The Great Divide Trail – An Overview

The Great Divide Trail (GDT) is a 1000km + (600+ miles to us in ‘Murica) trail/route that winds its way along the spine of the Canadian Rockies from Waterton Lakes National Park to one of three possible endings at or north of Jasper, BC.

From Wikipedia

Starting July 21st, I’ll be hiking this route. For logistic and aesthetic reasons, I’ll be starting at Mt. Robson Provincial Park, make my one of three trip selfies with the famous namesake mountain behind me, and then hike south.

Approx 30 days later, I plan on taking my third trip selfie at the iconic border monument on Waterton Lake.  The same monument that marks the end of my GDT journey also marks the start of a journey I took twelve years ago.

Why the Great Divide Trail?

600+ miles through the Canadian Rockies sounds divine!

Way back in 2009, I planned a trip on the GDT.  For various reasons, the trip did not pan out. But I did make it to Canada for some day hikes, camping, and backpacks.

The glaciers, the vertical relief of the mountains, and the feeling of wildness dwarfed anything in Colorado. Colorado’s mountains are higher, but the Canadian Rockies seemed of a scale much more majestic.

I vowed to make it back.

Life, of course, changed those plans. I don’t need to recap that business! 🙂

Sufficient to say, I gave myself the Gift of Time again in September 2017. And a trek on the GDT is an excellent way to wind down my sabbatical before I go on to a different stage. (And that next phase does not involve a traditional office job somewhere on The Front Range. More to come on that news when I get back from the GDT!)

The main appeal is not because the GDT is a designated trail.   I am just excited that some fine people did the legwork (maintenance, maps, logistics on a handy webpage, apps, guidebook, hiker’s brains I can pick!) and make for an easier time seeing the majesty of the Canadian Rockies.

Three northern termini

From Travel Advisor

There are three northern termini for the GDT:

  • Jasper National Park – The original northern terminus WAY back when. Super easy logistics, a busier start than I’d like. Plus I’ll miss some magnificent scenery further north.
  • Kakwa Provincial Park – Considered the extended alternate northern terminus. Very remote, wild, and beautiful apparently from Kakwa to Robson.  However, getting there looks to be a pain. From Robson, it is almost 150 KM to an access point via hitching, and then a potential 60 KM walk to start the trail. I don’t enjoy hitching (esp at 5 AM in the morning! 🙂 )  and the idea of starting my journey by two days straight of road walking does not appeal to me.
  • Mt. Robson Provincial Park – The “official” northern terminus. A happy medium between the two options above, I think. The Berg Lake Trail features an iconic view of Mt. Robson; the highest point in the Canadian Rockies.  What a great place to start a 1000 KM walk!  And, if you can’t tell, that is my choice unless something changes by next week! 🙂

Why Southbound? 

Stock Photo from 123RF

Traveling southbound on GDT is not common. My main reason for choosing to walk this way is for logistic reasons.

My flight gets into Calgary, I’ll get a hotel room that evening, and the following day I’ll buy food, an additional pair of shoes,  various other sundries, and mail out those purchased supplies in addition to maps.  At 6 PM, an 11hr (!) bus ride leaves Calgary to Mt. Robson Provincial Park and arrives at 5 AM.

I’d rather not buy supplies and transport them across the border. Keep it simple!

And, as people who know me well may vouch, I’m a bit of romantic at heart. I enjoy the idea of ending on a quiet and scenic lake where another journey started so many years ago.

From Waterton, there is both private shuttle service and a Greyhound bus ride back to Calgary. From there I’ll catch another flight back to Denver. I’d rather front load the travel time and have an easier time getting back.

Maps and Navigation in general

Ryan Silk GDT Map atlas

I suspect the difficulty of hiking and navigating this trail will be somewhere on the spectrum between the current experience of hiking the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail  (good logistics, increasingly well-marked trail, lots of resources for guides, maps, navigation, trail angels, etc.) and the walk I did last Fall across Utah (cobbled together resources, no designated route, lots of micro-navigation getting into, around, and out of canyons).

In other words a challenge, but a known challenge done by a good amount of hikers before me.

Though a guidebook is available, I’ve been finding the notes on the GDT Association (GDTA) website and forums valuable as the information is continuously updated.

Atlas Guides GDT app

I’ll primarily be navigating by:

Resupply and food

The Great Divide Trail Association website has an excellent page with resupply information.  Much as with my Utah trip, I’ll be performing a combo of mail drops, buying as I go, and strategic map and shoe drops. Southern Utah is not quite as remote overall (but fewer people; I did go almost four days without seeing people!), but logistically it seems similar regarding days apart, resources available, etc.  For simplicity, I’ll be buying, packaging, and mailing my food and other supplies in Calgary.

I’ll have lots of daylight, and I’ll be walking all day. A hot meal at the end of the day is not something I’ll be desiring esp. when solo. I’ll be eating cold food for simplicity’s sake.

