three days at the foothills of the Colorado mountains, and then blast off to Canada and back. Upon returning to New Mexico, I will rest a day or two, and then have a leisurely return to the Mexican border. In other words, the race against winter will start from the moment I enter southern Colorado and will end when I return there. New Mexico is the only place I will go at a moderate pace. I hope to be done by Thanksgiving, but I'll bust out the snowshoes if necessary.

Some thru-hikers like to say, "Hey, what's the rush? This is not a race."

Wrong. Anyone who wants to thru-hike is racing - they are racing against winter. The difference with a yo-yo and a thru-hike is a yo-yoer has more pressure to do big miles. But it's all relative. Thru-hikers have the pressure too, some just don't realize it until it starts getting really cold!

Although this is a race, I will not run. I intend to average 3 miles per hour, which is the pace that most people walk. New Yorkers might walk 4 mph. So when people say that I won't see anything because I'm going too fast, I'll remind them that you can see quite a bit at 5 mph, just as anyone stuck in traffic. Also, I'll be walking the CDT twice, so if I miss something the first time, I might catch it on the return!

What is your guiding philosophy for this thru-hike?

My goals:

  1. Complete the yo-yo.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Stay as close as possible to the Divide, but take a different route on the way down.
  4. Explore and be comprehensive (e.g., bag the summits, do the side trails, take the long route in order to see something different).
  5. Not worry about setting a speed record.

It's weird to put "Have Fun" as my #2 goal and not #1. Normally in my life it's #1, because part of the hike your own hike philosophy is to follow your Fun Compass. In this case, however, I realize that to complete the yo-yo I will have to do things that are not fun. In my other two thru-hikes I could focus on fun because I always had plenty of time. My pace gave me a nice buffer during those hikes that took pressure off me, so when I wanted to stop hiking I could. This time, I won't have much of a buffer. The pressure won't stop until I get back to New Mexico. Let's see if it gives me a heart attack! Sweet!

Goal #4 means that I won't be 100% efficient. I have no interest in setting a speed record that will last for years. I just hope to finish!

"Who wants to hike with pressure?" some say. "Why don't you just relax and chill out?"

Some forget that most hikers have pressure, especially thru-hikers. All thru-hikers face the looming threat of winter. They all have to keep a certain pace to make sure winter doesn't overtake them. I'll have that pressure too, just like any thru-hiker.

Some thru-hikers are in their 60s. Do they feel more pressure than someone who is in their 30s trying to do a yo-yo? Perhaps. And it depends on how you handle pressure - does it give you energy or debilitate you? Does it add to your experience and fun, or does it detract?

Even section hikers face pressure. For example, if you planned to backpack 50 miles over 5 days, you face the pressure of doing 10 miles a day. What if it rains hard one day and you want a day off? Now you have more pressure to up your mileage for the remaining days. What if you get injured in the middle of the trip? If it extends your 5 day an extra day or two you might be late to work and your loved ones will begin to worry. So the pressure is there even on short trips. For some, such a trip would be a lot of pressure, for others it would be hardly noticeable.

In short, most hikers face pressure to keep a certain pace. What matters is how they deal with it. In general, I enjoy the challenge, so I don't see the pressure as a negative. Sure, some days might suck, but that's true no matter what you're doing.

"But when you go so fast, you don't see anything."

The people who say this are usually the same people who get pissed off in a traffic jam, which moves faster than I do.

Walking 3 miles per hour is slow. Some sections are so boring that I wish I could cruise at 10 mph.

Of course I will miss some things. But we all do. Let's say you take three days to walk through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Did you miss anything? What if you spent a week there instead? Is that enough to see everything? Or do you need a month? Or year? Or a lifetime? What about just a few hours? Who determines that you've spent enough time there and done it justice? Is it better to see it quickly than not at all? I have seen places that most people could never get to. If I could only see them briefly, should I have stayed home instead?

The length of time you spend somewhere is just one measure. What about how you spend that time in the Bob Marshall Wilderness? If it better to stay put in one place for a week or wander around? Depth or breadth?

Also, some are more perceptive than others. The PCT has a halfway point marker right on the trail (see picture of me standing on it), yet one Nobo told me he didn't see it! I couldn't believe he missed it! You practically walk into it! Maiu often saw tiny details that I failed to see, like baby strawberries growing a few meters away. While she was eyeing berries, I might spot something she was oblivious to, like cloud formations foretelling a storm headed our way.

