Hiking Canada's Great Divide, North America's Loneliest Long Trail

Few blazes, fewer trail angels: Canada’s Great Divide Trail offers a rare chance to go back in time and experience the birth of a thru-hike.
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Few blazes, fewer trail angels: Canada’s Great Divide Trail offers a rare chance to go back in time and experience the birth of a thru-hike.
When the path peters out, hikers find their own way along the headwaters of the Brazeau River  around mile 435. Photos by Jon Christopher Meyers

When the path peters out, hikers find their own way along the headwaters of the Brazeau River around mile 435. Photos by Jon Christopher Meyers

The Great Divide trail traces the spine of the Canadian Rockies for 746 miles, but I only needed 18 to see how wild it can be.

After miles of sublime, airy ridge walking on Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail, I exited a tunnel of trees into a wide patch of tundra sweeping up to the fortress of 8,839-foot Mt. Tekarra. The view and a howling wind dazed me enough that it took a few seconds to catch a chocolate-brown shoulder flecked in silver out of the corner of my eye. A paw the size of a pie followed, and then I saw the shovel nose, beady eyes, and small ears confirming this was a griz, 25 yards away. Way too close.

I hightailed it up an adjacent tundra bench, waited for 30 minutes, and doubled back about 200 yards farther down the way. As I neared the trail again, I choked when I saw another silvered hump passing through a break in the trees, 10 feet away. Way too close. With bear spray in hand and my heart hammering, I leapfrogged another 200 yards up the trail. Had the griz I saw before returned, or was this a second one?

You want to experience a two-month immersion in a North American wilderness the region’s first explorers would recognize? This is your hike. “This is a hard, hard trail that takes some of the best thru-hikers in the world and humiliates them,” says Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, who hiked it in 2016.

Bighorn sheep sun themselves above Michele Lakes (mile 410).

Bighorn sheep sun themselves above Michele Lakes (mile 410).

It’s the GDT’s composite wildness that sets it apart from any hike in the Lower 48. For starers, three ecosystems—Rocky Mountain, Pacific Northwest, Arctic—converge on the divide. The region also harbors an estimated thousand grizzlies, along with moose, elk, caribou, wolves, wolverines, bobcats—and anything else that calls big wilderness home. Glacier-fed rivers and grueling climbs create intimidating barriers. Whole cross-country sections where old First Nation and fur-trader trails fade to almost nothing vex even experienced orienteers.

Unlike on well-known long trails, don’t expect a crowd of hikers to come to your aid if there’s a problem: Long stretches of the GDT are practically deserted. Whether it will stay that way is another question. As the GDT comes of age as a life-list thru-hike, the trail’s few fanatics are split on the best way to protect the experience they all had. Some believe the trail’s obscurity—it’s not even officially recognized by the Canadian government—will protect it from the masses, and want to keep it under wraps. Others want to galvanize local and federal agencies to promote and preserve it. Hikers are still few and far between, but with more people tackling the GDT each summer, the debate comes at a critical time.

I decided to hike a few sections of the GDT last year to see what’s at stake. It became immediately clear that spending days alone above treeline is a rare privilege—one that’s hard to find on any trail anywhere—and I’m loath to think that might change. On the other hand, I also learned that company looks mighty appealing when you’re outnumbered by grizzlies.

In early August, wildflowers erupt along the bottomlands of the Howes River (mile 346).

In early August, wildflowers erupt along the bottomlands of the Howes River (mile 346).

If you’re a fan of America’s long trails, the last couple years have been a little like watching your favorite bar band turn into U2. Everyone’s a fan: After reading one of the 1.75 million copies of Wild sold and crying through the movie with Reese, your golfing uncle with the hip replacement is now planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. In 2015 alone, 4,453 hikers obtained long-distance permits for the PCT—and that’s not counting the millions who nibbled smaller sections.

On the other hand, just 30 or 40 people tried to tackle the GDT in one gulp last summer; section hikers numbered in the dozens. No one knows for sure, because that estimate is cobbled together from Facebook group reports and wildlife agency motion sensors catching the rare mud-caked hiker in between all the cougars and grizzlies. “It’s like the PCT 30 years ago,” says River Taig, 47, a software engineer from Colorado who has thru-hiked the GDT three times.

The GDT begins where the Continental Divide Trail ends, then hits Canada’s five Rocky Mountain national parks, seven provincial parks, and crosses the continental divide 30 times before ending at Kakwa Lake. “It isn’t the kind of trail to cut your teeth on,” Taig says. “There are 26 miles of elevation gain—it’s a vertical marathon from start to finish.”

Traversing the GDT is the kind of experience that divides your life into before and after. Thru-hikers turn into obsessives. They aren’t looking for self-actualization or a shot at a memoir. They want deep immersion in wilderness. They want to disappear.

