What I Wish I’d Known Before Hiking the CDT: Wyoming
The Colorado/Wyoming sate line was, for me, where I really felt like I was stepping into the unknown. Prior to my walking the CDT, I’d only visited Wyoming on one occasion, and that was only a brief visit in the fall of 2017 to catch the solar eclipse from Grand Teton National Park. I ended up being in Wyoming for about five days in total during that trip—time to watch the eclipse, hike a few extra trails in the Tetons, and then make a bemoaningly short stop into Yellowstone for a day before embarking on a 15-hour drive back to Arizona. Those five days were enough to light a spark in me though, and that spark had turned into a fire by the summer of 2019. I was beyond excited to see the Wyoming miles of the CDT.
I loved the miles of the New Mexico CDT, if only because I had dreamed about that hike for so many years and New Mexico was where the reality of my actually hiking the trail started to sink in. That “NRE” (if you can call it that) that I felt towards the trail continued to burn all through the 700+ miles of New Mexico and into Colorado.
But Colorado was hard. For all the good that I have to say about my time there, once it was all over and done, there was no denying the physical and mental challenges brought on by the second state of the CDT. So when I finally crossed the Colorado/Wyoming state line, it felt like beginning a completely new chapter. And although my experience in hiking Wyoming before the CDT was extremely limited, I was at least pretty sure that Wyoming wouldn’t be as challenging as Colorado.
Largely, I think that too many people go into Wyoming thinking two things: 1) The Great Divide Basin is going to absolutely suck, and 2) The Wind River Range is likely to be pretty. Beyond that, most people (myself included) are mostly unsure as to what to expect from Wyoming. So with that in mind, here are the 10 things that I wish I would have known before walking the Wyoming miles of the Continental Divide Trail:
1) The Great Divide Basin Really Isn’t So Bad
Somehow or another, one of the first things that I ever learned of the CDT was about this unbelievably long stretch of trail in the middle of the western United States that was called the “Great Divide Basin.” Like so many challenges of a thru hike however, the Great Divide Basin itself turned out to be far more pleasant than what I went into it expecting.
People told me that the Basin went on for hundreds and hundreds of miles (in reality, it’s about 200 miles), that there’s no water the entire time (there was plenty of water; some of the sources just had to be shared with cows), that temperatures would be above 110 degrees (it never actually broke 100 degrees on the entire trail), that we’d be covered from head to toe by ticks (saw two ticks, never got bit), and that most hikers go insane in the Basin just due to sheer boredom (I had good company and found the miles to be nice). I could actually go on with this list of lore/reality for quite a while longer, but I think the point is made.
The year that I hiked the CDT (2019), the majority of thru hikers I met actually flipped up to hike the Great Divide Basin before going back to cover the Colorado portions of the trail. They made it sound like if you don’t hike the Basin before it’s summer that you’re going to die in the heat. I tried to disregard the warnings, but after hearing it enough, it started to get to me a bit. Like every other aspect of thru hiking however, it all boils down to hiking your own hike. If walking the CDT in a continuous, unbroken path is of importance to you, then you should know that the miles of the Great Divide Basin are certainly no worse than the challenges presented by Colorado (which you’ll have already walked through by the time you get to Wyoming).
Yes, it’ll probably be hot, but an umbrella does wonders to keep a hiker cool!
Yes, you’ll have to carry water farther in southern Wyoming than you did in Colorado, but the miles are flat and you’ll be amazed by how good it feels to be dropping 30-mile days again!
Yes, there are ticks, but from what I’ve learned from AT hikers, they aren’t nearly as bad in the Great Divide Basin as they are in the eastern United States.
The stars of the Basin are unbelievably beautiful too! There were a few instances in New Mexico where I found giant skies that filled from horizon to horizon with stars at night, but those views changed in Colorado where the beautiful mountain skylines often obscured the views of the cosmos at night. Well, if you missed the big skies of those open deserts in New Mexico, they’re plentiful again in southern Wyoming.
Like every mile of the CDT, the Great Divide Basin has its challenges and its moments of redemption. My advice here is to focus on the good things, enjoy the big-mile days, try not to let the flies get to ya, and once you start getting bored of the flat, wide open landscapes, start dreaming of those big mountains off to the north. The Wind River Range will be under your feet in no time.
2) There are Rattlesnakes in Wyoming
It had been a minute since I’d seen any rattlesnakes on the CDT. In fact, I had to think back for a moment to the southern portions of New Mexico to remember the last one I’d seen. After all the snow of Colorado, the last rattlesnake I’d seen had felt like a million miles away.
I doubt that rattlesnakes will be much of a nuisance to most hikers in Wyoming—or on the entire CDT for that matter—but it’s good to be aware that they’re around.
To keep it short, I’ll leave you with this: while you’re busting those big-mile days in the wide-open Great Divide Basin, don’t get too lost in your headphones. Rattlesnakes are nice enough to give you a little shake when you start getting close, and it’s nicer to hear a snake than it is to discover one under the tread of your trail runners.
