I wish to acknowledge and honour that the land that the Great Divide Trail passes through is the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut’ina, Ĩyãħé Nakoda, Cree, Lheidli T’enneh, Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, Sinixt and Métis.
“Is this a trail?” I uttered those words to myself almost every day last summer. Sometimes while sloshing through a mosquito-infested swamp, other times while clamouring through a maze of fallen trees, and even up high in alpine scree following fresh Grizzly prints.
The Great Divide Trail (GDT) begins northbound from the Continental Divide Trail terminus in Canada’s spectacular Waterton Lakes National Park. The path continues to straddle the divide through the Canadian Rocky Mountain wilderness for over 1100 kilometres. It dips back and forth between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia to end in the extremely remote Kakwa Provincial Park. In 1966 the Girl Guides of Canada proposed this ambitious trail. Trail building over the years has been slow - and the work continues today with the incredible Great Divide Trail Association (GDTA) volunteers. GDT hikers face a variety of challenges such as difficult navigation, alpine ridgewalks, swift glacial river crossings, and infrequent resupply points.
I spent months studying maps, elevation profiles, and the trip planning resources on the GDTA website to organize my trip. The GDT coincides with some of Canada’s most famous (and popular) backpacking trails through five National Parks and eight Provincial Parks. Tenting permits are required in many places which meant I needed to plan out where I was going to sleep every single night for two months. The route is composed of several different trail systems, and becomes more complicated with numerous alternative options. Plus, I needed to figure out an appropriate number of rest days for bad weather and injury while working within the short thruhiking season in the Rockies.
To make matters worse, almost all the backcountry bookings opened for reservation through the Parks Canada website on the same date. The Parks Canada website constantly crashed and timed out - I could only complete a single tentsite reservation at a time. It took over twelve grueling hours refreshing the website (plus paying extra reservation costs) to cobble together an adequate GDT itinerary. The cost of my backcountry reservations, trail town hostels, hotels, and lodges as a solo hiker was over $1,500 Canadian dollars. Hopefully in the future a single permit solution (like the Pacific Crest Trail) will be implemented for this one.
Thousands of people walk short sections of the Great Divide Trail each year, but very few choose to complete the entire length. The best hiking window in the Canadian Rockies is from mid-June to early September to deal with the spring alpine snowpack and unpredictable autumn weather. Sadly there is no way possible to avoid the voracious biting insects! Forest fires can also bring bad air quality and disappointing haze-covered views. This trail is perfect for those seeking solitude as the few thruhikers are scattered along the trail and various alternative routes. Popular hiking areas such as the Rockwall Trail are more congested with people, but camping numbers are limited by the strict reservation system.
The GDT is largely unmarked with infrequent trail signage. Most thruhikers navigate with GPS tracks, and only the brave few utilize paper maps. In the big parks, the trail is often well-defined and easy to follow. In other sections - good luck. The rugged landscape involved many long areas of cross-country travel though alpine zones, river floodplains, and thick foliage. As a solo hiker, I carried a fully charged secondary cellphone and the Zoleo satellite communication device for safety. My longest stretch without exiting the wilderness was eleven days. Sometimes I would check the GPS and be so off-track that I scrambled down cliffs rather than backtracking. Without cairns to mark safe river crossings I spent considerable time lowering myself into icy, murky water searching for a gravel bar. My body was whipped, cut, and bruised as I pushed through shrubbery higher than my head. I was tricked by moose paths through bogs that led to nowhere. My voice was hoarse from constant warning shouts while hiking through prime black bear and grizzly bear habitat. The GDT is definitely not recommended for hikers without keen wilderness self-navigation skills.
Good gear is a necessity for the remote environment as frequent GDT bushwhacks can easily tear up equipment. I chose to carry the Six Moon Designs Liteskin Swift X backpack for an awesome blend of weight and durability. Adding the padded hip belt was key for the heavy multi-day food carries. My ultralight sleep setup included the Six Moon Designs Skyscape X Tent, Katabatic Gear Sawatch 15*F quilt, and a short Neoair Xlite sleeping pad. In the Canadian Rockies you are bound to encounter awful weather. I took my first ever “on trail zero” after hiking through unrelenting freezing rain that turned into a heavy snowfall. I credit my gear with staving off hypothermia as temperatures dropped dangerously low overnight.
The Great Divide Trail has been nicknamed “Canada’s toughest thruhike”, some also believe it is the toughest for all of North America. Difficulty level is very subjective. Although the GDT is considerably shorter than the American Triple Crown Trails, it packs a big punch. Obtaining permits for a full GDT thruhike is exceptionally frustrating, but all was forgotten amongst the splendour of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Although my body complained about the food load, there is something special about staying in the wilderness for sections lasting over a week. This gorgeous hike was wonderfully challenging, honed my self-navigation skills, and I am a better hiker because of it.
About the author:
Sara Dhooma is an avid long-distance hiker who specializes in international thruhiking. To learn more about Sara’s adventures visit her YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/saradhooma