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[CDT-L] CDT - PCT - AT (very long)



A couple days ago on pct-l, Doug Walsh asked us to compare the CDT to the 
PCT and the AT. I (Ginny) had too much time at work, so I tried to set down 
some thoughts - and then couldn't stop. If you never plan to hike any of the 
CDT, you might press delete now.  If you think you might hike parts of the 
trail or all of it - this is for you.  There is little to compare between 
the AT and the CDT – except for the fact that both are long distance hikes, 
they are totally different experiences. The AT is a social trail, the CDT is 
a wilderness trail.  Different worlds, (but don't let that lead you to 
assume that the AT is 'easy'.)

Jim adds: I've read through this and, as long as it is, it's too short to do 
more than scratch the surface.  Yeah - I added some stuff, too.  It's up to 
you to figure out which of us wrote which part :-))
But then it really doesn't matter, does it?  This thread started on pct-l, 
but this is something that'll go out to cdt-l as well.

In many ways the CDT is similar to the PCT, so I’ll concentrate on that, but 
there are also big differences.  In a way, it’s as if the AT is a walk along 
a bike path, the PCT is a walk through the park and the CDT is a hike in the 
mountains.  (I know, the next step is real wilderness in Alaska or northern 
Canada – that’s coming!)

I warn you now, I am extremely biased.  I really love the CDT.  Because of 
all the research I did before we went, the years spent anticipating it, and 
the way the trail forces you to take responsibility for your hike in a way 
that is unique, the CDT became MY trail in a way that the others never 
could. On the AT and the PCT I was following in other people’s footsteps.  
On the CDT I was creating my own trail. Others who have hiked all the trails 
have other opinions.  I know that before I went, I heard few people saying 
“the CDT is a terrific experience.”  Mostly I just heard how hard it is, not 
how incredibly beautiful it is.  The reality was a revelation to me.  That 
is one reason I want to share my experience with the trails.

Ron talked about the PCT not crossing a road for 200 miles – but the fact is 
that we never felt nearly as isolated on the PCT as we did on the CDT.  The 
CDT is a much more remote, more isolated trail than the others.   Except for 
the desert, we saw more backpackers every week on the PCT than we saw on our 
entire CDT hike.  The total number of long distance hikers we met in six 
months on the CDT was eight, including 3 long section hikers (13 of us 
finished in 99 - and that was a very large number for the CDT).  Mostly we 
were too early in the season to meet weekenders in northern Montana. (We met 
7 people on the 4th of July weekend in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, and 
felt indignant at the crowds!) Southern Montana doesn’t get crowds, just a 
few fishermen. Northern Wyoming in early August (Yellowstone, Teton 
Wilderness and Bridger Wilderness) was very busy; but we had southern 
Wyoming almost entirely to ourselves (I think we met one jeep, one hunter 
and three long distance bicyclists in 300 miles, except in town). Colorado 
was mostly just us because of the snow and cold, except in the north where 
we met several backpackers in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness on Labor Day weekend 
and a few others in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Rocky Mtn. NP and then 
several hunters in the south in late September-October. New Mexico we had 
almost entirely to ourselves.  I don’t think we saw another backpacker all 
month, except the four thruhikers who caught up to us there, and we didn’t 
see them on the trail. On the PCT, after Kennedy Meadows we met 5-10 people 
every day and occasionally 30-50 a day, complete with dogs, llamas and/or 
horses.  It got to be another source of amusement. This translates to a very 
different experience for the thruhiker.  For the solo CDT hiker, it means 
that chances are you will be alone for most--if not all--of the journey.  
That can get VERY lonely, especially since there are very few people in the 
towns along the way who have the slightest clue about the trail.  It also 
creates safety issues – if something happens, it may be weeks before someone 
comes along to help.  In grizzly country, it increases the danger.  I really 
recommend you find others to hike with, unless you really really like 
solitude.

