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Split & Two Step
Begins: May 1, 2017
Date: Fri, Sep 22nd, 2017
Start: South Valley Road, town of Monida, Montana
End: Pleasanton, CA
Daily Distance: 0
Trip Distance: 1,895.8
Daily Ascent: 0
Daily Descent: 0
Max Elevation: 300
Entry Visits: 862
Journal Visits: 67,475
Guestbook Views: 782
Guestbook Entrys: 57
Three trails - AT, PCT, and CDT (so far)
At home in California...
As Two Step and I took a day and a night, and part of a day again to return from Canada after completing the PCT in 2013, I spent a couple hours and summarized/compared how our 2013 Pacific Crest Trail experience compared to our 2012 Appalachian Trail experience. We were still so excited to have finished 2700 miles of PCT hiking - we could hardly contain ourselves.
We have now returned to our California home in Pleasanton, about 40 miles east of San Francisco after this years hike. Again, we are happy to be home, and struggling with the new challenges of putting a "normal" life back together after four and a half months almost totally disconnected from friends and family. But this time, our experience is a little different. We chose to approach the CDT in a different way than the last two trails. Primarily, we went slower. We pushed ourselves hard on the trails, but we took our time in towns. We lost some time to injuries, and slowed down to posit ourselves perfectly for the full solar eclipse. Eventually, when the snow finally flew, we elected to pause our trip and return next year rather than road walking as far north through Montana as possible.
We are happy with our choices. We enjoyed all the small towns we encountered, and found out that exploring these gems was an important part of our experience. The eclipse was such a unique and transformative, if ephemeral, experience; we were so lucky to be able to watch it with such a small but enthusiastic group of campers. Our finishing sections were among the most picturesque of the trip, with some of our last days spent among the geysers and hot pots of Yellowstone. Finally, we have an exciting walk through Montana to look forward to next year - and perhaps we will be lucky enough to ovoid the record number of forest fires, resultant trail closures, and unhealthy and unsightly levels of smoke that this year's hikers have experienced.
During the trip home from the PCT, we summarized the AT versus the PCT experience. Although we have not yet completed the CDT, we feel it is still useful to update that 2013 summary with our 2017 CDT experience. We've taken that previous text, and have added to each section a short CDT addendum below.
Three trails - AT, PCT, and CDT (so far)
There is no way we can summarize our trail experiences in a few paragraphs. They were diverse and detailed, shareable and personal, deep and lighthearted.
For Two Step and I, much of the PCT was seen in the light of having just completed another National Scenic Trail, the Appalachian Trail (AT), just 146 days before starting the PCT. We had always planned to do the PCT and never seriously contemplated hiking the AT. We fell into doing the AT when a medical issue prevented our timely departure on the PCT, and we are thankful that life threw us that curveball, since the AT turned out to be such a completely different experience and the people we met were outstanding. Still, as a backpacking adventure, the PCT was a constant delight and more enjoyable to us. Why?
One of the main differences on the CDT is that this year's hike occurred four years after completing the AT and PCT. Yes, we have done long hikes in each of the subsequent years. We hiked the John Muir Trail with our great AT friend Turtlebox in 2014, then the 500 mile Colorado Trail in 2015, and last year returned to the location of our first long distant hike - the Trinity Alps. But, the return to an ultra-long-distance hike, this time on the CDT, was challenging to both body and spirit. Having done two trails, we knew we were mentally tough enough to endure the long days in order to experience the unique beauty of this trail, but the intervening years had softened our bodies. As a result, the first weeks were more impactful on our bodies. It was a relief to find we were able to get our trail legs again, although what we hoped would take three weeks took closer to six.
1) The Views. I think few will dispute that the vast vistas seen almost daily in California and Northern Washington are simply breathtaking. When we traveled through the Sierras I was getting ready to post a picture of another clear blue mountain lake with a snow-covered mountain reflecting from its crystal clear surface and I almost labeled it: "Yawn - another stunning mountain lake". But in fact we never tired of the views. We often stopped our forward trek in awe of our surroundings, knowing that they were only accessible to those willing to leave their cars behind and venture into the wild.