3) The Wind River Range is Even More Beautiful Than You Can Imagine!
I don’t have any reason to believe that this is tapping into some unknown secret about the Continental Divide Trail. I’d heard from several sources that the Wind River Range was supposed to be the most beautiful stretch of the entire Mexico-to-Canada trek. “It’s the Crown Jewel of the CDT,” I’d heard on more than a couple occasions.
But in the heart of the San Juan of Colorado, I turned to my partner and made a comment that I just didn’t see how the Winds could be any more beautiful than what I was seeing in Colorado. Then, a few hundred miles later, I understood it first-hand. The Wind River Range is just one of those things that has to be experienced to be understood. The photos, as beautiful as they are, do little justice to the reality of it. Those mountains are alive in ways that I still struggle to make sense of. It’s something that you have to be there to feel for yourself.
Do yourself a favor then: take whatever time you have available to you and enjoy the Winds. If you’re worried about getting to Canada before the winter comes, drop your big-mile days in the Great Divide Basin. Have a day in Lander to rest, and hit the Winds with a little extra time to spare.
I’ll say a bit more on the Winds later. For now however, I implore you to prepare yourself for a kind of beautiful that I didn’t know existed before walking those miles, and after the relative monotony of the Great Divide Basin, you’ll enjoy the mountains even more.
4) Lander is an Extremely Cool Town
An entire book could (and maybe should) be written on the trail towns of the CDT. In the previous installments of this ongoing list of things I wish I’d known before the trail, I listed a couple of towns worth avoiding or enjoying, and as such, Lander definitely deserves a mention. It’s one of those towns that I walked out of thinking to myself that, someday, if the wind blew right, I could see myself moving back to live there. I’d felt that same way about a couple trail towns in the past, but Lander really brought that feeling back.
It’s a small enough town that I never felt overwhelmed or lost (big cities make me anxious after being on trail for too long), it had a great downtown area, good restaurants, friendly locals, wonderful gear stores, and just about everything that I could have hope for after 200 miles in the Basin.
Oh—and did I mention the “Sloshies”?
5) It’s Probably Worth Resupplying in Pinedale
Speaking of trail towns around the Wind River Range, let me say at least a bit about Pinedale, Wyoming. But before I do, I should make a confession: I’ve never been to Pinedale, and I didn’t use it as a resupply town when I hiked the CDT. I sure as hell wish that I had though. Instead of using Pinedale as a resupply, my partner and I opted for a 180+ mile stretch between resupply points with a vertical elevation profile that was nearly as aggressive as anything we found in Colorado.
If you’re including the Cirque of the Towers Alternate Route (highly recommended!) in your crossing of the Winds, getting to Pinedale means adding around 12 additional miles to your Mexico-to-Canada walk and a purportedly challenging hitch into town. For reasons that I struggle to even understand anymore, my partner and I decided that it would be easier to just go from Lander to Dubois between resupplying.
Mark my words: I have never been so hungry in my life!
Although it may have been “possible” for us to make the entire stretch between Lander and Dubois without resupply, we would have been a lot happier and more well-fed if we’d taken an extra half day to get out to Pinedale and back.
I obviously can’t say anything about the specifics of the community itself on account of my never having visited there, but from those who did resupply in Pinedale, they said all the things that I needed to hear in order to regret missing it.
6) You Won’t Have Enough Time for Yellowstone
My first visit to Yellowstone National Park was only a quick passthrough back in 2017. Back then I barely knew anything about the place, except for the photos of Old Faithful that I’d seen in a junior high Geology text book. What struck me foremost during that first visit to the park was just how expansive it is. There are National Parks like Arches, for example, that you can pretty much exhaust within a day, and then there are the parks like Grand Canyon, which is so big that people have literally dedicated their lives to exploring it without ever really seeing the whole thing. Yellowstone is more like the latter.
It actually left me kind of bummed out on that first passage through Yellowstone, because I didn’t get to spend anywhere near the amount of time that I would have needed to do the park’s trails any justice. So as I drove out of the park that day in 2017, I made peace with the fact that I had only scratched the surface of what there was to see because I knew that I’d be coming back during my hike of the CDT.
Unfortunately, my second attempt at seeing Yellowstone was barely better than the first. Although I was able to spend a bit more time in the park during my CDT visit, it still wasn’t close to enough to feel like I’d come close to seeing the whole thing. From what I can tell, it looks like a well-trained hiker would need at least a couple of weeks to really see it all, and even then, there would be stones unturned. So even though your hike along the Continental Divide will indeed bring you right beside geysers and steaming, blue pools, you won’t leave having seen it all. But if you time it right, at least you’ll be able to say that you were there for an eruption of Old Faithful. The trail literally passes right beside it.
