CDT Trip Report: A Love Story, Wildlife, Thunderstorms, & Smoke by Mandy "Veggie" Redpath

CDT Trip Report: A Love Story, Wildlife, Thunderstorms, & Smoke by Mandy

A Brief Rundown about the CDT 

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a continuous footpath from the Mexican Border to the Canadian Border through the Rocky Mountains.  Following the backbone of the United States, the CDT runs ridges, follows rivers, traverses deserts and summits mountains.


It is one of three trails that make up the “Triple Crown” in the thru-hiking world.  However, the CDT makes its own rules.


Because the CDT is still incomplete, it remains a choose-your-own-adventure trail.  Unlike the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the CDT has a multitude of alternate routes.  Thus, a complete CDT thru-hike can often range from 2,600 miles to just over 3,000 miles

A hiker walking into the sunset


My History with the CDT


When I first hiked the AT in 2010, I heard about other trails out west.  I thought the AT was hard enough and didn’t think much of it.  Then, I finished the AT and within a week, I knew I’d hike the PCT.


The same thing happened on the PCT in 2012.  I finished and thought, “dang, now I have to do the CDT…”


Grad school won out at first, however with one semester left, I neared burnout.  So, I took a semester off and jumped on the CDT southbound.  It was exactly what I needed.


I was hiking sobo with The Darkness, Easily Distracted, and Scallywag when we neared Lima, MT.  Almost to the shuttle pickup spot where one bar of cell service was rumored, a truck drove over the median of I-15 and pulled over.


“Going to Lima?” A guy asked.


“Yes!” we answered as we jumped over the barbed wire fence.


We hopped into the truck with Karma and Maniac, two northbounders ahead of the pack.  After a fun-filled zero, Karma and I exchanged phone numbers in the laundry room and went our separate ways.  


After Karma and I both completed our own thru-hikes, we kept in touch and thru-hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail together the next year.  We’ve been together ever since.


But, as the years went on, it nagged at us that we hadn’t hiked the CDT together.


So, what the heck?


CDT round #2 commenced on April 16th, 2022!

Two hikers standing at the southern terminus of the CDT



2022 Was a Northbound Year


After completing my 2015 southbound hike, I’ve kept an eye on the long-term weather trends in the Rocky Mountains.  I did so partly because we love to ski and partly because we like to try and predict which weather patterns will produce good thru-hikes.


This winter, we saw another La Niña year develop.  I have read Joel Gratz for years on Open Snow and this usually means the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies will have more snow and rain during the winter while the southern Rockies tend on the drier side.


The prior La Niña year, Colorado experienced average to low late season snow in the spring.  Generally, this indicates a northbound thru-hike might work better due to the San Juans holding less snow.


Montana’s snow depths this year appeared slightly above the average range.  However, La Niña flipped the script and drastically increased Montana snowpack in the late season during May and into June.


Thus, snow melted faster in Colorado allowing thru-hikers in faster and easier than the average year.  Simultaneously, the snow lasted longer in Montana pushing off some of the fire season until later in the year.


CDT Epic Wins: Wildlife, Views, and Gear that Lasted the Whole Trail


Wildlife

A huge part of why Karma and I wanted to hike the CDT a second time was the crazy biodiversity on trail, especially encounters with large charismatic megafauna (moose, bears, elk, bison).


This time though, we came prepared.  I front-packed a 4 lb camera with a telephoto lens.  To help, Karma carried a larger share of our joint gear.


With the aid of my camera, we captured an amazing array of wildlife including birds, moose, bears, elk, a porcupine, and even a badger!


We woke up early and often lingered around wildlife longer.  Often, if given proper distance, many large animals will stay.  

Black bear sitting on its hind legs
Pronghorn Antelope


Views

The CDT offers panoramic views for days.  Ridge after ridge offers some of the best views on any thru-hike I’ve done.  


New Mexico offers wide expanses of what seems like nothing, however, it teems with life.  Snakes, lizards, javelinas, and a surprisingly large number of cacti.


Colorado offers the classic mountain and ridge views that soak into your soul.  These are the views that you think of when you tell people about why you thru-hike.


Wyoming has both the Great Basin Desert full of wild horses and pronghorn as well as the Wind River Range (shhh, don’t tell anyone).  


The Idaho/Montana border has a roller coaster of views as you run ridges for what seems like forever.  


And Northern Montana has forests, burn areas, the Bob, and of course, Glacier National Park.

Mandy and Karma hiking in front of mountain peaks


Gear that Lasts the Whole Trail

I’ve hiked A LOT, with a lot of different gear.  I judge my gear based on if it can last an entire thru-hike without needing to be replaced.