The AT also had magnificent views. Vast forests and a myriad of lakes in Maine. Above tree line views in New Hampshire. The vista from the vertical drop-off of McAfee Knob in Virginia. But these views are not the norm. The AT is called the green tunnel for a reason. We walked under trees and surrounded by trees the vast majority of the time. Sometimes I needed Two Step to point out the uniqueness of the trees and ground cover through which we wandered, for otherwise it was just an unending green panorama to me.
The scenery on the PCT was more diverse and interesting to us than the AT's.
The CDT's vistas are much more reminiscent of the PCT's than the AT's. Still, there are some major differences. From the very beginning of the CDT we started at high elevation, but the boothill of New Mexico is arid, and the vegetation is dominated by miles and miles of sagebrush. This is a somewhat bleak landscape, although it lets the traveler focus on the sometimes colorful vistas and stunning geological features - some of the most awesome being concentrated around Ghost Ranch. Also in New Mexico, the Gila River traverse is a truly unique feature of this trail.
Far northern New Mexico and the extensive Colorado Rockies are reminiscent of the California Sierra Nevada mountains. The Rockies are higher, and this year had a challenging covering of snow. The snow provided winter-like views that were sometimes spectacular, and at other times almost monotonous. As we moved north and summer melted the snow, our hearts lept at the sight of the ever growing, then blooming wildflowers. This was contrasted with the growing and nearly omnipresent devastation caused by the pine bark beetle and the browning of the forests.
It was almost shocking to move from the summer splendor of northern Colorado into the bleak salt encrusted and flatter terrain of Wyoming's basin, but there was a beauty to its wide open spaces. Leaving the basin behind and climbing into the mountains and lakes of the Winds was again breathtaking, and again reminiscent of the mountains and glaciers of Washington's Cascades, but the plethora of lakes and streams in the Winds provide a unique experience. Finishing the year in the otherworldly beauty of Yellowstone was fantastic. Geysers and hot pots, and their associated geology and uniquely colorful organisms result from an interface with a much harsher and hotter world below.
The CDT has had the most diverse views of the three trails, but for sheer beauty, the PCT still maintains its mantel.
2) The Weather - I don't like rain. Two Step is much more tolerant of liquid sunshine, but is not a fan either. On the AT we had rain on 1/3 of the days, and I learned I wouldn't melt in the constant drizzles and occasional downpours. But the shock of starting in Maine where the motto is "No Pain, No Rain, No Maine" and walking for fifteen days with wet feet made me question my sanity for attempting a thru-hike. When it wasn't raining, the humidity was generally so high that we were always wet and sticky. Eventually we became inured to this weather. But our California-trained minds and bodies never learned to enjoy the wet muggy weather.
In contrast, the PCT is dry, and even on hot days our sweat-soaked clothes would be dry soon after we stopped hiking. There were four rainy days total during our trek across California. Three were real doozies with snow and rain over Pinchot Pass and two very unusual days of rain and the highest winds we've ever experienced over Carson and Ebbets Passes. It was incredibly windy around Tehachapi and very hot in Seiad Valley. But mostly the weather was very pleasant. It made walking a joy.
The CDT is intermediate between the two, but much closer to the PCT. Unlike the AT, we had only a few days of constant rain, although there were more showers than on the California/Oregon PCT. We walked through much of the Colorado Rockies during their "monsoon" season, and for a few weeks we had periods of rain nearly every day. We had a unique talent for either proceeding just as rain started, or setting up our tent just as downpours began, but eventually we caught on to the rhythm of these daily showers and learned to live with - if not enjoy - the rains. Wyoming was much less rainy, but the frequent morning heavy levels of condensation on our tent and the ground began to remind me of the higher humidity AT. Our feet and legs collected quite a bit of early morning condensation on the CDT. We missed the record drought in Montana, and also the record fire season, but hopefully we can look forward to good weather for our finish next year.
