7 days, 80 miles: A walk along the Continental Divide Trail

By Cindy Brown
Posted 11/7/19

Even though Amanda Wheelock spends her days working to complete and promote the Continental Divide Trail, there were still a few surprises for her when she set out earlier this month to hike more than 80 miles of the trail through the Carson National Forest.

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7 days, 80 miles: A walk along the Continental Divide Trail

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Even though Amanda Wheelock spends her days working to complete and promote the Continental Divide Trail, there were still a few surprises for her when she set out earlier this month to hike more than 80 miles of the trail through the Carson National Forest. One of the big surprises for her was how few people there were on the trail. In seven days hiking, she saw only six other hikers, along with some hunters and a few more people day hiking near Ghost Ranch, near the end of the journey in Abiquiú.

"Sitting at my desk involves looking at loads of photos of the Continental Divide Trail, so I had a pretty decent idea of what the landscape would look like before arriving. But I was surprised at the diversity of the terrain. The altitudes ranged between 8,600 to 10,600 feet and while it was generally rolling hills with ponderosa pine and aspen, every day it was a little different. Some days it looked the grassy open Scottish Highlands and other days the terrain was dominated by golden aspens that were at their peak."

Also unexpected was that the landscape abruptly changed from aspen and ponderosa pine to red canyon country when Wheelock got near Ghost Ranch. "Even as we were hiking through the transition zone, it felt sudden and striking to arrive at the lip of the canyon and look down at Ghost Ranch," she says.

Continental Divide Trail Coalition

Wheelock is the policy and communications manager for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition based in Golden, Colorado. She works on policies that ensure the public lands traversed by the trail are protected. As part of the current revision to the Carson National Forest 1986 plan, Wheelock is coordinating comments that emphasize the importance of the Continental Divide Trail - known among many simply as the CDT - as a cultural resource in the forest. (All comments on the Forest Plan Revision are due by Thursday (Nov. 7).

Completing construction of the CDT is another priority for Wheelock and the coalition as they seek funds and coordinate volunteers to do the work on the ground. Though the trail was designated in 1978, there remain sections that are not yet complete. In New Mexico, there are gaps outside of Silver City and Grants.

The CDT Coalition was founded in 2012 as a nonprofit organization to promote, protect and complete the trail so that it is a hiking experience that can be enjoyed for generations into the future.

Wheelock's journey

Wheelock and longtime friend and roommate, Sammy Malavarca set off from Cumbres Pass, north of the New Mexico state line in Colorado by three miles. For the next seven days, they hiked south toward Ghost Ranch, covering 80 miles, which is the majority of the CDT in the Carson, and adding another 14 miles on CDT alternate trails and dirt roads that lead to Ghost Ranch.

The two were prepared for eight days, so they had plenty of food. They found water along the way that they treated with a water filter, carrying iodine as a backup in case the filter failed. "There were pretty good water sources along the way," explains Wheelock. "We found running water from the Río Vallecitos and little streams. The CDT goes through a couple of campgrounds and we were able to get water there. There are cow tanks along the way, but we never had to use them."

Navigation maps with blue dots that indicated water sources were a big help finding water and staying on the trail, too.

The weather that early week in October made for comfortable hiking most days; some days the hikers wore shorts and T-shirts. One night was windy and cold and a nearby camper told them that the thermometer said the temperature had dipped down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. During that same time, it was snowing at Wheelock's home in Colorado, so she felt pretty lucky to have mostly mild weather along the trail.

A lone elk bugling the first night in the valley below their campsite started the journey and they saw a big red-tailed hawk overhead and heard coyotes many nights nearby. A short horned lizard was spotted along the trail.

After they reached Ghost Ranch the two spent a final night camping and were shuttled back to their car by volunteers from Chama. "I highly recommend the huevos rancheros at the Elkhorn Café," says Wheelock. "Chama is a gateway community for the CDT and many volunteers have worked hard on the trail and are excited to welcome hikers."

The mood of the land

As the two hiked the trail, they began to feel a familiarity with the landscape. "You become attuned to the looks and mood of the land and the different feelings that it evokes," says Wheelock.

There was one meadow that felt especially eerie for reasons the two couldn't quite describe.

Sleeping out in the forest and carrying everything with you allows a certain bond with the land to build and be maintained. There was no internet or cell service, so the two were able to really relax and enjoy each other's company and the beauty of the forest. Being surrounded by the turning leaves added another dimension to the journey.

"The golden aspens were really special, easily better than anything I've seen before. It was stunning being surrounded by the aspens with the beautiful bark and the shimmer of the leaves," observes Wheelock.

Staying on the trail

The section of the CDT through the Carson was recently completed and dedicated at the end of September with a celebration at Hopewell Lake. "This section of the trail is so well-constructed and lovely to hike on," says Wheelock. "Some sections are so new that they are not even on CDT maps yet. Where the maps showed road sections, there are now single-track trails. It's really an improvement."

Many groups of volunteers have been working for years to create a sustainable trail that is pleasant to hike and leads to landscape features like overlooks.

Wheelock and her friend did get lost a couple of times. "At least once we managed to actually walk around in a circle. The signage was pretty good overall, but I was glad we had the maps and there are plans to add more signs, too."

Next, Wheelock hopes to explore sections of the CDT in southwestern New Mexico on the Gila National Forest and more northern reaches near Wind River, Wyoming.

Like other long-distance hikes, the CDT offers an opportunity to experience solitude and adventure in nature and the rare chance to truly touch the beauty and essence of the land.

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History of the Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail extends 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico covering high-altitude tundra and desert. About 150 people a year attempt to hike the whole length while thousands of other users hike, ride horseback and cross-country ski sections of the trail. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act that officially created the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Scenic Trails. The CDT was designated on November 10, 1978 and ever since then volunteers have been working to complete the trail.

Finding the trail and more information

There are several campgrounds that make good access points for the Carson section of the CDT, including Canjilon Lakes, Hopewell Lake and Lagunitas campgrounds. The CDT can also be accessed from the trailhead at Skull Bridge on Forest Service Road 151, within the Río Chama Canyon.

For more information, visit the Carson National Forest website at fs.usda.gov/recarea/carson/recarea/?recid=82828 or the Continental Divide Trail Coalition at continentaldividetrail.org.

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