Taig is one such hiker, and he’s an evangelist for the trail. The software engineer is building a GDT app with Atlas Trail Guides and writing a coffee table book. Christine Smith, 52, of Calgary, is another one, completing an end-to-end in 2012 and a section hike in 2015. But she’s more ambivalent when it comes to spreading the word.

“I have mixed feelings about this,” she says. “I am happy I did the trail when I did, as I enjoyed the solitude. At the same time, the word is out.”

Ultimately, she decided protection outweighs privacy, and, like a lot of repeat customers, she joined the Great Divide Trail Association, the trail’s nascent advocacy organization. “It’s doing a great job maintaining the trail,” she says, “building new trail, and raising awareness.”

For all this talk of saving the trail, it’s worth noting that the GDT is really more of a route than a track. Just 44 percent is on maintained trail; 33 percent is unmaintained, of which 10 percent is raw, cross-country navigation (the rest is road or ATV track).

Since the ’60s, many Canadians have tried to knot together the threads of trail into a nationally recognized footpath. Beyond attracting visitors and conserving unprotected sections of wilderness, it could also conceivably remove the byzantine mess of permits and reservations thru-hikers need to hike and camp legally. But without national trail designation, there are no dedicated streams of money for maintenance, no official resources for hikers, and no real way to protect certain sections from mining or logging. Volunteer dedication, love, and pennies are basically all that prop the trail up for now.

Yet the dream still lives thanks to the Great Divide Trail Association, which raises money, builds trail, and shepherds a growing number of the GDT-addicted and -curious into the beginnings of a community. They’re closer to securing official sanction than they’ve ever been before: Alberta is considering giving provincial protection to its portions (about 65 percent of the trail), and for the first time, Banff National Park has opened up discussions with the GDTA for managing hikers.

But perhaps the most transformative recent change has been the GDTA’s creation of a Facebook group—a virtual trailhead register for a trail that has only three real registers. Hikers trade tattered copies of the 10-year-old guidebook (the only one in existence, currently out of print), offer tips on surviving the Great Divide’s capricious weather, and, of course, carpool the Great Divide way (“anybody want to share a floatplane from Kakwa Lake?”).

A hiker crests the GDT’s 8,500-foot high point (mile 411), which, fittingly, lacks an official name.

A hiker crests the GDT’s 8,500-foot high point (mile 411), which, fittingly, lacks an official name.

All that makes Great Divide Trail Association Director Brad Vaillancourt optimistic about
the trail’s future. “The GDT truly embodies everything there is to love and protect in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, but if we continue to keep it off the map, it may become more legend than reality.”

After the bear encounterin Jasper, I spent a day skirting larch groves and pearly tarns on a rolling band of treeline terrain that connects the Banff National Park portion of the trail to Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park. Pikas pinballed between the rocks, and as everything went silver in fading light, I saw two dozen mountain goats freckling a brow of granite 500 feet above me. Through binoculars, their coming winter coats looked like pulled cotton balls. I bedded down alone with the white spike of Mt. Assiniboine, a Matterhorn döppelganger, reflected in Lake Magog. Frost coated the inside of my tent, and with the door open, it glittered in the moonlight.

Some miscalculations in supplies, timing, and shuttles meant I had to reverse my point-to-point to Lake Og back to my car in one day—30 solo miles including a 4-mile road walk on not much more than a few nuts, some jerky dust, and a rind of Parmesan cheese. For most of the night, I carried on jelly-legged and shouting at every bear-shaped boulder that fuzzed into the waning beam of my headlamp. I arrived at the trailhead before midnight and went straight to Banff, where I waded through a line of drunken 20-year-olds to eat two large pizzas at 2 a.m.

It was a perfect ending to my trial-size section. I’d gotten a big helping of what makes the Great Divide Trail so special, and so daunting: living through triumphs and tragedies of your own making in the wild, and coming out the other side feeling more capable than before.

And after five days on the GDT, I came to my own conclusion about whether the trail needs saving or secrecy. It needs you, dear reader, in order to survive, but I’ll be back someday soon to finish it, and I hope to beat you to it.

In his pursuit of unspoiled wilderness, Pacific Northwest Field Editor Ted Alvarez has an easier time finding grizzly bears than hiking partners.

TRIP PLANNER

Do It Some sections use existing trails; others require experience in navigation and a willingness to tolerate days of bushwhacking. There are only three towns that sell groceries and gear along the way. Plan for a thru-hike to take about eight weeks.

Season Late July to September

Permit The Parks Canada Discovery Pass (free in 2017) and an Annual Wilderness Pass ($68.70 CAD) are required. Some provincial park campgrounds require reservations.

Contact For logistical info, packing suggestions, and trail support, visit the Great Divide Trail's website.