3) The Trail - The AT is an older trail, and its engineering is just not up to today's standards. In general, this makes it a much more difficult trek. In Maine, the trail nearly or actually goes vertical in some places and it's necessary to use all four limbs to climb to the peak of every mountain that we passed. Of course it is a matter of opinion whether this is an optimum hiking experience. What is clearer is that the trails, in going towards the top of each hill in the direction of steepest ascent and descent, result in washes being formed with each rain storm. The resultant water load contributes to heavy erosion on the trails and exposes a seemingly endless trail of rocks and roots. Most hikers found it unpleasant to walk through trails that become drainage ditches all day during stormy weather, and a hard, uneven, and slippery trail at other times. The southern end of the AT has been recently reconfigured in a number of places to include more switchbacks, and the trail has lengthened many miles over the years as these have been added. Another AT challenge is the constant climbs and descents. There is more vertical elevation in the 2200 miles of the AT than in the 2700 miles of the PCT.
In contrast, the PCT heavily employs switchbacks throughout its length. Designed for hikers and equestrians, it has a maximum grade of 15%. The trails generally follow the contours of the mountains, and generally have little evidence of erosion. The trails in two long sections of the PCT are especially foot friendly. In the south the sand is soft and in the forest the pine needles and duff form a soft, nearly ideal, foot trail. Probably the most annoying aspect of the dry PCT is that the arid conditions free up large quantities of dust and grit. This debris coats your feet, drifts through the fabric of your shoes, and wears holes in the toughest socks at a furious rate. This grit was absent from the wet rainy Northern Washington section, but I would have gladly exchanged my clean toes for the sunshine of the southern climes.
The CDT is similar to the PCT in grade and in construction. Where there is trail, it is constructed in a sustainable way, with switchbacks and reasonable grades.
However, the CDT is generally referred to as being unfinished. There are sometimes many days-long stretches where there is just a route and no trail. To highlight a few of the longest routes: 1) From the very start, the first few days from the monument at the border through the New Mexico boothill to Lordsburg is a long trek through sand, dust, and sagebrush. With nearly no shade and decrepit cairns hidden behind sagebrush, it is an in-your-face introduction to the difference between a route and a trail. No straight path through the knee to waist high, randomly but nearly uniformly spaced brush exists, and the constant changes in foot-to-foot placement direction while trying to maintain forward progress immediately lets the hiker know this trail is like no other; 2) A couple weeks later, the walk below the magnificent cliffs with hundreds of fords of the Gila River again is a unique experience, 3) At seemingly random locations the trail is replaced by occasional cairns, often separated by distances such that the next one is not visible from the previous cairn. There are not enough hikers to form a visible path between cairns, so we relied mainly on instinct, looking for reasonable terrain, and the more time-consuming use of GPS.
We got lost on the CDT, generally wandering no more than a mile off the route, more often than I have written in this blog, and more often than I care to admit. It took much more navigational awareness and attention than any of the other trails we've hiked.
4) Resupplies, Towns, and Hostels - In sheer quantity, the AT has many more opportunities for town stops. Particularly through the Sierras, the PCT has challenging runs far from any roads where carrying a week's worth of food is a must for the average hiker. The AT's three-walled shelters also provide a refuge from storms that provide an escape from the wilderness. We greatly appreciated the shelters in the rains of Maine and in the snow-covered Smoky Mountains. The PCT is by far more of a wilderness experience, but both have sufficient wilderness to test the metal of any hiker.
Both the AT and the PCT have outstanding hiker hostels and trail angels that are generous to a degree that is beyond my capacity to comprehend. The AT probably has more hostels, and may charge a little more, but that is probably due to the following.
