How to Thru Hike the 1,200km Great Divide Trail
How to Thru Hike the 1,200km Great Divide Trail

How to Thru Hike the 1,200km Great Divide Trail

The Great Divide Trail

A roughly 1,200km (750mi) route starting from the US border at Waterton Lakes National Park and stretching all the way north through the rugged and remote Canadian Rockies eventually terminating at Kakwa Lake Provincial Park.

A trail with more raw potential than any other thru hike I have ever done. The scenery is other worldly, there are massive glaciers hanging off every peak, the route is adventurous and fun. There are alternates around every corner should you want something easier or more challenging. The mountains are endless as you pass through world famous national parks and traverse through remote landscapes. I could go on forever, as it really is that special of a place.

I did this hike with my girlfriend Sprocket. Thank you for spending 42 days with me in the Canadian wilderness, for the film photos, for the jokes and laughs. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much without you.

A short video showing off our 42 day hike of the 1,200km Great Divide Trail from start to finish!
The GDT starts at the US border north of Montana, and then rides the crest of the Canadian Rockies between Alberta and British Columbia north for roughly 1,100 kilometers. Map from Farout, a popular navigational app which we used to hike the Great Divide Trail!

The Great Divide Trail at a glance:

  • 1,200km (750mi) in length, depending on end point
  • Grizzly and moose habitat the entire way
  • 5 National Parks, 9 Provincial Parks, 4 Wilderness Areas, 4 Forest Districts
  • 2,590m (or 8,500ft) is the high point @ an un-named pass in Section E
  • 1,055m (or 3,500ft) is the low point @ Old Fort Point outside of Jasper
  • Peak hiking season is from July to September
  • 30 to 60 days is roughly how long this hike takes depending on experience and fitness
  • Broken up into seven sections, A B C D E F and G

This is a relatively young trail with a very passionate and small organization behind it, and much of the trail is changing very quickly in positive ways thanks to them. The Great Divide Trail Association has done an amazing job and I have no doubt that this trail should be at the very top of the list for any thru hiker because of their efforts. If you are contemplating hiking this trail, are Canadian, or want to support an incredible developing thru hike with endless potential please consider becoming a member of the GDTA. In every possible way this trail was better than expected thanks to the GDTA.

Since this hike is in Canada, and since this country switched to metric in the 1970s, this article will also favor metric measurements over imperial. Though I will try to include both, as on this hike you will run into people coming from both sides.

Floe Lake on the Rockwall section of the Great Divide Trail in Kootenay National Park, one of the most epic views along the whole trail, complete with a very popular campsite along it’s shoreline
At the southern terminus of the Great Divide Trail in Waterton Lakes National Park. This terminus is also shared by the Continental Divide Trail which spans the length of the United States from Mexico to Canada. One could conceivably continue north on the GDT for a really wild experience.

Statistics from our GDT thru hike

  • Start: July 21st
  • Finish: September 1st
  • Duration: 42 days
  • Zeros: 6
  • Pace: 26km per day / 30km per day excluding zeros
  • Other Thru Hikers Met: 17
  • Hottest: 36c / 97f
  • Coldest: -2c / 28f
  • Rain: 6 days / +3 when we were in town
  • Snow: 1 / Aug 18
  • Grizzly: 1 / from just 20m away
  • Black Bear: 1
  • Moose: 2
  • Big Horn Sheep: 13
  • Porcupine: 8
  • Mink: 1
  • Mountain Goat: 0
  • Resupplies: 8 / Waterton, Coleman, Canmore, Elk Pass, Banff, Golden, Sask Crossing, Maligne Lake, Jasper, Blueberry
  • Boxes Sent: 2 / Sask Crossing & Blueberry
  • Money Spent: 3,000usd (4,000cad)
  • Hotels: 7
  • Trail Angel: 2
  • Showers: 6
  • Laundry: 3
  • Lake Swims: 6
Towards the end of the Kiwetinok Pass Alternate in Yoho National Park, the trail drops down a sheer cliff of loose rock to descend into the river valley you see below.
Along the Northover Ridge alternate in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park looking down on large lingering snow fields in august. Despite the smoke from a nearby wildfire blocking the view, this was one of my most favorite days on our GDT thru hike.
Some caribou antlers we found along the trail in Jasper National Park, my partner Sprocket showing off how a caribou might wear them

How to hike the Great Divide Trail

The GDT is one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life, from the beauty of the mountains, the glaciers studding the peaks, the stress of the wildlife present out there, and the pure adventure of what this route entails. It is absolutely worth the effort.

The issue is that as of now there still isn’t a lot of information for those looking to do it themselves. Even for those very experienced with planning trips like these, getting details on how to go about this hike can still be quite difficult. I was fortunate that I personally know a handful of folks who have done it before, and could ask them about anything I was concerned about, but even from friend to friend the advice I got varied greatly.

So my idea here is to just provide more, more thoughts, more considerations, gear recommendations, weather, first hand experiences, resupply and town information, and hopefully a lot more.

This trail can be as hard and as logistically confusing as you want it to be. So if you want as simple as it gets; buy the permits exactly for the dates in the example itineraries with a bunch of zeros thrown in, start at Waterton in mid July, hitchhike to towns often for resupply or to avoid storms, buy a super quality rain jacket, and end at Jasper or Mt Robson.

Sprocket hiking through a field of flowers in an off trail alpine section, navigating towards a rock chute to climb up on the Northover Ridge Alternate.
The little saddle you see in the distance is the highest point along the GDT, some hikers choose to take a short side trail up to the small peak on the right for an extra bit of fun

Challenges along the GDT

  • The trail is often not marked, and there are many parts with no trail at all
  • Comfort with cross country hiking, and navigating is required
  • Distances between towns can be upwards of 200km (120mi)
  • Resupply can be not so straight forward
  • Tons of permits require a lot of planning long in advance
  • Weather is very unpredictable. Cold all day rain, snow any time of the year, or lightning above tree line
  • Cell service is almost never available while actually on trail, and sometimes not in town either!
  • Dangerous river crossings
  • Potential for hazardous snow travel earlier in the seasons
  • Grizzly bear and Moose habitat from day one all the way until the end
  • Remote areas where help won’t be easily gotten if in trouble
  • Hard decisions on routing or timing when it comes to alternates or trail conditions
  • Difficult to estimate pace in future sections making resupply quantities tricky

… And the list goes on! But…You could take just about any thru hike and make it look extreme by listing everything like I did here.

Throughout this article I’ll try to talk about the different challenges a GDT hiker will face, and how you can best deal with them. I think first it’s good to just take a look at what you’re up against, so you can better know how to prepare.

A grizzly bear running away from us after we had spooked it when hiking around a blind corner. It was no more than 20 meters away from us at closest. Not to mention it had snowed the night before (August 18th) making for a very cold, wet, and exciting morning!
Grizzly prints in the snow were following the trail for a few kilometers, their paws are much larger than my hand! Not far beyond this we saw more prints from a smaller grizzly in the mud. It is extremely common on this trail to see signs of recent moose and grizzly activity everyday.

