Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on October 8, 2006

Richard Larson thought he'd seen nearly all the obstacles possible when he hiked the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail in 2004 and the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2005. He'd fought off mosquitoes and black flies, endured raw, blistered feet, and coped with driving spring rainstorms and sweltering summer heat.

Then in June, during the first few days of his 3,100-mile trek along the Continental Divide Trail, Larson had to cross a precarious snow bridge over a turbulent stream in Glacier National Park in Montana, encountered 50-mph winds that shredded a friend's rain poncho, and stumbled within 10 feet of a black bear and her cubs.

"That was kind of spooky, but fortunately, the momma bear and cubs ran away," says Larson, 33, of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Larson, a former copy editor and sports writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, truly enjoys the life of a long-distance hiker. He got so much satisfaction from his first two long-distance hikes that he decided to attempt the longer and more difficult Continental Divide Trail, which follows the rugged Rocky Mountain chain from Montana to New Mexico.

If he completes the five-month trek to the Mexican border, Larson will join an elite group of fewer than 50 people who have achieved the "Triple Crown" of American long-distance hiking. But the final leg-a grueling journey through the most mountainous terrain in the lower 48 states-won't be a walk in the park. The route is not nearly as well-maintained or marked as the other two long-distance trails, there's a greater risk of running into grizzly bears and other wild animals, and he needs to get past Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks before winter snows pile up, closing mountain passes.

Still, Larson is determined to complete the journey by hiking about 20 miles a day at a pace of about 2.5 to 3 mph, meaning he typically hikes 9 to 10 hours each day. Along the route, he's likely to encounter adverse weather, snow and rockslides, pesky bugs and poisonous snakes. Still, Larson sees an upside to toting a 45-pound backpack through some of the nation's most magnificent terrain.

"It's a great way to see America and learn about America," he says. "I love seeing something new every day."

During his hikes, Larson has seen the natural splendor of the nation. He's wandered the rolling woodlands of Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia, traipsed through wildflower-covered meadows in Yellowstone National Park in western Wyoming and scaled the heights of California's 14,494-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.

Along the Idaho-Montana border, Larson stood astride the Great Divide, where the waters on the eastern slope flow toward the Gulf of Mexico and those on the western slope flow to the Pacific Ocean. At night, he slept under the stars, and on crisp, clear mornings, he had the thrill of seemingly standing atop the world and seeing 100 miles in every direction.

Larson enjoys sharing those moments with other long-distance hikers, such as Matti Urlass, 29, a civil engineer from Bonn, Germany, and Seth Schumacher, 17, of Livingston, Mont., who just graduated from high school. The three hikers met on the Internet, convened along the U.S.-Canada border in June, and shared food, hiking gear and companionship as they traversed the nation's backbone.

"I love the culture of long-distance hikers," Larson says. "You get to see the generosity of the human spirit that you don't necessarily see in the real world."

About 30 people attempt to hike the Continental Divide Trail each year, compared with 3,000 who pursue the Appalachian Trail and 300 who try the Pacific Crest Trail.

While long-distance hikers come from many walks of life, they share common characteristics. They are goal-oriented people who are highly motivated to complete a grueling journey. They may or may not be in particularly good physical shape or have trained a great deal beforehand. Surprisingly, advance training may not make that much difference, says Mike Dawson, of Vashon, Wash., trail operations director for the Pacific Crest Trail Alliance.

"There have been plenty of people who have started thru-hikes with no special type of training, and they've been quite successful. And there have been others who did have tons of training and were not successful," Dawson says. "The people who have been successful have the ability to get up day after day after day, and hike all day, knowing they've got months to go, and then get up the next day, and do it again."

A quintessential example of a devoted hiker is "Flyin'" Brian Robinson, 45, of Mountain View, Calif., who in 2001 became the first person to complete all three legs of the Triple Crown—a total of 7,371 miles—in a calendar year.

Last year, British hiker Matt Hazley, 26, bested Robinson's achievement by completing the Triple Crown of hiking in 240 days, the fastest time ever recorded. He averaged 40 miles a day, and didn't run down the trail. Too dangerous, he thought. He got started each day at 6 or 7 a.m., hiked for 14 hours, ate dinner and went to bed.

"It's only tough if you let it get tough," Hazley says. "As long as you stay focused, no matter how tough it gets, you'll reach your goal."

To complete a long-distance hike requires a lot of planning. Larson saved about $4,000 for the Continental Divide trek, budgeting a little more than $1 per mile. He arranged mail and food drops at businesses and post offices in Mack's Inn, Idaho; South Pass, Wyo.; Twin Lakes, Colo.; and Abiquiu and Pie Town, N.M. His sister, Dawn, in Hinckley, Minn., works as his support crew, mailing critical items-such as new hiking shoes-along the way.

He ordered guidebooks and maps for each section of the trail last winter and studied them in great detail. Once he completes a section of the trail, he tosses the old maps and field guides and receives new ones at his next mail drop. He carries a global-positioning system device to help him stay on the path. He packs lightweight food such as Ramen noodles, Lipton soups, tortilla wraps, Carnation instant breakfast drinks, Power bars, crackers and cheese, and his favorite snack, Skittles, which became his trail name. He also takes Flintstone vitamins.

To finish the Continental Divide Trail by early November, Larson plans to hike at his own pace, and if he gets separated from his friends for a while, he won't fret. He'll catch up. "Hike your own hike" is the mantra of long-distance hikers and it works.

One of the best things that Larson likes about long-distance hiking is losing weight. He's not that athletic of a guy, he says, and during the off-season tends to put on pounds. He lost 79 pounds on his Appalachian Trail (AT) hike and 62 pounds on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). "I started the AT at 293 pounds and finished it at 214," he says in his trip journal. "I started the PCT at 260 and finished it at 198. I've been running and swimming over the winter in Fairbanks to try to keep my weight down during my six-month hiatus from hiking."

When Larson strode into Colorado in late August, he was cruising on the trail. Most of the excess weight was gone, and he was doing what he loved to do most-hiking along with his newfound friends and enjoying life in, perhaps, its simplest form.

Finishing the Triple Crown will be most satisfying, Larson says, because of the hardships and uncertainties along the trail. But the rewards are big. Around every corner is an inspiring vista or spectacular mountain scenery, forever etched into Larson's memory.

For some hikers, the trail is a journey of personal discovery; for others it's just plain fun. "Not all who wander are lost," Larson says.