The CDT is again more reminiscent of the PCT in terms of spacing of towns. Two Step and I spent more time in these towns than on the PCT, and enjoyed the small town atmosphere immensely. The growing popularity of craft beer, and our growing hiker-fueled appetite made the exploration of brewpubs and restaurants a recurring theme to our town stays, but we also enjoyed the museums and historical monuments scattered through each town.
There is a near-total absence of organized trail angeling along the CDT. There are no Donna Saufleys and Hiker Heavens, no Andersons and Casa de Lunas, no Dinsmores. Unlike the AT, there are very few hiker oriented hostels. However, in New Mexico and Wyoming there are generally low cost motels in most of the small towns with low tourists visitation rates. What the CDT lacks in organized trail angeling it makes up for in random acts of kindness extended to hikers. I wrote about the acts of kindness extended to us on our regular hitchhiking adventures to and from the trail to towns (read the post Think About Thanks), but there was a general kindness and warmth extended to us throughout our hike that exceeded that of the other trails. I would speculate that lower population density throughout the West, and many fewer hikers, forge a stronger connection between people during infrequent interactions. Whatever the reason, the CDT provided us with the most opportunities of the three trails to give a heartfelt Thanks.
5) Number of hikers - The AT is much more heavily-utilized than the PCT. I don't have accurate statistics for the number of thru-hikers, but we were told about 1000 PCT thru-hiker permits were issues by the PCTA in 2013. In past years about 35% of the hikers completed the trek all the way to the northern terminus at the Canadian border.
I suspect that twice that many thru-hikers start the AT, but the difficulty of the trails and generally lower level of hiker experience results in a reputedly lower fraction of successful thru-hikes, between 15% and 25%.
So there are more thru-hikers on the AT, but this is only a small part of the story. Even on the PCT we saw more section and day hikers than thru-hikers. Due to the accessibility of the AT to nearby cities, day hikers are probably ten times more numerous. Also, large groups of Boy Scouts and summer camp students will be frequently seen on the AT. Earplugs are a must for AT slumber.
The CDT has the least number of hikers of the three trails. A guess is that this year, 2017, perhaps 450 people started hiking north and less than half of that started south. Completion rates, I would guess, are close to those of the PCT. The overwhelming majority of the hikers we met this year were in search of their triple crown, having already completed the AT and PCT. They were experienced and trail-wise. They had the right equipment and traveled light. In New Mexico we saw a few CDT hikers every day, and almost no one else. In Colorado, particularly along the Colorado Trail, the majority of trail users were not CDT hikers, and there were often quite a few. By the time we reached Wyoming, hikers were few and far between, and we would often go a whole day without seeing anyone outside of our small travel group. The exception was the Wind River Range and our trek through the Cirque of the Towers, where we saw big groups of hikers for a day or so in this popular location. The unique experience of the total solar eclipse also caused a brief flooding of the trail with people, which will occur again in another hundred years or so.
6) The Social Experience - More people means more social interactions on the AT. But even more significant is the influence of the shelters on the AT. Whether staying in the shelters or tenting, the shelters and surrounding areas are often the only choice. Flat sites cleared of forest growth are generally only available at the shelters. Hiking from shelter to shelter, with a town thrown in for resupply every three to seven days becomes the norm, and hikers of similar abilities will end up seeing each other day after day. Cooking and eating is often done at the shelter, even when camping, providing an ideal time for conversation. It is easy to form impromptu and informal trail families under these conditions.
On the PCT, sites for tenting abound. Social interactions on the trail are not infrequent, but less frequent. There are fewer hostels in the towns, and again less chance for social interaction. Still, the gregarious will meet dozens of thru-hikers. It's just more challenging.
The CDT is again like the PCT with social interactions infrequent and centered about town stays. Again, it was a joy to interact with people with a common purpose gathered from such a diverse background of ages, professions, and countries.