I choose to list these difficulties and challenges like I did above because I think it’s important that this hike be taken with respect, and listing out the main concerns is helpful to know so you can prepare. At the very least these areas are remote, the weather can be quite bad, and you could certainly find yourself in threatening situations out there in a multitude of ways.

With that said in my opinion, if you are experienced this is not the most difficult trail, but it’s also not the simplest either, and there are a lot of thru hikes that would be easier than this one. So proper planning is important here, but if you do your diligence, have quality gear, and don’t take things too lightly then you’ll be alright.

Check out my gear recommendations below, as remoteness, lack of cell service, bears, and bad weather can all be eliminated as problems with a few choice items. Hopefully the rest of this article will help to alleviate other concerns as well!

A GDT marker somewhere in section A. Over the course of this thru hike you won’t see too many of these! At least as of now, a lot of the sections just aren’t marked very frequently. Not much of a problem but you definitely have to be comfortable making a lot of small navigational decisions everyday.
A most beautiful river valley near sunset in Section D. You can see a faint trail here, but it would come and go with some sections just being a bushwhack.

The Seven Sections

Before we get into things too deeply I want to have a brief overview of each section as they will be referenced throughout this article, and I think it’s good to have some idea as to what each section roughly entails.

  • Section A – 145km / 90mi – The GDT begins in Waterton Lakes National Park, just two and a half hours from the very large city of Calgary. Waterton is just north of Glacier National Park in Montana. The trail begins where the CDT ends, right along the lake. You could hike down to the terminus at the US / Canada border, or take a boat. Waterton has a nice little town with a bunch of shops, restaurants, gear stores, and a campground. The main challenges of the first section are La Coulotte Ridge and the Barnaby Ridge alternate. These are waterless, and I recommend carrying at least 4 liters water (if not more) to do these. Some cell service can be found throughout this section, and there is a lot of roads and access should something go wrong in the beginning of your hike.
  • Section B – 193km / 120mi – The second section begins in Crowsnest Pass at the small towns of Coleman and Blairmore. The High Rock Trail to the north follows the east side of the mountains, running parallel to the popular for recreation ‘Trunk Road.’ Should you have big problems it’s possible to find help taking a side trail down to it. This section of trail is all new as of a few years ago! You will never see more GDT markings and blazes as you do here which makes navigating extremely easy. The big challenges are just hoping you have good weather for Tornado Saddle and Fording River Pass. This is a 200km stretch without resupply, one of the longest of the entire trail depending on how you do things. The end of this section is a 30km or so roadwalk with the option to take the Coral Pass alt, which I don’t think many do as it involves a hard river crossing and adds a lot of time onto an already long stretch. Section B finishes in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Not much cell service to be found here.
  • Section C – 201km / 125mi – Welcome to the most popular national park in all of Canada. Section C is almost entirely in Banff, and this is where all those permits you got to do this hike really come into play. Leaving Peter Lougheed you follow a beautiful lake, and then have the option of taking the most incredible Northover Ridge Alt. A very challenging knife edge with a lot of exposure and loose scree. Shortly after you enter Banff and the trail will get more busy as you continue north. The Sunshine Village is a nice way to get into town, and they also have a great restaurant there just off trail. You cross the major highway 93 and begin the extremely popular Rockwall at the incredible Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park. This section ends shortly after at highway 1 in the tiny town of Field, with Lake Louise to your east, and Golden to your west.
  • Section D – 106km / 66mi – The fourth section was maybe my favorite! It has undergone a lot of changes over the years and I think has really turned into something amazing. It starts with the Kiwetinok Alternate which I encourage everyone to take. A long but easy climb to some incredible scenery and really great trail in Yoho National Park. This is another busy section with tourism while on the ‘iceline’ trail. Your GPS will take you away from the people, back into the wild with some rock scrambles down Kiwetinok Pass, and some overgrown trail to the west. Descending down to the amazing Howse River to follow the floodplain for a couple days. A mostly unmarked section which can be frustrating at times to follow, this is your first up close look at a big glacial fed braided river. Lowest water levels in the morning, and rising through the day as snow melts feeding the river. Section D terminates at Saskatchewan River Crossing, a quirky restaurant and hotel along Highway 93 that allows packages to be sent there.
  • Section E – 188km / 117mi – Leaving the road climbing past some cool canyons carved by glacial melt. Heading up to the highest point of the GDT at 2,590m (or 8,500ft) just outside of Jasper National Park. This section ahead has a lot of small side trails to get to a highway should you need anything in a pinch. Entering the Maligne Valley if you haven’t seen a moose yet here is a very likely place to find them according to locals. There’s a couple little restaurants and a small shop not to far off trail here. This section is home to the world renowned Skyline Trail, by far the most popular area in all of the Jasper backcountry. A beautiful ridge walk on impeccably maintained trail with some cell service to boot, some of the easiest miles you’ll get this whole hike that isn’t road! Descending from here to the lowest point of the GDT at Old Fort Point just outside of the wonderful town of Jasper which you walk directly through.
  • Section F – 100km / 62mi – After resupplying in Jasper you begin the two hardest sections of the entire trail. A short road walk out of town, and then ascending into the high country, soon to be walking through bogs, beautiful alpine meadows, and following ancient winding rivers. Terminating at Mt Robson (which is the tallest in the Canadian Rockies) and the world class Berg Lake Trail. A worthy side path just to see the lake and the mountain, though unfortunately closed at the moment due to past floods and scheduled to reopen in 2024. In this area you will cross the beautiful Moose Pass, and have to cross the Moose River a great number of times. A taste of what’s to come in section G, this river isn’t the hardest when it comes to fording, but shouldn’t be taken too lightly either. Because of how hard it is to access the interior of this section (and even more so G) the trail here is often unmarked, undefined, non existent, and overgrown complete with many blowdowns. No cell service anywhere.
  • Section G – 180km / 112mi – The final stretch to Kakwa Lake Provincial Park is the most wild of this entire hike with truly remote mountain passes and incredible braided river valleys. Many choose not to resupply at all in sections F and G given the difficult logistics and lack of access, instead hiking more than 300km (186mi) without seeing another person, while carrying all their own provisions needed for such a distance. One of the biggest challenges here is the river crossings, with a great number of them being dangerous early in the season due to them being fed by glacial melt. There’s probably more than 100 in total varying wildly in current and depth, safest in the mornings. This section also has the least amount of markings, trail maintenance, and the most amount of cross country making for some very slow hiking. The highlight out here is the Jackpine High Route, what used to be an alternate now made official, a cross country alpine traverse with 360 degree views for many miles on end. The trail terminates at Kakwa Lake where you find a wonderful public cabin with the final trail register inside. After finishing your hike there is a 108km road out to civilization that receives very little traffic, and it is highly likely you’ll have to walk the whole thing to the nearest highway (we did).
Looking up at Crowsnest Mountain and Seven Sisters Mountain at the beginning of Section B. Just north of Coleman and Blairmore these peaks loom over the aptly named Crowsnest Pass Valley.
The gear both Sprocket and I brought on this hike. You can see a quick gear video I filmed just before starting here. Both of our packs weighed about 4kg (or 9lbs) each.