Yes, I miss things. Yes, I wish I could take more side trips. Yes, I wish I could spend more time everywhere I go. Except those mosquito infested swamps.

However, we all have to deal with tradeoffs when we travel. Hike your own hike. When I travel I prefer skimming areas and then revisiting the most interesting places some other day. That's the way I like to hike. I don't ask you to hike that way, nor do I believe my way is the best way. Doing big miles every day, hiking from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, and skipping amusing side trips doesn't stress me out or make me miserable. I realize most people would hate hiking this way. I enjoy hiking this way, but I don't expect anyone else to enjoy it. And if I don't enjoy my hike, I make changes.

Lastly, just to make sure the local insane asylum doesn't come looking for me, I want you to know that I also love leisurely backpacking trips. I love to go to the woods, camp at a scenic spot, read all day, and sit on my lazy ass eating Top Ramen. I just also happen to love thru-hiking, which is a completely different activity.

"What kind of hiker are you?"

Being humans, we like to classify people into categories and rank them. We have the richest, the fattest, the loveliest, the smartest, and the worst dressed. Naturally, some want to determine who are the best hikers.

However, unlike other silly contests, this question doesn't have an obvious answer. Who is the best? It's fairly easy to determine who is the fastest, but that doesn't make her the best. What about the hiker who makes most people laugh and enjoy themselves? Or the most observant hiker? Or the most generous hiker? Because these characteristics are difficult, if not impossible, to measure, people fall back on the easiest one to measure: speed. While easy to measure, it doesn't mean you're the best or even the strongest. After all, who is stronger: one who walks 30 miles carrying 5 pounds or one who walks 29 miles carrying 40 pounds?

Besides, although thru-hiking is an athletic activity, it's not really a true sport because it doesn't have one thing all real sports have: referees. Skaters have judges, adventure races have checkpoints and referees, and even chess matches have officials overseeing the event. Hiking, even more than mountaineering, is based on an honor code. For mountaineers, a couple of key photos can prove they did what they say they did. With thru-hikers, even a thousand photos doesn't prove they've walked every step. So it's truly an honor code. Therefore, it's somewhat silly to talk about thru-hiking speed records.

Sadly some macho idiots somehow think they are superior to others because they can hike 25 miles in a day vs. 15. Some think they're the toughest because they can lug 100 pounds; others think they're geniuses because they only carry 4 pounds.

I say: "Who cares?"

Hike your own hike! I don't care if people think I'm a buffoon to yo-yo the trail. I don't care if they think I'm a neurotic dumbass who just doesn't get it. I also don't believe that I'm superior to other hikers. I don't believe that my way is the best way. There's a reason I wrote a book called Hike Your Own Hike.

This doesn't mean I'll never poke fun at other people, and doing so doesn't make me a hypocrite. I might think someone who carries an 80 pound pack is hilarious, but I won't say he's wrong to do that. I might chuckle at folks who drive a Hummer, but I'll defend their right to drive it and to hike their own hike. Similarly, I'll never get mad if someone makes fun of me (as I'm sure many do - "Hey, there goes psycho hiker Francis!"). If I cornered those hikers I'm sure they would say, "Francis, you're a total nut case and I would never do what you're doing, but I respect what you're doing and you should hike your own hike." I'd tip my hat to them and look at their funny shoes and say, "I would never wear those awful shoes, but I respect your choice and have fun hiking your own hike!" Then we'd both shake our heads in wonderment as we walk away.

Hike your own hike doesn't mean you can't criticize or poke fun of someone. It just means that at the end of the day you should do what makes you happy and let others do the same.

My fears

Some of my friends think my amygdala is not functioning. The amygdala is the part of the brain that orchestrates your level of fear. I'm certainly not fearless. Here are my fears and what I'm doing to minimize them:

My fear What I'm doing to minimize it
Not finishing the yo-yo Planning and training
Getting injured Listening to my body and feeding it well
Getting bored Bringing MP3 audio books
A grizzly bear attack Learn a foreign language, practice it loudly while walking, and don't cook food
Getting struck by lightning Hike low when thunderclouds come

Some people like to point out that the probability of a grizzly attack or a lightning strike is practically nil. However, these statistics are usually quite misleading because the accountants just take the number of occurrences and divide it by the number of Americans.