7) The Length - At nearly 2700 miles in length, the PCT is about 500 miles longer than the AT. The additional length is offset by the easier terrain of the PCT and the opportunity to hike a little longer each day due to the increased campsite density. It took us five months and one day to hike the AT, and five months and five days to hike the PCT.
The CDTs official length is almost 3100 miles, but we didnt meet anyone who remained entirely on the official route. There are many alternates and hikers feel absolutely free to take them, and they do so for various reasons. They wander off the official CDT perhaps for the views, like the Cirque of the Towers that is more challenging but incredibly scenic, sometimes for easier access to towns, such as our route to Pietown, sometimes to avoid dangerous snow-covered trails such as our alternate into the town of Creede to avoid the northern San Juans, sometimes to avoid fire closures such as the Silverthorne Alternate. There are so many choices that nearly every hikers CDT path is unique.
Here are two closing thoughts addressed to hikers contemplating tackling the PCT or the CDT.
I'll Take My Chances - I had some significant worries about my ability to complete a PCT thru-hike stemming from over-use injuries I sustained on the AT and injuries I received on the PCT. As an example, I developed shin splints in my right leg on the AT, and then plantar fasciitis (PF) in my right heel. I walked my shin splints well on the AT, but the PF in my heel never healed. I started the PCT thinking there was no way this injury would allow me to complete the trail. For the first ten days the pain in my heel grew constantly until we got off the trail for three days to attend the PCT kickoff event at Lake Morena. During that event I had the privilege to hear a former thru-hiker named Bigfoot talk about his foot problems that had been the same as mine! He proposed a different way to walk (see the book Born to Run), and told us to experiment for the next 2700 miles. I tried his suggestions, and over the next couple months my PF completely disappeared. I'm glad I gave myself the chance to work through my physical limitations. On the CDT the most significant injury that occurred on the trail was Two Steps ice burn from the glissade she took in the southern San Juan mountains. But there were numerous other injuries we worked through and didnt discuss. Almost every hiker has his list of injuries and pains they must endure. It is almost a universal feature of any ultra-long-distance hike.
It Takes a Village to Support a Thru-hike - Hikers depend on the kindness of strangers for transportation to towns and back to the trail, for inexpensive showers, laundry, and lodging in town, for providing water status reports and occasional water caches in the desert. Of course, an occasional treat left at a trailhead by a trail angel is also always welcome. With the increase in the number of hikers walking the trail, we are straining this generosity. How close we are to the limits is hard to know, but we found a number of places that had become much less hiker-friendly. Luckily, there were new trail angels also, such as Shrek opening a new hostel in Cascade Locks and the new hiker-friendly Mt. Williamson Hotel in Independence. The CDT has yet to experience the large influx of hikers that the AT and PCT have experienced, and resources do not yet appear strained. Many towns, particularly in New Mexico and Wyoming, strongly welcome CDT hikers and work to attract more to their towns. This definitely improved our enjoyment in and around these towns.
Next year a movie version of "Wild", the best seller by Cheryl Strayed, is scheduled to be released. Starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon, the additional attention could do to the PCT what the book "A Walk in the Woods" did to the AT, namely swell the number of thru-hikers on the trail. Mostly, that would be an excellent outcome with more people realizing the opportunity that the PCTA and dozens of trail construction and maintenance volunteer organizations have made a available. But there are limits. (Note: There is not that breakthrough book or movie yet for the CDT. There are many who hope this remains true for quite some time...)
So it's time to pay it forward and to help ensure that those that follow have the same quality of experience we have had. It will be exciting to continue to be part of the PCT community, and return to the CDT!
At home enjoying a long string of zeros,
Split and Two Step
Split And Two Step's CDT Adventure
The Continental Divide Trail is a national scenic trail that runs from Mexico to Canada via New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. This unfinished trail can potentially span up to 3,100 miles. Learn more: www.continentaldividetrail.org
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