Recommended gear

This hike definitely requires some more interesting gear than your typical 3 season kit, and most certainly a whole different world from a trail like the Pacific Crest. If I have any one big recommendation it is to make sure that whatever you do use is in good shape, if not completely new.

The remoteness, the lack of cell service, the unpredictable weather, the bushwhacking, and the very short hiking season are all challenges out here which can mostly be alleviated with some choice gear picks. So what would I recommend so that you can have a safe trip, while also still remaining ultralight?

  • A quality rain jacket that you can trust in cold and constant rain. My number one gear recommendation is a really robust rain jacket. We’re talking the 10+ ounce, 3 layer, goretex kinda rain jacket. Pit zips, pockets, and in general just something you could live in for a full day, or multiple days of cold and heavy rain. I personally used the relatively cheap Patagonia Torrentshell, and truly loved it. There are a couple lighter options if you want to spend a couple hundred extra dollars but for me this was perfect and I was happy to carry the extra weight of this vs something more minimal given the conditions we faced. My partner used some Froggtoggs and they worked, but there were many times she was concerned about tearing the fragile fabric in brushy sections, or wished she had pit zips and pockets. We got really lucky with minimal rain so it worked out, but when a friend of mine did this trail a few years ago they experienced rain 30 days out of their 35 day hike!
  • A satellite communicator for safety and peace of mind. Probably by far the best thing you could have while on the GDT is some kind of satellite communication device. The Garmin InReach Mini is by far the most popular, allowing you to message home, get the weather, and call for help if you are in trouble. Given the difficulty of this trail, the lack of people out there, the dangerous river fords, the grizzly bears or moose, and the remoteness of the mountains as a whole I cannot recommend something like this enough. Almost every day when we were in the National Parks we witnessed a helicopter rescue of some sort. It’s a small thing that could save your life. Another popular option is the Zoleo Satellite Communicator.
  • A tent you you know won’t fail when conditions are bad. Similar to the rain jacket, weather can be very bad on the GDT, and you don’t want to have to worry about that! We had cold rain, got snowed on, and were almost struck by lightning once. I almost don’t care what tent you use (not a tarp or hammock) but just that you use something that isn’t on the way out. You have to be able to trust it to last the whole hike and to keep you dry. Should your quilt and sleeping gear get wet, things could get very bad for you in these far off places. We used a Zpacks Duplex and were happy with it. The problem we ran into was that our tent was a few years old, and sprung a leak towards the end of our hike. Had we gotten a new one before the trip we would have been fine.
  • Mosquito netting. We both carried bug head nets, and though this was a dry year all around, we were still happy to have the things. They are extremely light weight, take up no space, and could make your life a million times better should mosquitoes be bad for you as they often are in the Rockies. I’ve been using this same one for many years, and it’s still going strong.
  • A trekking pole for navigating down or up loose scree fields. I think you should probably use two trekking poles as they take stress off your joints and muscles, and they help in balancing when the ground is not so solid. On this trail in particular you will at the very least want one, as many sections involve fording difficult rivers, or traversing loose rock along precarious mountain ridges. A trekking pole will make your life a lot easier, and will reduce the risk of slipping in places you really don’t want to. I like the Zpacks trekking poles for how light they are, I’ve also used Leki trekking poles in the past and have enjoyed them as well.
  • Pants. I was a non believer, and chose to wear shorts despite everyone ever telling me not to. The brush on this trail in many sections is just too gnarly for shorts and you will regret it. If you absolutely must then at least get pants for the final two sections of F and G as those are by far the most overgrown. You will be smashing through bushwhacks like it’s nothing while looking at suckers like me in their shorts fall far behind in the distance. A lot of people (including my partner) carry and use rain pants for this trail, instead of just wearing normal hiking pants. Multi use as you can use them for bush whacking, and while in the rain. I don’t have any specific pair to recommend, but for sure get rain pants instead of wind pants(as thinner materials will get shredded while bush whacking).
  • Bear prevention. This is grizzly country, a much more serious bear than the other varieties. A much larger bear. A much scarier bear. We both used Ursacks, and we both carried bear spray. Though some campsites do have bear lockers to store food in, the majority of them don’t and thus the ursack is your best option for food storage. It is a food bag that you tie to a tree in a special way. A bear cannot chew through it, and it cannot remove it from the tree, and thus your food is safe over night. I had full confidence in my ursack on this trip, and happily tied it up every single night of our trip. We both used Ursack Major XL’s as the size is perfect for the long food carries out here. The bear spray on the other hand you hope to never use, but I’ve hiked without it before in grizzly country and I cannot tell you how stressed I was to not have it. Knowing that it could save my life was worth carrying the weight without a doubt.
  • A warm layer you can hike in. I started out the trail with just a puffy jacket, and though that was great for hanging out at camp I missed so badly having some sort of light fleece that I could actually hike in! A puffy jacket is just too warm, and while hiking it will make you overheat. A fleece on the other hand provides some warmth, while still allowing your body to breathe. Perfect for hiking in cold early mornings, or hiking late into the evening when the temperature is dropping. I wound up buying a fleece along the way and was so happy to have one the rest of the trail. I think you could pair it with a puffy for a super warm and comfortable setup both in camp (puffy) and while hiking (fleece.) The best combination I know of is to combine an Enlightened Equipment Torrid Puffy Jacket with the ridiculously light Senchi fleece. The Torrid is synthetic and not down, which is a super bonus in the conditions along the GDT as it will still be warm even when wet.
  • A quilt or sleeping bag that will keep you warm! Our coldest night on trail was -2c (28f) and it certainly felt just as cold for many other nights as well! We got snowed on in August, and experienced some cold nights in September. I highly recommend considering a -6c (20f) quilt for the overall comfort it will provide, and for those nights that do really push boundaries. I personally like Enlightened Equipment quilts for all the customization they offer and have been using them on all my hikes for 6 years now.
  • Two pairs of shoes. I don’t so much care what shoes you wear, both Sprocket and I wore Altra Lone Peaks. What I do care about is that you replace your shoes at least once during this hike! The terrain is so difficult from start to finish that a lack of tread heading into the final sections could be really bad when fording rivers, or scrambling on loose rock. I personally got new shoes in Jasper, but wished I had gotten them sooner.
Sprocket retrieving both of our Ursack Major XL food bags in the morning, after having tied them up and away from our camp the previous night. These are highly recommended as they are much easier to use than hanging a bear bag each night, given most trees and areas wouldn’t be conducive to hanging throughout this trail.
Me with my little 4kg (or 9lb) pack at the border of Alberta and British Columbia about to step into Banff National Park, and enter the land of permits.

