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May 2001

Canada’s Great Divide Trail

For 30 years, some wide-eyed dreamers have been chiseling a 745-mile route through the Canadian Rockies. The result is a labor of love set to become one of North America's most magnificent long trails.

To the north of the Lower 48, there’s a trail that tickles the spine of the Rockies and is possibly the most spectacular long-distance hiking route in North America. This trail weaves back and forth some 745 breathtaking miles between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, traversing country far grander and wilder than any contiguous mountain wilderness in the United States. If tacked onto the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT)-as some believe it should be-the combined routes would create, without a doubt, the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping, challenging wilderness trail on Earth.

And chances are, you’ve never heard of this amazing footpath.

It’s called the Great Divide Trail (GDT), and because it winds through big, rough country, it’s not for the unprepared. Like most Canadian trails, particularly those outside the national parks, the GDT is less pronounced and signed than those in the Lower 48. The hiking season is short and the weather volatile. Snow can fall at any time of the year, conceals much of the route through June, and remains on high passes well into July and August. Prolonged, heavy rain is common. Many streams must be forded, often near their glacial source, which makes for frigid water and daily fluctuations in flow that may halt your progress. Biting insects buzz through the air in squadron strength through much of the hiking season. Black bears, grizzlies, and even wolverines are all along the route, so food must be safely hung at all camps. Resupply points and potential rescue sources are remote.

Sound daunting? It is, but if you can handle the fact that the trail is a work in progress and that periodically you’ll be challenged when it vanishes into the wilds, the reward is well worth the effort. On the GDT, you’ll find a true wilderness experience in one of the most magnificent settings in North America.

That the GDT exists at all is a testament to the dedication of some hikers who’ve refused to let a 30-year-old vision die. The idea of a Canadian Rockies trail originated in the mid-1960s when the Girl Guides (Canada’s equivalent of the Girl Scouts) first floated the idea. Inspired, a Parks Canada consultant, Jim Thorsell, led a summer 1967 trail-use survey, which found that a Great Divide Trail was doable and that “the time is now right.”

The idea languished due to Parks Canada officials’ concerns about increasing visitation. Thorsell, meanwhile, continued to champion the idea and in 1970, he published the Provisional Trail Guide and Map for the Proposed Great Divide Trail. The following year, the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide was published, which also contained a description of the route. The publicity led federal officials to express support for the GDT, but 9 years after the concept surfaced, there was nothing to show for it but paper.

Enter the Alberta Wilderness Association, which favored the long-distance trail. Their advocacy led the Alberta provincial government to recommend a system of trails stretching southward along the Continental Divide. The idea caught the attention of a college student named Cliff White, who knew of Thorsell’s research. During his first year at the University of Calgary, he met several others who also were intrigued by the long-trail concept, so they “put in for a government youth grant to study the GDT’s possible routing. We qualified, and in 1974, six of us took off to do a trail survey,” he says.

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