I remember being four years old and gazing out toward the mountains, imagining what it would be like to visit such an incredible place. Hiking became a big part of my life years later and I’ve had the opportunity to explore many parts of the Canadian Rockies. I even walked most of the popular sections of the Great Divide Trail over the years but never thought of hiking the entire trail. One day I woke up and that child-like fascination returned. What would it be like to hike the whole GDT? What secret, hidden places might it reveal? I had to find out.
Over the last two months, I’ve loved nearly every minute of my journey along the Great Divide. This post is as much a personal reflection as it is a resource that might help future hikers.
Here’s a recap of the trip…
- 1,050 km walked
- 52 days on trail
- 22 rest days
- 20.3 km/day on average
- 40 campsites all to myself (85% of them)
- 22 days using snowshoes
- 38 days raining
- 6 days snowing
- 1 day with forest fire smoke
- 16 swims in freezing cold lakes & rivers
- -3 °C coldest night: May 23 (my first day)
- 12 lbs bodyweight lost
- 15 lbs pack weight (without food and water but with snowshoes)
- 36 km – longest day (on Jasper Skyline Trail)
An Early Start
I started the trail unusually early. Late-June through July is generally considered a good time to begin. I set off a week before the end of May, basically as soon as winter conditions lessened enough that avalanche conditions were acceptable. All that snow made my experience of the GDT atypical. I wore snowshoes most of the first month and still sunk deeply into rotten snow. Road-walks that would normally be a breeze took me many hard hours. Sections of trail that are normally easy to follow required careful navigation with everything in sight covered in snow. On my hardest day, I only managed to walk 13.5 km in 10.5 hours. Such an early start also meant that I had the trails to myself. Most days I saw no other humans and even popular campsites were empty. I met only one other GDT hiker along the entire trail.
I probably should have been wearing boots. The snowshoe straps dug into my achilles tendons through my trail runners, turning an irritation into an overuse injury. Some mornings I limped for the first hour or more. Even after the snow became manageable without snowshoes, the achilles pain remained. It forced me to walk slowly, do short days, and take more time off. If I pushed myself faster than 3 km/h, I suffered. If I walked for more than 20 km, the next day was worse. In a way, though, this taught me something valuable: slow down and enjoy the trail. I had the time, so why rush through it?
Looking back on this journey, I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to spend so much time enjoying such a special place. Growing up near the Canadian Rockies and with many of my best memories there, it’s a rewarding experience to revisit so many familiar places and to explore many more that were completely new to me.
When I completed the Te Araroa in New Zealand, I was ecstatic to finish. Reaching the end of the GDT at Kakwa Lake felt different, bittersweet. I was certainly happy to finish but I also felt a great desire to continue, to see what lies beyond the next peak. There’s a lot more to explore.
I’ll certainly be back to walk the trails in Waterton National Park that are still closed due to the big fire two years ago. But I’m curious to see what lies further north, beyond Kakwa. Is that practical? Do I have the skills to navigate a wilderness largely devoid of trails or really much of any human presence? To be continued…