Permits

Hopefully the future of this trail is one without permits, but for now they are definitely a thing, so here we are! Now that you know the sections of trail, and see how much of them are within national parks and provincial parks I think permits will make a bit more sense.

If you’re even sort of thinking about hiking this trail, likely the first question you will have is about permits. They are by far the worst part of this hike, and they are likely the reason you’re reading this article at all.

First big thing of note, you need to reserve these permits in March! When you likely won’t be starting your hike until July. So beginning your planning process very early is helpful so that all of the campsites aren’t taken already.

The Great Divide Trail passes through 5 national parks, most of which require permits. For every campsite within them that you plan to stay at, you will have to reserve well in advance for a specific date. The problem here is that this is a very long hike, plans change, weather changes, injuries happen, gear breaks, and the list could go on forever. Part of the fun in a thru hike to begin with is the freedom, and these permits remove a bit of that as now you are on a highly regulated schedule you planned and paid for 4 to 5 months in advance.

Hiking the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, looking off into the distance, the land of no more permits lays ahead! I couldn’t have been happier to be done with such a process.

Methods to going about the permit system. We used a bit of all three.

  • Plan out every day of your hike from start to finish, then get the permits accordingly.
  • Use one of the example itineraries the GDTA provides, and get permits based on those dates.
  • Buy permits as you go, whenever you are in town.

Useful links (I’ll talk more about below)

The GDTA provides example itineraries, based on a relaxed pace of 67 days, an average pace of 50 days, and a fast pace of 36 days. I highly recommend starting here, and being truly honest with yourself about what kind of pace you want to maintain. These example itineraries will tell you how popular certain campsites are, they will tell you which campsites require reservations, and overall these examples are incredibly helpful!

When using these keep in mind that things happen, and you should try to account for that. I personally found that planning to take a ton of days off over the course of your hike was really the best method and takes very little effort in planning to add in. A zero day in every town, maybe even a few extra thrown in just for fun. (My town guide below may help decide where extras are most worthwhile.) This way if something does go wrong to slow you down, no worries as you have days to kill. If you don’t account for the unexpected, then you’ll find yourself having to do massively difficult days to try and catch back up to your itinerary. For these reasons, I think that even if you are wanting a fast hike, you should consider the average itinerary instead. If you are wanting a more average hike, I would consider the relaxed itinerary. This would ensure that all permits are met and your hike goes very smooth, even if slower than you would typically want.

You could stop here and be happy, and everything would be pretty easy. Just figure out your start date, use the examples to extrapolate the rest, buy some permits.

But maybe you are like I was, the fast is maybe too fast, and the average is maybe too slow. If a more custom plan is what you’re after then you have to make this all up yourself, and this is where the next resource comes in. Here is a list (provided by the GDTA) of every campsite on the entire trail. This includes information on which campsites are within park boundaries, which ones are free, and what kinds of amenities can be found at each one. I found this to be very helpful when making my own custom itinerary.

I roughly had an idea of how far we wanted to go on average, and I chose campsites based on that. I made a spreadsheet with all of our campsites listed, what kilometer they were at, and how far we had to go that day. I made a note for each one we had to reserve in advance. Throwing a few zeros in for towns along the way. As I made my plan I cross referenced this with the example itineraries to see if I was on the right track.

It is quite the task just to begin this process, but once I got going with making the spreadsheet I found the hardest part was just getting started, and it wasn’t so bad in the end.

Mt Assiniboine towering over Lake Magog in Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park, a very popular area for day hiking and backpacking. There’s even a lodge here that serves tea to hikers at a very random hour of the day, which we did not stick around for. Just to the north is Porcupine Backcountry Campground. On the edge of Banff National Park it is a popular spot to stay as you don’t need to reserve it.
Hanging out at a ranger or wardens cabin in Kootenay National Park before moving on to our own campsite for the night.

Final step is getting the permits for the campsites you plan to stay at, these permits needed can be found on this page, again thank you GDTA. Something of note here is when you need to start planning this, March! The campsites become available online late March, and they go fast! Keep in mind that Banff is the most popular national park in all of Canada, and Jasper is not far behind. It’s not just thru hikers that are after these permits, it’s all of Canada.

In the end we spent about $200usd on permits. I think you could do it for less with careful planning, but you could easily find yourself spending more. I am happy to pay this price to hike this trail, but I do wish the process was significantly easier.

So what happens if you get off schedule? If you didn’t plan in enough days off, or maybe you’re moving slower than expected, or want to go faster than planned. Maybe you don’t want to plan at all before you come out here, or maybe you decide you want to do this trail as a last minute thing. You could buy your permits as you go.

Some friends of mine bought permits as they went, and it worked out fine for them. The big downside is, people just don’t cancel their reservations even if they can’t make the date. So the campsites you want may not be available. My friends were extremely flexible (and know a lot of people in the area since they’re locals) so it didn’t matter as they could take an extra day off, or do weird things to make last minute reservations. The other issue is cell service, for nearly the whole trail (and even a few of the towns you pass through) you will not have any access to the internet. So reserving as you go is made a bit more difficult. This method is still worth mentioning as all hope is not lost if you didn’t get permits back in March or if you find yourself off schedule.

There are some apps out there which send you a notification when someone cancels a campsite for your desired date. Campnab and Schnerp are two I see with a quick Google search. I haven’t used them, but for those who want very specific dates and camps I can see the value.

I think if you do happen to get off your schedule for a day or two and can’t reserve a new spot last minute, I wouldn’t worry so much. You tried, and I think a ranger would understand if you have a good reason. But please make the effort and please be respectful. It is a privilege to hike through these parks and not a right.

Leaving Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on a hazy day at the beginning of Section C
Looking at La Coulotte Peak ahead, the trail follows that ridge up to the very top where you can choose to go left on the official trail or continue straight onto the Barnaby Ridge Alternate. There is no water to be found in this section, and unfortunately we hit it on a record heat day.
Standing on top of La Coulotte Peak, out of water, dehydrated, and tired with still a long way to go until the next reliable river. We got lucky and found a small lingering snow patch where we made flavored slushies with our electrolyte powders.

When to Start?

More snow travel, more rain, more mosquitoes, the list goes on as to what just a months difference in start date could mean.

This thru hike has three really great months. July, August, and September is prime hiking season. June is a bit early, and October is a bit late, though if you are prepared, both of these shoulder months could work as well.

You kind of have to commit to when you’re starting this hike by March because of the permit system, as you’ll have to buy reservations for specific dates well into the future. So over the winter I would be paying close attention to how much snow the Rockies are getting, and make plans based on that, finalizing them by March when permits are available. Every year conditions will be different, so some years a much earlier start could be wonderfully possible, while other years an early start could mean an extremely difficult hike in relation to conditions you’ll be facing. For the most part, if you don’t want to think too much about it I would lean a bit later into the season.

