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[CDT-L] northbound vs southbound on the CDT
- Subject: [CDT-L] northbound vs southbound on the CDT
- Date: Thu, 6 Apr 2000 16:23:40 -0400
At one point last year, I began thinking about how much better it was (or
so it seemed to me) to hike north to south rather than south to north.
Accordingly, I began to list the advantages and disadvantages of going in
each direction. Obviously, we only went the one way, (so far), so have
undoubtedly missed a lot of points. Care to help me fill in the gaps?
South to north:
Biggest plus - starting earlier and ending earlier. The disadvantage to
that is that there is a deadline to finishing - either because of the
snow in northern Montana or because of the closing of the Chief Mountain
highway in early October. It means pushing to finish, whether you want
to or not. Glacier NP is closed earlier still - so there could be
problems getting permits (like having to go to St. Mary's or West Glacier
for the permit - 40 miles up the road instead of Two Medicine). Not
everyone is willing to spend Thanksgiving on the trail (though Dennys did
a halfway decent turkey dinner - better than Liptons anyway, especially
the two pieces of pie ;-)
Starting in New Mexico means a fairly easy start - lots of dirt roads to
begin the hike. That can be a disadvantage if you really hate road
walking and get bored by the start and forget that it does get better.
But it does make it easy to do good miles from the start.
NM in the spring is usually very dry. I know they sometimes close the
Gila Wilderness because of the fire danger in a dry year. Rainy season
isn't until much later in the year. On the other hand, there is some risk
of high water in the Gila from snowmelt.
I think if you don't start until May it can get very hot - also very
windy in April and May in NM.
There is the obvious problem of snow in the San Juans in Colorado. That
is the snowiest part of Colorado and a long stretch between resupply
points. With snow lasting until early July in a normal year, that means
either having to walk around the good stuff or spending a lot of extra
time routefinding and wallowing in soft snow with very heavy packs.
Chances are, you would miss a lot of beautiful high country.
An obvious solution is to skip Colorado and hike through the Wyoming
desert in early June. Of course, that's only good for a week or 10 days,
then you face either northern Colorado - which was harder than I
expected, or the Wind River range and Yellowstone - lots and lots of
snow. A couple of hikers mentioned getting snowed on while walking
through Wyoming in June.
One advantage to that is seeing the desert spring twice over - once in NM
and once in Wyoming.
Montana can be very dry in the fall - or have snows beginning in
North to south:
Biggest advantage - Jim Wolf's guidebooks are written north to south.
That makes a big difference in trying to find your way in iffy country.
It's harder to visualize the trail description reversed, especially if it
says "head toward the rocky knob."
In a normal year, a fast hiker would have snow for the first couple of
weeks and then wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of the trip.
Of course, slower hikers (like us) run the risk of running into serious
snow in Colorado in September/October. It seems that early autumn snows
generally melt off pretty quickly, but there's no guarantee. Having snow
in the beginning of the trail means a difficult start (we were only doing
10-15 miles a day to start) but also water in some of the dry ridges of
northern Montana. Of course, the river crossings in the Bob were very
cold and fast and navigation was a real pain. But it was beautiful - and
there were no horses in the Bob Marshall (though there were plenty in the
Teton Wilderness to make up for it.) Having Glacier and the Bob to
ourselves was a real bonus.
I think is easier to do a straightforward one-direction hike without
walking around large sections of snowbound trail on a southbound hike.
We didn't have to miss any of the high country - not in Montana or in
Colorado. We did a flip-flop (starting at Butte and heading north before
turning around and heading south again in July) only because I was too
impatient to wait until July to start (it was a high snow year and spring
thaw was three weeks late). Also we wanted to take our time - do a six
month hike instead of a five month hike.
There is less time pressure heading south. November in New Mexico is not
a bad time to hike. It was cool and sunny. The springs and ponds had
water and since it was cool we didn't need as much. No snakes either.
Few thunderstorms - at least that was true last year. By the time we
reached Colorado, thunderstorm season was almost over. Elsewhere we had a
couple of storms, but nothing even remotely life threatening.
We saw few people in the high country by doing it mostly off season. In
Montana it was too early for other people to be out, in Colorado and New
Mexico it was too late. We went weeks without seeing other backpackers -
only once ran into bikes (Monarch Pass on a beautiful October Saturday),
rarely saw jeeps in the backcountry (except on the gravel roads) and only
rarely even met dayhikers -- except of course for the National Parks and
the Winds and holiday weekends.
Did see lots of hunters in the fall. Hunting season lasts a long time -
from bow hunting in September to rifle season in October and November.
We liked the hunters we met, and know that some of the hunters gave water
to thirsty hikers in New Mexico. We rarely saw them when we were more
than five miles from the roads - also, if not for them, there would be
fewer late season services available to hikers. Creede was pretty much
closed except for one restaurant and a couple of places to stay. They
planned to close completely once hunting season was over.
Worst downside to the southbound hike is that the days are short in the
fall, especially late November. It was dark at 5:00 - and cold. A lot
of the trail was cold - in the snows in Montana, all through Colorado,
and again in NM at night. Summer was very short last year (but beautiful
when it happened! Loved the flowers in southern Montana!) On the other
hand, we did get to see the beauty of autumn in Colorado - loved those
As you can see, I'm a bit biased. What do you think?
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