Northern Wilderness: A 2019 Thru-Hike on the Great Divide Trail

In 2019 my wife Elaine and I hiked the Great Divide Trail from close to the U.S/Canada border to Kakwa Lake in British Columbia. We were unable to start at the exact Waterton National Park border due to the massive 2017 forest fire that closed the trail in this area (as of June 2020, this section is now open to hiking). We started at a place called Yarrow Creek a few miles north of the border, and then rejoined the official GDT before La Coulette Ridge.

We did enjoy a number of the official GDT alternates on the route. These included the Kiwetinok Pass Alternate (Section D), the Six-Pass Alternate (Section E), the Jackpine Alternate (Section G), a significant portion of the Perseverance Alternate (Section G), the Surprise Pass Alternate (Section G) and the Providence Alternate (Section G). Every alternate we took was done to avoid low-country, river valley bushwhacking in favor of high country, above-timberline travel. As a general rule of thumb, going up high provided better – and certainly more spectacular – travel than staying low.

The first snow of the year graces the high peaks along the Jackpine Alternate Route on Canada’s Great Divide Trail.

2019 was a unique year to hike the trail. It was one of the wettest summers on record in the Canadian Rockies. There were many soggy days on the trail, but on the flip side we never had to deal with forest fires. We hiked the trail during the standard hiking months, starting on July 3 at Yarrow Creek and reaching Kakwa Lake on August 21. It took us two more days to hike out of Kakwa Lake before meeting a ride near the Fraser River crossing.

It was a wonderful hike in fantastically beautiful and wild country. Our previous thru hikes include the Colorado Trail in 2012, a 500-mile section of the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, a 300-mile thru hike over the Hardangervidda and Jotunheim Mountains in Norway in 2016 and a 3,000-mile thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2017. Of those, only the Norway hike compares to the mile-for-mile (more appropriately, kilometer-for-kilometer) beauty and challenge of the Great Divide Trail.

A cautionary, yet exciting note to prospective Great Divide Trail thru hikers. This is not your typical U.S. thru hike. The terrain is more challenging and remote, and it is more of a true wilderness experience. The entire route is in grizzly bear country, there are big, glacially fed river crossings to contend with, hard days of bushwhacking in muddy river bottoms and true ridge walking that will heighten the senses. While significantly shorter, it is a much more challenging trail than the CDT. Travel is slower. For example, on the CDT we averaged about 24 miles a day. On the GDT, with the same approximate fitness level, that mileage dropped to about 18 per day. Travel on the GDT is more like Alaska travel than CDT. Actual wilderness and outdoor skills, including navigation and river crossing techniques, should be a pre-requisite for hiking the Great Divide Trail.

Unlike U.S. hikes, most of this hike is in National Parks and Provincial Parks. Permits are required for a significant portion of the route, and it’s important the thru-hiking community adheres to the permitting rules. It’s also critically important hikers follow strict grizzly bear travel and camping etiquette, for your safety but more importantly for the grizzly bear’s survival. This is not the trail to pop on the headphones and blissfully walk along in silence, unaware of one’s surroundings, nor is it the place to use your food bag as your pillow at night! Let’s be good stewards to the trail and a user group that land managers view in a positive light.

Below is a compilation of journal entries we wrote on the trail and posted on this blog site. Elaine and I alternated writing segments, so a reader might detect a different voice when reading different entries. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions. We plan to add some post-trail entries to this page as we create them. A special thanks to our good friends Tour Guide and Keith for making this hike possible and providing incredible support!

1. Prelude to the Great Divide Trail

2. Section A: Yarrow Creek to Coleman – It’s Not Your Job to Think, It’s Your Job to Charge!

3. Section B: Coleman to Kananaskis – Forget-Me-Nots, Tornado Mountain and the Most Beautiful Spot on Earth

4. Section C: Kananaskis to Sunshine – Into Wonderland

5. Section C (Continued): Sunshine to Field – The Rock Wall, Lighting Storms and Wild Strawberries

6. Section D: Field to Saskatchewan Crossing – Walking Along Glaciers, Heinous Bushwhacks and Historic Crossings

7. Section E: Saskatchewan Crossing to Jasper – Into The Arctic Basin and Caribou Country

8. Section F: Jasper to Mount Robson – Mud, Mosquitos, and Magnificent Mountains

9. Section G: Mount Robson to Kakwa Lake – Into the Wild North

2 Replies to “Northern Wilderness: A 2019 Thru-Hike on the Great Divide Trail”

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