The CDT is a more scenic trail than the PCT, to my mind.  On the Divide 
there were hundreds of “Oh wow, this is incredible” moments.  On the PCT 
that didn’t happen to me until the Sierras – 700 miles up the trail.  The 
land in southern California was pretty with all the wildflowers, and I liked 
some of the mountain ranges (San Jacintos and San Gorgonios) but I wouldn’t 
call that part of the trail awesome, especially with the constant smog and 
signs of human presence (highways, windmills, motorbikes, etc.)  The areas 
on the PCT that were truly awesome were pretty limited, while on the CDT it 
was most of the trail.  (Of couse, if we had been able to actually see 
Washington state, I’d probably have a few more places to add to my list of 
incredibly beautiful places, but our trail reality was that most of that 
state was buried in cloud, and thus invisible.) On the CDT, I had some idea 
that the Rockies were beautiful, because of my reading and from slide shows, 
but the reality was so much more than I imagined.  On the PCT it seemed like 
the reality was less than I imagined.  Yes, the beautiful places I had seen 
in books and slide shows, like the Sierras, the Russian Wilderness, Crater 
Lake, Three Sisters and Goat Rocks, did exist and were really grand, but 
there was so much utterly forgettable 'connector' trail in between.  On the 
CDT, it seemed that in every section there was something unique and 
beautiful.  Glacier, the Bob Marshall, the Anaconda-Pintler, the 
Bitterroots, the Centennials, Yellowstone, the Teton Wilderness, the Wind 
River Range, the Great Basin, Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, Indian Peaks 
Wilderness, Eagles Nest Wilderness, Holy Cross Wilderness, the San Juans, 
the south San Juans, the Gila Wilderness, Ghost Ranch, etc. There was one 
beautiful wilderness area after another.  There were some short connector 
stretches, but not day after day after day.  On the CDT, much of the trail 
is in the open, either on ridge tops or in open meadows and sagelands.   The 
view is of mountain range after mountain range or open rangeland and skies 
that won’t quit.  There are few towns, few paved roads, no smog, and little 
sign of ‘civilization’ except the occasional ranch or mine.  It feels like 
wilderness – even when it’s not.

On the CDT there are animals galore.  It was 400 miles before we saw our 
first deer on the PCT.  We saw deer, herons and antelope on our first day on 
the CDT.  One of the things that sold me on the CDT before I went was a line 
in the McVeigh video that said, “We saw more wildlife in a week on the CDT 
than we saw on our entire PCT hike.”  It was often the case, though not 
always.  We did see a lot of animals – bears, moose, elk, antelope, deer, 
wild horses, javelina, mountain goats, mountain sheep, badgers, coyotes, 
eagles, etc. and of course the ubiquitous cows.  On the PCT we mostly saw a 
lot of lizards and rattlesnakes – though to be fair, we did see a couple of 
black bears in northern California, some deer, a couple of coyotes and one 
fox in the course of the trip.  It didn’t begin to compare though.

The CDT is not a finished trail.  Jim and I hope it never will be.  Parts of 
the trail have not been designated, parts of it that are designated haven’t 
been built, and the parts that have been built are often not maintained.  
With only a dozen or so hikers each year going the whole way, there are 
sections that get so little use there is nothing in the way of treadway.  
Because of the altitude and weather extremes, in many places that have been 
marked, the markers are destroyed within a year or two. (Carsonite posts 
aren’t really very durable.)  This means that it is very easy to get lost, 
and all the CDT hikers that we’ve heard about do get lost, usually more than 
once.  Being able to read a map helps, and is in fact a necessity before you 
do the trail, but doesn’t always help as the maps lie like a rug! We learned 
that as long as we were heading south, we weren’t lost; we had just 
temporarily misplaced the treadway. (We know one hiker who was seriously 
lost for days - and out of food, before being rescued by a local family out 
fishing.) There are also a lot of alternate routes – sometimes more scenic, 
sometimes safer in times of bad weather, sometimes with much better water 
resources than the “official” routes, sometimes just shorter.  A CDT 
thruhike can be anywhere from 2400-3000 miles long.  Some hikers choose to 
do a lot of bushwhacking, others choose to follow a lot of roads.  Right 
now, everyone gets to choose what they want out of their hike – and there 
are a lot of variations.  A fast hike usually means lots of road walking, a 
scenic hike is slower and usually more difficult, but more beautiful.  If 
you try to follow the Divide as much as possible, you end up doing a lot of 
bushwhacking (and pass through a lot of private land.)  Most end up doing a 
combination of official trail, alternate trail, road walking and impromptu 
bushwhacking, with a few side trips just for fun.  Combined with the 
frequency of misplacing the trail, and the fact that weather can force a 
change of plans at a moment’s notice (we were driven off the Divide twice by 
extremely high winds and dark clouds, and once by a blizzard) this means 
that every hike is unique.  No one will make the exact same choices that you 
make.  There is a power to that and it was a lot of fun for us, but some 
people can’t handle the uncertainty.  They don’t want to constantly think 
about where they are, or make choices, or worry about being lost; they just 
want to follow blazes or an established treadway and mindlessly make miles.  
You can’t do that on the CDT, unless you do a lot of road walks.   People 
who don’t like to read guidebooks or don’t know how to use maps spend a lot 
of time lost and without water – both  books and maps are a necessity on 
that trail.  We often hiked with map in one hand, guidebook in the other. 
The navigation wasn’t that hard – just constant.   We often rechecked our 
whereabouts at least every 15 minutes, if not more often. The day before we 
finished, we had a brain cramp, missed a turn and ended up not being able to 
get back on track until the next morning – and it didn’t take more than a 
half-hour for us to realize what we’d done.  On the PCT, the constant 
checking wasn’t necessary.  You can just check the guidebook a couple of 
times a day to see how far it is to water, then (even in the snow) follow 
the footsteps of the people ahead of you.  It is much simpler, but not as 
much fun.  The major navigation challenge we had on the PCT was picking out 
Donohue Pass.