  • June – If you are planning a more relaxed pace, finishing the trail in somewhere between 50 – 70 days then starting in June could be a great option to not be pushing the tail end of the summer season too much. I wouldn’t start in early June regardless of what conditions look like, but mid June to me seems like the beginning of the hiking season here. In June you will find more wildflowers. Snow will not yet have melted up high and the white capped mountains will be more beautiful. You will have more time to finish in a relaxed way before winter comes. Hotels will have slightly more availability this month than July or early August, and overall less people will be out there at this time. You will however need to be comfortable with some snow travel as there will likely still be lingering snow fields at higher elevations, how much will vary from year to year. More rain falls in June than any of the proceeding months. River crossings will be higher as well but don’t come into play until section D and beyond, so for the slower hiker this works out.
  • JulyI think that July is the most optimal time to begin. The majority of snow will be melted out, meaning no ice axe, no micro spikes, no snow travel experience needed, and much less chances of getting in super risky situations. Of course not every year is the same and these mountains should still be taken with respect, always pay close attention to conditions before you go, and plan accordingly. The locals will tell you that it can snow any month of the year, and they aren’t kidding! I think if you are going at an average or quick pace July is perfect, mid July was when we started and had a really great time because of that. There will be less rain, you’ll be less likely to deal with snow travel, river crossings will be lower and easier, and the wildflowers are still good. However hotels will be harder to book since this is peak tourism time, campsite reservations are likely harder to get in this month, and you’ll have less time to mess around before winter comes. As both a pro and a con, more people will be everywhere which is nice for comradery or safety, but also not so fun to be so surrounded when looking for solitude.
  • August – If you are very fast, have proven yourself on other hard trails to be fast, and don’t mind the potential for more difficult conditions at the end of your hike then August could be a good time to start. I think if you are in the sub 30 to 35 day hiker class this could work out. Though it would be quite the challenge. You’ll get to see the trees changing colors towards the end of your hike, less people will be in all the towns, permits will maybe be easier to acquire, and less people will be on the trails. There will be a little less rain in August than in July or June. But you run into the potential for snow as you hike into September, and temperatures will get massively colder as you go north. I think starting in August is pushing it.
  • September – I think September is too late to start this trail, but it would be a great time to do section hikes of this trail. As for a thru hike the likelihood of getting snowed on is too high from your very first day and would only continue to get worse as you continue later into the month, and further north. So even for the very fast I would avoid it. Though this is peak autumn colors time, and that would make for some truly beautiful section hiking. The weather will have cooled down drastically, and very little people will be out on the trails beyond the locals. September however is a great time to end your hike!
Waterton Lakes National Park in July, at the end of our first day of hiking north from the US border. No snow to deal with, and generally hot to mild temperatures.
Sprocket standing at the high point of the GDT, an unnamed pass in Section E. Though I think it has the unofficial name of ‘Michele Lakes Pass’ as it resides just above some very beautiful lakes. This little section has three amazing passes all one after another, none of which have a trail, leaving the hiker to choose whatever route they wish. The next day we would be forced to take an on trail zero because of cold rain, terrible lightning, and snow at higher elevations.
Nearly September in the high country of the final section. Just a week after this photo was taken there was a large snow storm up at the high elevations. We had finished the trail just days before.

Which direction should you go

I think for the vast majority of people, a northbound hike is without a doubt the way to go.

Probably the biggest reason is that the northern most sections of this trail are the most remote and most challenging, so should something go wrong or you need to make a change (as often is the case at the beginning of a thru hike) you can’t! These sections are also the most logistically confusing as you’ll see in my resupply breakdown below. So going south might mean carrying 10-14 days of food for your first ever days on trail, without any easy way out. Add on that these are not the most defined or well marked areas so the hiking will be quite slow. As of now it seems the vast majority of people go north, so by heading south you are pretty much guaranteed to see very few other GDT hikers, except in passing briefly.

Our legs were strong, and we were used to this type of thing. Neither my partner nor I felt that these two sections were all that hard, but that is because we had been conditioned to be prepared for this! We were still going over hundreds of blowdowns, we were still navigating trailless expanses, we were still fording a bunch of dangerous glacial fed rivers, and we were still very deep into the middle of nowhere. But we had been doing that and becoming comfortable with that little by little over the course of the previous month hiking.

By comparison the northbound hike is just so easy to begin. Only a couple hours from the city you’ll fly into. Tons of stores and shops right at the beginning for last minute needs. The first section has multiple opportunities for cell service, and has a bunch of access in the way of crossing trafficked roads if something goes wrong. The first town you’ll get to not long after starting is large and good for days off. You’ll probably see other GDT hikers as you go to share in misery or to ask questions. The trail is for the most part nicely maintained and well marked…. I could go on but I think you get the idea. The only real problem with a nobo hike is that you end in a very remote place, where you will likely have to do a 108km road walk to the nearest highway after finishing.

I think for those who don’t care about continuity, the best of all worlds is to hike nobo, and then do F & G southbound as a flip flop hike. You skip the long road walk, you get the best of everything.

Swimming in Waterton Lake just beside the little town a day before beginning our thru hike of the GDT. The town has a lot of amenities available should you need anything last minute, and you even pass right back through on your hike. We wound up hanging out there for a week since we liked it so much.
Looking off into the distant mountains of the final section, a trailless expanse of cross country travel at times, no cell service, big river crossings and plenty of bushwhacking. The rest of the GDT had prepared us for this.

Where to End Your Hike

This would be a strange question to ask when it comes to other trails, as often there is just one end! In regards to the GDT, there are currently five or so different places that would be a perfectly valid end point. I think given another five or ten years and this will be reduced to one or two as the trail continues to develop, but as it stands you will meet people doing all of the above when you are out there. So lets look at those options, and you can decide for yourself what you will do.

Right now the GDTA is really pushing for Kakwa to be the end, they even put up a ‘Northern Terminus’ sign there, but I don’t think that will last long-term as this trail is likely going to be extended in the future. So here I’ll list the potential termini in order from south to north, and some pros and cons to each.