Issues and Concerns

Da beahs!

A post shared by Paul Mags (@pmagsco) on

In some ways, the GDT is a Canadian Rockies equivalent to my Utah trek: similar mileage, navigation challenges, resupply points spread out about the same, and even a similar permit issue.  

But there are some differences, of course, beyond the canyons vs. mountains dynamic.

  • First, the remoteness, lack of continuously maintained trail, and the unfinished nature do not concern me too much. I may eat some crow, but I think the Utah trek prepared me for these issues that aren’t as common on popular routes or trails.
  • People seem very concerned about grizzlies!  

As I wrote on Facebook:

Upon mentioning I am going to the Canadian Rockies for a month or so, folks expressed concerns about bears. Grizzlies in particular.
..
People asked if I have watched the movie “Backcountry“, if I am taking bear spray, and have me convinced marauding bears are up and down the Canadian Rockies as some far northern street (mountain?) gang of sorts ala the cult classic film The Warriors. 
..
I appreciate the concern. And have taken the warning to heart. Luckily, I found a very good instructional video on YouTube on how to deal with grizzlies. After watching this video, I feel I have the confidence, knowledge, and ability to deal effectively with these creatures. Thank you!

Being serious, I plan on using the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approved Ursack Major coupled with Opsaks.  I’ll eat cold, brush my teeth, hike on an hour or two up the route, and then tie off my Ursack/Opsak combo at some appropriate place away from my camp. At any designated sites, such as at national parks, I’ll use the method as designated by the park (be it the Ursack strategy, bear poles, or lockers, etc.)

Finally, as I told my Mom many years ago when I was in Montana: “Don’t worry Mom, bears don’t like Italian food. Gives them agida!   Mom was not amused. 😉

  • Permits are, again, similar to Utah as I’ll be going through multiple national parks and recreation areas without one master permit system.   Canada has a master parks pass similar to the  US.  Alas, Canada has done away with the all-encompassing backcountry wilderness pass (BOO!) and now uses a US -like system where you pay for your campsites ala carte.  I’ve booked some sites and will reserve other places along the way. Canada allows online booking in many cases, so that is a significant plus. As before I plan on honoring the spirit rather than the letter of the law. I’ll always apply and pay for permits. However, very hard to know where I’ll be on a given day sometimes. I’ll do my best, however.

Gear

On Wesser Bald earlier this past June. I’ll be hiking in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Otherwise, here is the gear I’m using. PCO Joan W.

Yes, yes. The question everyone seems to ask for some reason[1]:  What gear am I using?  Eh..go here..pretty much the same.

I’ll be going stoveless and taking an Ursak/Opsak combo.

[1] Imagine you enjoyed a delicious meal. You savored the ingredients. The conversation ended up being delightful. And that last sip of wine really tied it all together. A perfect evening with good company and dishes that delight the tongue.  And then someone starts a discourse on what kind of knife you used to chop the garlic or what pan you used to braise the vegetables.  Just sayin’…  🙂 

Misc

Poutine and Molson. A complete Canadian meal! 😉 From Yelp.

I plan on posting updates about once a week.  Some updates will be more frequent, some less so. I’ll have one or two photos per update.  I’ll upload the bulk of my photos when I finish the trip.

Though only about a 35-day trek, I have no doubt this journey will be a very memorable one: Glaciers, sheer and high mountains, and a truly wild experience. A fitting end to a sabbatical of one year.

As always, many thanks to quite a few people…

  • Thanks to the Great Divide Trail Association for the excellent work they do for this trail that is increasingly on the radar. I suspect I’ll remember this jaunt for years to come. And the work the GDTA does will be a large part of that experience!
  • The hiking community for their enthusiasm and knowledge about this trek. And all the fine people I met as well.
  • My many friends and family in my community for supporting me these past few months. Be it emotional support,  letting me crash on their couch or in their guestrooms, helping with logistics, and of course, all the hospitality showed to me over the past year. Wherever I end up in the months ahead, I know they’ll always be there.

Onward!

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3 Replies to “The Great Divide Trail – An Overview”

  1. This sounds like an AMAZING trail! Can’t wait to follow along. 600 miles in 35 days? I’m hiking the 525 mile Bruce Trail in Canada this winter and I’m giving myself 6 weeks! Go Atlas Guides!

    • A rough guestimate adding in resupply, navigation, and “just because.” I’m on no really tight schedule, so who knows. But, I’ll have a LOT of daylight vs winter. Gotta do something with all the daylight besides drinking Molson! 🙂 Amazing how many trails and routes Atlas covers now. Alice, Paul, and Ryan do good work!

  2. I spent a week in the Banff area last summer and loved it, one day I’d like to do the extended version. For the time being, I’ll live vicariously through your experience 🙂

    enjoy the trip

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