For most of the way on the CDT, the maps were really bad.  The water sources 
were often either not marked on the maps or were on the maps but not on the 
ground.  The maps sometimes show road or trail intersections at the wrong 
places, very often don’t show roads that are on the ground and sometimes 
show roads that don’t exist.  The maps on the PCT were an order of magnitude 
better – and for the most part, we just used the guidebook maps.  After the 
first month on the CDT, the maps were NOT a major frustration for either 
trail – they became a source of amusement and, for the CDT, a part of the 
challenge.

In terms of difficulty, the PCT and CDT have some of the same kind of 
challenges: snow travel, river crossings, sometimes long distances between 
towns, water concerns, etc.  Since I had had no prior experience with 
serious snow, the CDT seemed harder, but it probably wasn’t much different 
from the PCT.  Starting so early, and on a high snow year, we carried an ice 
axe for the first six weeks – and needed it. Most southbounders start later 
and only have to deal with snow for the first three weeks or so. The 
difference again is that if you have trouble, there is no one to help.  We 
had an eight day stretch through the snow-bound Bob Marshall Wilderness 
where we didn’t see another human footprint until the seventh day.   Even in 
Glacier NP, the rangers won’t look for you unless someone reports you 
missing.  (And by that time, you’ve probably already been eaten.  It is an 
interesting experience to not be at the top of the food chain.) We were only 
the second people over some of the passes in Glacier, a week behind two 
other CDT hikers (and it had snowed since they went through, in mid-June.) 
We were the first to go through the Bog.

On a southbound CDT hike, there is less concern with having to finish before 
October, which means that you don’t have to push to do 20-25 mile days, 
unless you start late. We ended November 30 after a six-month hike, and were 
very happy with our timing.  Northbound hikers do have a time crunch though, 
much like the PCT, since they can’t really start too early because Colorado 
is snow-bound until mid-July and winter can settle in by mid to late 
September in northern Montana.  Flipflopping of some sort is common.

We were told before we left for the CDT – you have to be flexible, you have 
to make compromises.  This is true for any hike, but on the CDT it is 
especially true.  There is so much you have no control over – weather, 
fires, drought, grizzlies (i.e. they closed a large chunk of the trail 
through Glacier for months because of active bears), etc. You have to be 
willing to change your route or your plan when it is necessary, and accept 
that things may not go the way you expect.  A lot of northbound hikers reach 
Colorado with no idea that the mountains are more or less impassible – what 
now? Road walk? Jump over the state and come back later? Buy snowshoes and 
hope the food will hold out?  We know people who have done all three.  We 
know hikers who were unable to hike through the Gila in New Mexico because 
it had been closed due to drought.  Again, that’s not that different from 
the other trails--it happens on the AT as well, though not as often -- but 
on the CDT there is almost a certainty that something is going to happen to 
upset your plans.  Like the fires last summer that stopped most of the 
northbounders.