  • Jasper (km 838 / mi 520) – Ending at Jasper would be a cool finish, every local and tourist in existence will know what you’re talking about when you say you’re hiking to Jasper. Your last days on trail will be spent hiking the world renowned Skyline Trail and then literally walking right into downtown to finish. You could get a meal, laundry, hotel, and then very easily a bus to go home. It would certainly be an epic and wonderful finish in a beautiful little town. I think if you look at the rest of this trail, Jasper almost fits the most as the end, while the sections north of here almost feel like a different trail entirely. The downside to terminating at Jasper is that you would miss out on some extremely cool stuff to the north.
  • Mt. Robson (km 940 / mi 584) – Mt Robson is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954m (12,972ft) just north of Jasper. This is afterall the Great Divide Trail, why not end at the height of that divide. Mt Robson, similar to Jasper would also be a very easy and wonderful spot to complete your hike logistically. You would terminate at this amazing monolith of a peak, walk into an extremely popular Provincial Park to get a snack, and then have a supremely easy time hitchhiking back to civilization and home. Similar to Jasper most everyone has heard of Mt Robson and knows its significance. It would really be a very sensible end point, and your final moments on trail would be spent hiking the world class Berg Lake Trail. You would also get to see a lot of extra cool scenery that would otherwise be missed if you stopped at Jasper instead. Personally I think Mt Robson makes the most sense of all (for now.) Unfortunately the Berg Lake Trail is currently closed due to past flooding taking out some crucial bridges. It is scheduled to reopen in 2024.
  • Blueberry Lake (km 986 / mi 612) – Lets say you’re feeling good, don’t want to miss anything cool, and would like to add a bit more complexity to your hike. Finishing at Blueberry Lake may be for you! Going past Mt Robson you’d get to see some truly amazing braided rivers, you would get to hike the spectacular Jackpine high route alpine section, and you would finish at what I felt was one of the most beautiful and swimmable lakes of the entire trail. But then you have a 7.5km side trail to a dirt road which receives extremely little traffic, and the potential for an extra 43km of walking to the nearest highway. Not something many hikers would like to do after already ‘finishing’. But hey, you would get to experience quite a few things in this last stretch that given good weather, are indeed worthwhile!
  • Kakwa Lake (km 1095 / mi 680) – It’s hard to say that this is the most popular end, as we met equally as many people doing the other options as we did this one, but this is the official end. There is an official terminus sign and all (installed in 2023). Kakwa Lake in itself is truly an amazing place to finish, and as a bonus it is highly reminiscent of Waterton Lake where you started. You get there and find this very nice public cabin, complete with wood stove, privy, tables and benches right along the lake. I know people that would pay good money to stay at a spot like this. It’s truly a spectacular place to finish your hike, spend a night or two decompressing, and then moving on. But unfortunately it’s not all sunshine and flowers as this ending comes with some problems. The two main issues with Kakwa are resupply, and then actually getting out of such a remote location.

Let’s briefly look at resupply to finish here – if you include the final road walk you have to carry 8-14 days (or 360km / 224mi) worth of food from Jasper, which is more than any other section of this hike by far. Or you have to Pay 100CAD and send a package of food many weeks in advance to a company (Robson Backcountry Adventures) who will drop it off at the bottom of the Blueberry side trail. Which would split your resupply in half, but add 14 uninspiring kilometers and a lot of elevation gain and loss to get said package. This is way better than carrying 10+ days of food from Jasper in my opinion! But still not a perfect resupply solution.

The other issue is that you have to do a 108km (64mi) road walk with next to no traffic and no cell service to get to the nearest highway. We walked that whole road and it feels like purgatory, always hoping just one car will come down it for two very long days. One thing you can do to make this whole situation better is by carrying a Garmin InReach, as Robson Backcountry Adventures offers a shuttle service as well as package delivery if you can contact them via satellite messaging. The shuttle is not cheap by any means, but it may be worth it to you. I don’t know, but maybe if you gather a group together you can all chip in for the cost of the ride.

Robson Backcountry Adventureshttps://jasperhikesandtours.ca/robsonbackcountryadventures#gdt-services

Now the most ideal situation here… would be a flip flop with an arranged ride. 3 hours north of Jasper is the turnoff for the 108km road to Kakwa, an arranged ride could skip most of that, and then you would finish by walking straight into the town of Jasper on your way south.

Sections F & G are great, but none of this is similar to the rest of the GDT. The rest of this trail has really great access and easy resupply, you’re walking through national parks constantly, and then you have this one bit at the very end where it feels almost like a completely different hike. Are doing these final two sections worth it? I would say yes, but it is for you to decide. We still have one last end point to talk about though!

  • Section H – But wait what is this final potential ending point? As of now this is extremely unofficial, but the idea of this final section is to hike to the true end of the Canadian Rockies. To traverse the whole range. To end where the mountains themselves end. I like this! It sounds great. Even looking at a map it seems like it would end at an actual highway, with traffic! But again, as with the previous two sections, I think F & G & H all need a better options for resupply as there is no good way about it currently. If a good resupply option is figured out, section H will be an extremely cool thing. Currently only one or two groups have ever done it, but it is worth mentioning. If this ever does become official I would be very excited. I think it would add more coherency to F & G to have a third section more similar to them, and overall would be a wonderful end to the hike.
At Kakwa Lake, the northern terminus of the Great Divide Trail after having walked about 1,100km all the way north from the US Border at Waterton Lakes National Park. From here we would walk a road 108km back out to civilization.
The terminus is just down the shoreline from the dock, I think the sign was installed in 2023
This is the 108km road walk. Head down, no traffic, kind of feels like you’re stuck in purgatory. Though the distance comes easy, it’s still two very long days of this to get out of the mountains and truly finish this trail.

Where to Resupply

I spent about 3,000 USD (or 4,000 CAD) on this hike. It’s not an exact cost but it’s worth noting that every single town you go through on this trail is very touristy. Hotels will be expensive and a challenge to book if you’re trying the day of. The permits needed, the restaurants, gear replacements, groceries, etc… will all be more expensive than on other hikes. I do think that what I spent is on the high end though, as we were actively looking for a good time. A quick look at the GDT facebook page and I see many others saying they spent about 1,800 USD (or 2,500 CAD). I would consider that the low amount, and try to budget for higher just in case.

On every section except D, F, and G there are many access trails you could utilize to get to a town if you needed to, so I will just list the main ways people resupply on this trail, and not every possible option. The towns likely won’t change anytime soon, but I will use distances here which may vary as this trail continues to improve. I would confirm for yourself that these distances are still correct so that you don’t find yourself out of food with a day further to go if some section is rerouted.

Calgary – The large metropolis of Calgary is not part of the GDT, but I’m listing it here because this is likely where you’ll end up just before beginning your hike. Many arrive here by bus or by plane, and then find a ride to Waterton as it’s less than 3 hours away. This could be a good place to arrange some resupply boxes, or have some gear sent that you can’t fly with.

The towns in bold font are most common, while the other options are not frequently used. You can also find more info about resupply options via the GDTA here.