To see why that's not always meaningful, let's say that 300 Americans accidentally shot themselves last year. Therefore, some conclude that the probability of shooting yourself is one in a million (there are about 300 million Americans). However, if you're playing Russian Rolette the odds are really one in six.

The National Weather Service says the chances of a person being struck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 700,000. They place a person's lifetime chance at 1 in 3,000. Lightning kills only 73 unlucky bastards every year. Lightning kills more people annually than tornadoes and hurricanes.

So what are my odds of getting nailed in 2007? If you're hiking way above the tree line and carrying a metal ice axe during a thunderstorm, then the probability of getting struck by lightning is far greater than 1 in 700,000 or even 1 in 3,000.

Each spark of lightning can reach over five miles in length, soar to temperatures of approximately 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and contain 100 million electrical volts. The estimated 400 people who somehow survive lightning strikes each year often suffer permanent disabilities, such as memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness of joints, weakness and depression. That probably means I wouldn't be able to yo-yo the CDT if Zeus strikes my ass.

Similarly, if you hike alone from sunrise to sunset in grizzly country, then the probability of running into a grizzly is also quite high. While I have such fears, I am taking measures to diminish them and lower the chance of bad luck. I take calculated risks because without risks life is boring.

By the way, the amygdala also plays a key role in controlling your anger, sadness, and disgust. Curiously, these are three other emotions that I generally lack. So maybe my amygdala truly is out of whack.

"Why are you doing this?"

There are many reasons I want to yo-yo the CDT, but of course the main one is that I have nothing better to do.

But here are some other reasons:

  • To increase awareness of the CDT. The CDTA needs to raise $27 million to complete the trail. The 30th anniversary of the creation of the CDT will be in 2008. Wouldn't it be cool if we could raise the $27m by then? We can, if people know about it. Doing this hike will make more people aware of the CDT, aware of its unfinished state, and aware that they should donate!
  • To raise money for the CDTA. Getting others to donate is one thing, but I will put my own money in for every book I sell. I've already donated more than $3,500 to the CDTA, which oversees the CDT. The more books I sell, the more I donate. Half of my royalty goes to the CDTA, PCTA, and ATC.
  • To inspire others. My book, Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America, has already motivated people to improve their bodies and spirits. However, sometimes dramatic actions are more inspiring than words. I want to encourage everyone to travel more, exercise more, and get out in nature more. I also hope that my example will inspire people with health problems, like type 2 diabetes, to walk their way to better health. I love hearing from anyone who has made a positive life change because of something I did.
  • To uncover if there is an 8th Principle to getting the most out of life. The Appalachian Trail taught me 7 Principles about getting the most out of life (which I wrote about in my book). Sometimes I wonder if I left anything out. On the CDT I'll have plenty of time to ponder that question, and I hope you will give me ideas on my discussion board.
  • To find my limits. In my two previous thru-hikes I wasn't pushing my limits; I didn't get blisters and didn't suffer injuries. Although I was sometimes physically tired on the AT, I never was physically or psychologically tired on the PCT. I'm curious to see how much physical punishment I have to take to become a whining baby, begging for mercy.
  • To do something that has never been done before. It's nice to be the first to do something. I realize that it's a shallow ego thing, but I'm a shallow kinda guy.
  • To live an interesting life. When I breathe my last breaths, I want to conclude that I lived a life that was fun and fascinating. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'll have time to think this when a grizzly jumps on me.

Do you want to know what drives me nuts?

Nonstop rain storms? No. Mosquitoes? Not really. Drivers who don't pick me up when I'm hitchhiking? Nope.

No, my biggest pet peeve is when people misuse quotation marks. That's right. Lately more and more people are using quotations marks to add emphasis. For example:

  • Last night we got hit with a "real" blizzard.
  • That restaurant serves the "worst" milkshakes.
  • Hiking over 2,000 miles is really "something."

Quotation marks are meant to either capture speech or to quote a phrase, as in: George Bush declared that we're "winning" in Iraq.

So please, let's respect this lovely part of the English language. If you want to add emphasis use italics, or bold, or underline, or ALL CAPS, or even *asterisks*. But please don't use quotation marks. It's "really" annoying.

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