Water is a problem on both the PCT and the CDT.  On the CDT we generally had 
shorter distances between water sources – there were a few that were more 
than 20 miles, most were 15 or so -- but water quality on the CDT was really 
bad.  Most of the water sources are shared with cows.  The worst sources on 
the PCT are pretty typical water sources in Wyoming and New Mexico. 
(Remember the cow pond on Hat Creek Rim with the signs saying not to drink 
because the water was contaminated? On the CDT,that would have been the best 
source all day, in some places.)  Like the PCT, there are sections with 
scarce water in every state, including Montana and Colorado.  We used a 
filter (actually 5 filters) the entire way on the CDT and rarely drank 
without filtering, while on the PCT we only filtered in the desert and out 
of lakes.  (And we still got sick more often on the CDT.)

Resupply is pretty similar on the CDT and PCT.  We generally had 5-8 day 
stretches between resupply stops. We mostly resupplied as we went, except in 
Wyoming.  There are fewer choices as to where to go on the CDT, but the 
towns were pretty good, though more spread out than PCT towns.  It wasn’t 
unusual to have to walk a mile or two to the grocery from the motel.  Often 
motel owners gave us rides though – they were generally terrific.  Towns are 
usually a long long way off the trail – 20-30 miles was not an unusual 
hitch.  It could take hours for cars to come along on some of the roads, 
much less stop.  But then, that happened on the PCT as well, a couple of 
times.

Altitude is more of a factor on the CDT.  On the PCT, the only place that is 
really high is the Sierras, and you go to lower elevations in a couple of 
weeks.  And even in the High Sierras you don’t stay high, you bounce from 
7000 in the valley to 10,000 up at the pass, then back down to the next 
valley.  On the CDT, we were above 7000’ the entire way (except in a couple 
of towns off trail), and in Colorado we were above 9000’ for six weeks, with 
frequent climbs to 12-13,000’.  (In one day we went over five 13,000’ 
peaks.)  We spent a lot of nights sleeping at 12000+'.  There were at least 
four 14,000’ peaks that were easily accessible along the trail, for the peak 
baggers among us.  For practical purposes, the altitude means that the trail 
is much colder than the PCT and weather is more of a concern.

On the PCT heat was a constant – we got used to it, and because we were 
early starters it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it became a 
factor in our hiking style and speed for the first four months. We were 
rarely hot on the CDT because we were so high, even in the desert.  In fact, 
our last spring snowfall was on July 4th, our first autumn snow was Sept. 
3rd and we had some freezing nights in early August up in the Wind River 
Range. This meant that while on the PCT the habit was to rise very early and 
hike till early evening, with a long break in the heat of the day, on the 
CDT we tended to sleep in a little to let the ice melt and then hike in the 
warmth of the sun.  On our southbound hike we had little trouble with 
thunderstorms, but a northbound hiker who reaches Colorado in summer, or a 
section hiker doing the trail in July or August, is at constant risk from 
lightning.  There is a price for all the open country!

There were good people along all the trails.  There is less organized trail 
magic on the CDT than on the other trails, though that exists too in the 
form of a couple of trail angels who are extremely good to hikers, but we 
ran into a lot of impromptu kindness.

One final difference - the definition of 'trail' -- the PCT generally has 
good well constructed tread. There was a lot of good work done there. On the 
CDT, a lot less constructed trail has been built, though they tried to 
follow existing trails when they could. Anything goes for trail.  We walked 
everything from paved highway to gravel road to rocky eroded dirt roads to 
long abandoned jeep track to good sidehill to no treadway but marked path to 
crosscountry bushwhack.  We learned to appreciate the advantages of each and 
to curse some of the disadvantages.  We knew what to expect before we went 
though, so we rarely let it get to us, whatever came.

Sorry to go on so long – but it’s something that we thought about off and on 
as we hiked this summer.  We tried not to compare the trails as we hiked.  
We wanted to just accept the PCT for what it was without saying, “the CDT 
was better” but the thought did come up.  When we finished the CDT, our main 
thought was “When can we come back and do this again?"  On the PCT I was 
mostly thinking, “I want to go home – soon!”  There are a few places on the 
PCT I’d like to come back to – the Sierras, the Trinity Alps, and the 
Cascades especially – but we will probably never do another PCT thruhike.  
We will go back to the CDT if it is at all possible.  There is still so much 
to see.

YMMV
Ginny & Jim

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