  • 6.7km – Waterton – The town of Waterton is great and has everything you need for any last minute preparations. A post office, wifi at the community center, restaurants, a small grocery, gear stores, and a large campground. We stayed here for a week before beginning so that I could send out some boxes, finish some work, and finalize gear. It’s a beautiful place where everything is within walking distance. You start your hike from here, and then will walk back through town at km 6.7 on your way north.
  • 93km – Castle Mountain Ski Resort – By going to Castle Mountain you would have to skip the highly recommended Barnaby Ridge Alternate. They do have wifi, a soda machine that takes coins, and I think you could send a package here. Still this is an uncommon resupply as the next towns are not far beyond.
  • 144km – Coleman / Blairmore – Two towns that are just 5km apart both with hotels, restaurants, and a small gear store that has a lot of shoes. Blairmore has a very large grocery store. This is a spot many hikers from the US will stop to send a couple packages out for the rest of the trail, as the hotels are cheap and nearby the grocery and post office, assuming you didn’t do that already. Though not many packages are needed for this hike. Coleman or Blairmore is worthy of a first zero.
  • 283km – Hwy 40 via Baril Creek Trail – (11km side trail) This is a relatively short side trail that will take you to a road where you could hitchhike a couple hours north to the wonderful town of Canmore. We had to do this as we were dealing with injuries so it feels worth mentioning. Otherwise from Coleman to Elk Pass is about 200km so it may be nice to know of one way out should you need it between those locations. This is not a common or good option for resupply though.
  • 340km – Elk Pass Trailhead – Peter Lougheed PP / Boulton Creek Trading Post – The Trading Post is a tiny little convenience store with very minimal hiking food, but as we found it is certainly possible to buy enough calories to get you to Banff from here. Most however will send a package to the Elk Pass Trailhead bear lockers to save themselves from the minimal selection at the trading post, which you can find more information about here. There is no cell service within this park, but you could try to hitchhike north to the Peter Lougheed visitor center just a few kilometers down the road where they have free wifi. You could also hitch to the wonderful town of Canmore from here, which is about an hours drive.
  • 436km – Banff @ Sunshine Village – Regardless of whether you go into Banff from here or not, go down to Sunshine Village to eat at the restaurant. It’s not very far off trail and is a great little spot with what I felt was a very large hiker sized serving of food. Cell service too. It’s another 5km down the road from here to then catch a ride or bus into the town of Banff where you will find a beautiful but overpriced city. This is after all the most popular national park in Canada. The movie theater in town is a highly recommended activity, there are great gear stores (Monods & Atmosphere in particular), world class restaurants, two full size grocery stores, and at least one hostel. Overall Banff is overwhelming for the thru hiker but I liked it.
  • 469km – Banff @ Hwy 93 – If you don’t feel like taking the side trail and catching a bus into Banff at Sunshine Village you could easily hitch to town from here as well. Maybe weather is bad, maybe you want to carry less food, maybe you have time to kill. It’s a great option.
  • 543km – Field / Golden / Lake Louise – The trail spits you out directly on this highway near the tiny town of Field where you could hitch west to Golden, or do a little roadwalk east to Field. You could hitch further east to Lake Louise, but it is not recommended as the town there does not offer much for the hiker beyond busy tourism and very overpriced everything. Golden is about an hour to the west, has a hostel, restaurants, hotels, multiple full sized groceries, and all around is a great place with everything within walking distance. If you don’t wish to hitch, Field has free wifi at the visitor center but no cell service in town. I think they might have a restaurant with weird hours, and a small convenience store. Golden is definitely worthy of a zero.
  • 649km – Sask Crossing Resort – This is where we sent our first package, which costs a few dollars to pickup. It is a long way from here to Jasper (if you don’t take any of the uncommon side trails) and though Sask Crossing does have a small convenience store, it would be extremely difficult to resupply from there alone, so a box is highly recommended. There is no cell service here, but there is free wifi at the bar. This is a hotel, which has two small restaurants. One of which has a breakfast buffet.
  • 704km – Nigel Pass – (7.3km very easy side trail with a lot of tourism.) Taking this side trail would lead you to the highway where you could hitch about an hour to Jasper. No cell service, and not commonly used but maybe needed in a pinch.
  • 742km – Maligne Pass – (6.3km side trail) Taking this side trail would lead you to the highway where you could hitch about an hour to Jasper. No cell service, and not commonly used but maybe needed in a pinch.
  • 782km – Maligne Lake Cafe – Just a kilometer off trail you’ll find a cafe, and two restaurants. You can buy some expensive baked goods and some snacks here to supplement your resupply from Sask to Jasper. It would be extremely expensive to buy multiple days food here, but it’s definitely worth the stop for the restaurant.
  • 838km – Jasper – The trail takes you down from the Skyline and right into the heart of Jasper, the final town of this hike. There are a couple of hostels, tons of restaurants, gear stores for last minute needs, a post office, and the greatest laundromat I have ever been to in my life complete with a coffee shop, showers, and comfortable chairs inside. Jasper is pretty great and worthy of a zero if not a couple. From here you have the option of carrying 360km of food to the end of the Kakwa roadwalk, 257km if you’ve arranged a ride, or 150km to Blueberry if you’ve sent a package there (assuming you aren’t ending your hike at Mt Robson.)
  • 940km – Mt Robson – This trail is currently closed and impassible, scheduled to reopen in 2024. This is a 28km side trail to the Mt Robson Visitor Center or Hwy 16 where you could hitch back to Jasper. The Berg Lake Trail from what I hear is world class, but we didn’t take this so I can’t speak much more about it. Maybe there are snacks at the visitor center? You cannot send a box there.
  • 986km – Blueberry – This is a 7.5km side trail to some bear lockers and a forest service road where you could cache some food or have some food cached for you. The side trail has 1,000m of elevation loss (and then gain on the way back.) It is not a great option for resupply, but in my mind it is better than carrying 10+ days worth of food from Jasper to Kakwa. You can send a box to this location via Robson Backcountry Adventures for a $100cad fee and they will store it in some bear lockers on site. There is no cell service here, and if you would like to end your hike here it is a 43km dirt road out to the nearest highway. There is a chance you could catch a ride, but that is not to be counted on.
  • 1061km – Grand Cache via Sheep Creek alt – This is nearly a 70km side trail to Grand Cache. We did not take it, and I don’t think anyone does unless maybe you are planning to do section H. Hardly worth mentioning at this time.
  • 1095km – Kakwa – The end, and the beginning of your 108km road walk out, which must be accounted for when planning resupply as it is unlikely to get a ride. there is no cell service at Kakwa, or anywhere along the road walk.

In the end we only sent two packages, Sask Crossing and Blueberry. I think you could send more if you don’t want to resupply out of a convenience store (Elk Pass Trailhead) but don’t think more are truly necessary.

These are the bear boxes at the Blueberry Lake Trailhead which you can send a package to for a fee, and they will email you the combination to the lock. There is no cell service here, there is little to no traffic coming here. It’s a funny thing to be ‘resupplying’ without being able to charge your devices, get a meal, or really do anything other than pick up a package on the side of a dirt road.
An incredible wall of rock at the beginning of Section B not long after leaving the towns of Coleman and Blairmore ready to take on our 200km stretch without resupply.
On top of Big Shale Hill in section G, a mostly trailless ridge walk which in good weather probably offers some amazing views. This is one of the final climbs of the entire trail.

Navigation

We went about pre trip information and planning in the same way you are likely doing right now, by searching online. The GDTA offers so much on their website, blogs like mine add to that, and then across different forums or facebook groups it can all be rounded out for a rough understanding. I was quite happy with that alone, but if you want to know everything about the GDT, Dustin Lynx guidebook is for sure the path to that, as it is without a doubt the most comprehensive source of information out there. If you are somewhat local to the area, a section hiker, or may come to these mountains often… then absolutely yes get the guide. But maybe it’s not a necessity for the average thru hiker in this day and age of the internet.

