8 Great Reasons to Ride the Continental Divide Trail
A 2,700-mile ride from Canada to Mexico through rugged & wild mountains.
It was once thought of as an impenetrable barrier to early explorers. The “Continental Divide” (or “Great Divide”) is a wild and rugged mountain range that snakes its way from the Mexican border all the way to Canada, separating the Western United States from the rest of the country. The trail system running along its ridge, is the Continental Divide Trail or CDT for short — one of the longest, highest and most remote trail systems in the country.
The CDT started out as a trail for hikers but it wasn’t long before bicyclists caught wind of it and created a mountain bike route that closely followed the original path. Eventually, motorcyclists discovered it too and developed their own motorized version of the route. Completing the Continental Divide Motorcycle Trail takes roughly two weeks and covers 2,700 miles through spectacular remote wilderness, crossing five states (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana), with elevations raging from 4,000 to 12,000 feet.
It’s one of the premier dual sport routes in the country and is considered one of the greatest long-distance trails in the world. As you wind your way across the Continental Divide Trail, you get a chance to experience some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States and a diversity of landscapes and natural beauty that is uniquely American. The route travels deep into some of the most remote regions of a country with little signs of civilization, making this a truly epic adventure in the heart of the US. Below you’ll find 8 great reasons why you should consider making the Continental Divide Trail one of your Bucket List rides.
1. For The Challenge
While the majority of the Continental Divide trail is either dirt or gravel roads — all perfectly suitable for big Adventure Bikes — any trip that covers nearly 3,000 miles is bound to have a few challenges. The Continental Divide Trail is no exception. Storm clouds can unleash torrents of water turning roads into a sloppy muck. Flash floods, snow, hail, deep river crossing and even forest fires may cause you to reroute. Some high mountain passes in Colorado, with their steep rocky ascents and sheer cliffs, may still be covered in snow late into the summer, causing you to dig your way through. But it wouldn’t be an adventure without a few difficulties and using your own ingenuity to overcome problems is part of what makes adventure riding so satisfying.
2. Visit Three of America’s Best National Parks
The Continental Divide Trail travels through Grand Teton National Park and within close proximity to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, giving you a chance to visit three of America’s greatest natural treasures. Riding through Grand Teton on some of the lesser traveled roads, you’ll enjoy glorious views of jagged peaks that rise nearly 14,000 feet into the sky. When the trail meanders its way close to Yellowstone, near the Idaho and Wyoming border, a detour to the park will allow you to see bison roaming across the “American Serengeti” and the incredible geysers and geothermal pools the park is known for. Near the end of the CDT in Montana, you’ll be nearby Glacier National Park where you’ll find lush green forests dominated by mountains and lakes which were once carved out by huge glaciers in the last ice age. Dozens of large glaciers still exist in the park today. Go see them while they are still there!
3. Ride Among The 14ers of the Colorado Rockies
Colorado has 58 mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet (known as the “14ers”) — more than any other state. The Continental Divide Trail takes you high into this mountainous region where elevations start at around 8,000 feet. The route travels across several high passes with soaring views of the surrounding mountains, the tallest on the trail being Indiana Pass in Southern Colorado with an elevation 11,910 feet. In this area, you’ll find some of the most challenging riding terrain during your journey to test your skill and endurance. But it will all be worth it, for a chance to view the rugged beauty of these high mountains and the surrounding lush green river valleys that dot the landscape.
4. Explore “The Old West” as it Once Was
The route is rich in history, allowing you to step back in time to view primitive landscapes like the Grand Prairie where vast herds of buffalo once roamed. In this remote part of the country, the views have changed little over the centuries and relics of the old west are abundant. Explore deserted mines, old ghost towns and even ride in the footsteps of the early explorers that were the first Europeans to probe the inner reaches of the Great Divide. You’ll also have a chance to connect with Native American culture when visiting the mysterious cliff dwellings of the ancient pueblo tribes, just off the trail in New Mexico. The Continental Divide Trail is more than just a line on a map, it’s a living museum and a place where you can develop a deeper appreciation of the history that forged the US into the country it is today.
5. Diverse Terrain and Landscapes
Whether it’s the terrain, scenery or points of interest, the Continental Divide Trail always offers up something new for the senses. New Mexico is characterized by harsh desert terrain with high mesas, volcanic formations and mountain ranges that rise straight up from the desert floor. As you near Colorado, the desert meets the mountains and the terrain changes to thick forests, lush green meadows and crystal-clear alpine lakes. Wyoming is defined by the open grasslands of the plains where vast herds of bison once roamed freely. As you enter Idaho and travel on through Montana, you ride in tall forests with glacial valleys that offer views of towering snow-capped peaks. The terrain itself ranges from gravel and four-wheel drive roads to single track and railroad beds. One thing you can expect is a tremendous amount of diversity in the landscape and an ever-changing terrain that makes for an enjoyable ride.
6. View The Changing Fall Colors
Fall is one of the most beautiful times of the year to ride the Continental Divide. You’ll witness fall foliage transform from deep greens to vibrant shades of red, yellow and orange. However, timing is important. Come too early and the colors may not have begun to change. And you don’t want to visit too late when the trees have already shed their leaves for the year. Higher elevations will turn gold first, while lower elevations will begin to change in late September and early October. The month of September is peak season for fall colors and a good time catch Aspen trees popping with color in the Colorado and Wyoming high country. Temperatures are milder and the Winter snow pack has melted on the high mountain passes in the fall, making it an ideal time to ride the Continental Divide Trail.
7. Find Peace and Tranquility
There are a few larger towns on the route, but the majority of the Continental Divide Trail remains a wild and remote land, sparsely populated and relatively untouched by humans. On some days, you’ll travel through vast pristine wilderness areas, as remote as any place in the continental United States. And with so few signs of civilization, sometimes it’s hard to believe you are still in the States. It’s a chance to see the unspoiled beauty of North America as it once was and experience “hundred mile views” that make you feel like you have reached a place far far away from it all.
8. See Unique and Abundant Wildlife
The lack of human population along the route makes it an ideal place for wildlife to thrive. The trail hosts a rich variety of rare and unique wildlife from the javelinas of New Mexico to the grizzly bears of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It’s not uncommon to encounter large mammals like moose or black bears crossing the trail, and you can even view bison if you take a short detour to Yellowstone National Park. On the prairie, wild horses roam freely and pronghorn antelopes, the fastest land mammals in the Americas, can reach speeds as high as high as 70 mph. Herds of bighorn sheep graze along the cliffs of the Rockies and it’s possible to see eagles soaring overhead. And if you don’t see the abundant wildlife, you may hear it, like the sounds of wolves howling or elk bugling their mating calls off in the distance.
Planning Your Trip
The Continental Divide Trail offers world-class adventure riding right in the heart of the US. It has the perfect mix of remote, challenging terrain and iconic American landscapes to make this a truly epic journey. Something to consider is this — a trip of this magnitude should not be undertaken without careful preparation. There are many different possible routes on this 3,000 mile trek across the United States — some more suitable for larger Adventure Bikes than others. Properly planning your route beforehand will allow you to customize this adventure to meet your interests and riding style.
For those that have the time to do their own research and route planning, you can start by checking out the Adventure Cycling website. Or if you want to save time preparing and avoid some of the trouble spots for Adventure Bikes, our friends at RawHyde have a tour called the Continental Divide Ride. They have been leading groups up and down the Continental Divide for more than a decade and their route has been carefully refined over the years. They can help you navigate the maze of challenges and let you experience the best the CDT has to offer in just 10 days. Check out the RawHyde website for more information.