7) Start Carrying Bear Spray around the Wind River Range and Northward
I’m sure that this information is out there somewhere, but it never crossed my radar before I set out to hike the trail. That’s probably on account of the fact that Wyoming seemed like such a distant future that it may as well have been another planet, but miles pass quickly on a thru hike, and before I knew it, Colorado and New Mexico were both behind me. You’ll feel the same way too; I promise.
Let me be clear here: there are bears in every state of the Continental Divide Trail. Will you see bears in every state? Maybe; I did. But will you need to worry about bears in every state? No. In fact, you’ll notice that I conveniently left out any mention of hanging bear bags in this entire document. That’s because it’s a HYOH kind of thing. Everyone does food hanging differently and with different levels of regularity.
As for where to start carrying bear spray however—if you’re going to carry bear spray, that is—it’s generally recommended north of the Wind River Range. A lot of NOBO hikers will pick up a can in Lander, Wyoming, others have recommended South Pass City as possibly having a donation box where you may be able to snag a free canister, or you can consider trying to get a can from a SOBO hiker. The Winds are right around the time the NOBO and SOBO groups seem to cross paths, so if you meet a SOBO who’s grown tired of carrying it, you might be able to get a can for a fairly decent price.
There is a lot more to be said about bears, but I will intentionally refrain from going too much into the topic. There are too many opinions on the matter, and I think it might be best to just err on the side of caution and have an idea for when bear spray is commonly carried on trail. As for anything else, boils down to doing your research and going for what’s best for you.
But maybe consider watching Grizzly Man before you decide how to deal with bears on trail. Or don’t… who am I to fear monger?
8) Take the Two Main Alternates in the Wind River Range
I already explained that the Winds are some of the most beautiful mountains that I’ve ever seen in my life (mind you that I spent 20 years living in Alaska!). Like the rest of the CDT, you can follow the shortest distance between two points to get to Canada, or you can occasionally take your time and enjoy the views that you’ll have walked so far to see. If there is one place on the entire CDT that I can recommend spending a little extra time (good Lord, there are so many such places though!), it’s in the Winds.
Within the Wind River Range, at present there are two primary alternate routes that diverge off of the CDT Official Route. These are the Cirque of the Towers Route and the Knapsack/Col Alternate Route. I will not be able to speak to the CDT Official Route miles that are missed by following these alternate routes (which, it should be mentioned, are both longer than the official route), but I can speak to the alternates themselves.
They. Are. Incredible.
Although southern Colorado had a lot going for it, the photos that I left the Wind River Range with were my favorite from the CDT, and the absolute best of the best came from the two aforementioned alternate routes within the Winds.
As I explained earlier, following the Cirque of the Towers Alternate Route will require adding additional out-and-back miles to your hike if you want to resupply in Pinedale, but from my experience, it’d be worth doing the extra miles and having the added time in the most beautiful section of the entire trail. It also would have been nice to have hiked the Winds without having to starve myself as I tried pushing through 180 miles without resupply. Stopping in Pinedale would have added more than 10 miles to my hike, but it also would have allowed me to enjoy the views out there for a bit longer.
9) Do Big Miles Leaving Rawlins
Remember that talk about the Great Divide Basin and how lovely it feels to be able to cover 30+ miles in a day again after all those snow-covered miles in Colorado? Well now’s your chance to make up for lost time. There are too many beautiful places on the CDT that are worth spending your time on and there’s just not enough to give them the time they deserve. Although I may have started this whole post off with a defense of the Great Divide Basin, I don’t think that I’m going to convince anybody that those 200 miles are the best ones between Mexico and Canada.
What they do have going for them however is that they’re relatively flat and they make for a great opportunity to make up for lost time. You’ve earned those trail legs by the time you get to Wyoming, so why not put ‘em to use and show what they’re worth? So if you want to drop one super-big day on your thru hike, just to see how many miles you can put behind you within 24 hours, your first day out of Rawlins and into the Great Divide Basin is the time to do it.
10) Carry Bug Spray
I made this point in Colorado, and I’ll make it again here. There is no way to know exactly where you’ll end up hitting mosquitoes as a NOBO hiker, but it’s likely that they’ll be an issue several times in Colorado and several times in Wyoming. In my experience, having a small bottle of deet was all that I needed to get by, but without it I would have lost my damn mind!
Do yourself the favor and have it ready.
You can thank me later.
No different from my discussion of New Mexico and Colorado, this list isn’t intended to represent everything you should know before going into the Wyoming miles of the CDT, but they hopefully play a role in forming a larger picture of the trail itself. Undoubtedly, you’ll have a list of your own after you’ve finished the trail, and you’ll be asking yourself why in the hell I would have left your points off. It’s a reflection of the fact that every hiker is a little different from every other hiker and that every person’s experience will be a little different as well.
Hopefully, within all that I’ve thrown together above, you’ll find at least something worth having in your tool kit as you prepare for the trail.