That being said, the Six Moon Designs Haven Bundle, Swift V Backpack, Silver Shadow Umbrella, and the packing cubes lasted the whole CDT.  And…the CDT does not go easy on gear.


Each trail, Karma and I spend days musing on which 5 pieces of gear are most essential on that specific thru-hike.  This year, our #1 piece of gear was the Haven Bundle.


Given how often we got slammed with fast moving thunderstorms, lightning, hail, and cold soaking rain, the Haven Tarp got extra use.  If there is one thing we’ve learned not to mess with, it’s lightning on ridges.  


The Haven Tarp worked double time many days as we’d get part way through a ridge when a storm rolled in on us.  We’d find a spot as protected as possible, toss our packs down and set the tarp up over them.  Diving in, we would often wait out the afternoon thunderstorms safer and drier.

Haven tent set up at sunset


CDT Challenges: Thunderstorms and Smoke


Thunderstorms

While we knew we’d have afternoon thunderstorms, especially in Colorado, the storm cycles lasted longer in 2022 than in previous years.  In fact, the storms themselves lasted longer as well.  Having lived on and off in Colorado for a decade, the 20-30 minute thunderstorms continued for close to 1 hour or more.


The monsoon-like thunderstorms also continued much farther north than they have in past years.


We chose to adapt by waking up every morning at 5am to get as many miles as we could in before a storm or two arose and we’d dive under the tarp anew.


Dealing with thunderstorms here and there does not usually get to me.  However, the sheer number of them this year started to wear me down.  


The CDT can break you down mentally if you let it.  But, you can always choose to adapt and thereby persevere.

Mandy under her umbrella during a storm


Smoke

Wildfires have long plagued long-distance trails in the western United States.  A century of fire suppression from the Forest Service has ironically produced some of the biggest wildfires on record in the past decade.


What that means for a CDT thru-hike can vary depending on luck and timing.  Karma and I managed to hike beyond the fire closures in both New Mexico and Montana before they became problematic, however, we still delt with a significant amount of smoke.


Much of the Idaho/Montana border section as well as northern Montana had smoke filled skies with fire sunrises and sunsets.


The air felt thick with it at times.  I had to adjust my hiking pace to slow my breathing.  I got headaches.  My stomach even disliked the amount of smoke in the air.  


The surface smoke maps on the Open Snow app showed us in the thickest smoke on the scale around Roger’s Pass.


Even though the smoke presented a physical challenge, it ended up as mostly a mental one.  Those cherished views became dull.  The wildlife seemed to instinctively move elsewhere.  And the miles became long as we retreated into our own heads.

Screen shot of gps map showing smokey conditions on trail


Conclusion & Notes for Future Awesome CDT Thru-Hikers


Despite challenges posed by weather resulting from the effects of climate change, we hiked to the Canadian border at Waterton Lake on September 18th, 2022.  


People always ask me how it feels to finish a long-distance trail like the CDT and I never quite know what to say to them.


Many people think it should feel amazing.  Like the best thing that I’ve ever done.  They have their own ideas of what they think I should feel.


But most never understand when I tell them I often have mixed emotions.  I always feel grateful and excited to reach the end.  I’m always excited to have food easily available, a comfy bed, and to not have to filter water.  


However, a certain part of me is always sad that it’s over.  Some part of me relishes the idea that my main concerns for the day include nothing more than the distance to the next water source and making at least the bare minimum of miles that my food bag allows.  That my biggest concern at night is finding a flat or flat-ish spot to camp.


I find that thru-hikes, in their simplicity, give the hiker an easily articulated purpose.  When that purpose suddenly and abruptly ends, I float.  I float until I find that next easily articulated purpose and sometimes that new purpose can be hard to find. 


So, I start by immediately making post thru-hiking goals that are easily attainable and straight-forward.  This year, I chose to immediately start a 30-day yoga challenge.  Let’s face it, my arms were shaking on the first downward dog.  


This might sound lame, but our other goal is to always properly clean our gear after a thru-hike.  Surprisingly, this always seems more daunting than doing yoga for 30 days straight.  But, as we clean each piece of gear, it allows us to reflect on how it helped us throughout the last few months.  

Two hikers at the Idaho/Wyoming border on the CDT


My advice for future CDT hikers?


  1. Make sure your mental game is as ready as your physical game.
  2. The CDT will find a way to humble you.  It could be weather, terrain, personal difficulties…you name it.  Allow it to humble you and learn from it.
  3. Find small ways to have fun each time the CDT throws a curveball at you.

And that, my friends, is how round #2 went for me on the CDT.  Cheers! 

Mandy and Karma at the Northern Terminus of the CDT