For navigation and information while on trail we used two apps, Farout and GaiaGPS.

We found that Farout was particularly nice because of one specific feature, the comments. To see live updates from other hikers days ahead of us (or years ahead of us) in the comments sections of various waypoints was extremely helpful. What’s that town like? Lets check the comments. How bad is that river crossing or climb coming up? Comments. How about information about a campsite? The comments! I personally left about 60 comments across this entire trail, and encourage you to leave them as well with your experiences or information that you feel is pertinent! It’s super helpful given this trail receives so little traffic, and cell service is almost never available. The other great thing about Farout is just knowing the distances of things. You click a waypoint and it tells you how far you are from it, and how much elevation gain or loss there is between you and it. Gaia does not do these things at all, or very well.

Farout on the other hand can be difficult for navigating. The map that is used is far too zoomed out making it difficult to interpret the topography, and funnily enough there was at least one section where the map was just non existent (somewhere in section B). I hope those things are changed and I think they soon will be. This app is still worthwhile for the comments, and given how for most trails it’s the only resource needed I would imagine in a few years it may become that here as well.

GaiaGPS we found was infinitely better for actually navigating with. The normal Gaia Topo map was super detailed and we could really make out a lot of valuable information from that when traveling across off trail sections. You can even download tons of different map layers should one not suit you, or you just want even more information. This app is nowhere near as easy to use as Farout, so it is more on the advanced side of thru hiking navigation, but this is the GDT! A more advanced trail which requires a little bit extra effort than many others. So throughout our day we really did use both apps constantly, but for slightly different jobs. I recommend having both (and spending a little time learning Gaia before getting out there).

Maps from the GDTAhttps://greatdividetrail.com/trip-planning-resources/maps/

I do think it would be incredibly cool and fun to carry paper maps and the guidebook on this trail, and certainly that is the safest option to have every possible tool at your disposal. You would get so much more information out of them, but similarly to other trails these days they just aren’t a total necessity.

One of the last GDT markings on this entire hike just before getting to Kakwa Lake. There were not many in this area and often times it felt like playing connect the dots, getting to one blaze, spending a few minutes to look for the next, then walking a direct line to it. Repeating this process over and over through open meadows, fields of willow, and more dense forests all without much of a trail at all.
Looking back behind us at the view while going up Tornado Saddle in Section B, an incredible mountain formation that is almost other worldly. We were socked in with fog, and there is not much of a trail up to this alpine pass. Having GaiaGPS for navigating here was incredibly useful for the detailed topo maps so we could go up the safest way possible. Farout by comparison lacked a great amount of detail in its maps and often was not useful in these situations, beyond reading the comments and experiences of other users.
With tons of micro navigational problems per day, rough trail, and a lack of markings I would say that this isn’t the easiest trail to go fast on and rarely do I remember us ever maintaining a 5km/h pace for long.

Pace

I am not sure I should even include anything about this but maybe it’s worth mentioning that people have done this hike in 25 days, and people have done this hike in 70 days. We did it in 42, so not the fastest but also not the most relaxed of itineraries either. Both of us coming in were already quite experienced, and if we really tried hard we probably could have gone for 35, though that would have significantly changed the trip from fun to chasing miles. We could have (and often times should have) slowed down a bit, as sometimes it did feel like we were trying to meet some time goal.

Most days the trail itself is pretty great, and certainly the national parks are extremely great, but it will never even sort of be as cruisy as a hike like the PCT. A 5km per hour pace (or 3mph) is hard to maintain because the terrain even at its best is still not the most conducive to it. The climbs are steep, often as steep as what you’d find on the Appalachian Trail or Long Trail. The hike itself is rocky, rooty, washed out, through a sloppy bog, and a lot of the time just doesn’t really exist or at least isn’t very apparent or marked. All features that will slow you down.

I would definitely lean more on the slower side, and take time to enjoy the beautiful landscape you’re passing through. Trying to push yourself to complete this trail quicker or have a specific time goal in mind is likely to not end well (as we saw with a few hikers we met.)

That little notch in the center of the photo is what we were hiking towards, to then follow the ridge crest just left of it
In section B on one of the many small ridges you go up and over. We were both sick in this photo, and Sprocket was dealing with shin splints. A day later we would bail off the trail to a road to hitch hike a couple hours to the nearest town of Canmore for some rest, and new shoes.

Our Daily Splits & Journal

  • Day 0 – 15km – boat to border / hike back to waterton
  • Day 1 – 25km – leaving waterton, cool ridge walk
  • Day 2 – 34km – great ridges w canyon, double lake swim
  • Day 3 – 23km – hard and hot la coulotte! dehydrated
  • Day 4 – 41km – heat wave! Easy day though
  • Day 5 – 24km – into coleman
  • Day 6 – 18km – out of coleman, jo ankle hurt maybe
  • Day 7 – 31km – i have the flu
  • Day 8 – 35km – we both have the flu, tornado pass
  • Day 9 – 25km – jo ankle bad, has plague she says
  • Day 10 – 16km – bail into Canmore for some healing
  • Day 11 – Zero
  • Day 12 – Zero
  • Day 13 – 23km – back on trail, fording river pass is great
  • Day 14 – 48km – roadwalk to end section, elk pass trailhead resupply
  • Day 15 – 32km – truly amazing, northover ridge alt
  • Day 16 – 42km – Banff, too many people
  • Day 17 – 41km – Banff sunshine village, rain and bad lightning
  • Day 18 – Zero
  • Day 19 – Zero
  • Day 20 – 33km – done with Banff? Lots of rain, cool passes
  • Day 21 – 31km – cold rain all day! Floe lake is beautiful
  • Day 22 – 38km – clear skies and cool glaciers all day
  • Day 23 – 7km – into golden
  • Day 24 – 14km – out of golden, kiwetinok alt
  • Day 25 – 31km – kiwetinok finish
  • Day 26 – 36km – big pretty rivers
  • Day 27 – 30km – sask crossing resupply
  • Day 28 – 27km – three passes and some tricky trail, high point of GDT
  • Day 29 – Zero on trail, freezing rain, bad lightning
  • Day 30 – 13km – bail off trail, snowed overnight, grizzly encounter
  • Day 31 – 35km – jasper np
  • Day 32 – 40km – very popular areas, maligne pass double moose
  • Day 33 – 41km – maligne lake, skyline
  • Day 34 – 28km – skyline into jasper
  • Day 35 – Zero
  • Day 36 – 26km – out of jasper
  • Day 37 – 44km – lots of blowdowns, moose river fords
  • Day 38 – 40km – difficult braided river crossings
  • Day 39 – 31km – jackpine alpine, blueberry resupply
  • Day 40 – 30km – blueberry, jackpine valley 20+ river crossings
  • Day 41 – 36km – almost done, big shale hill
  • Day 42 – 43km – surprise pass
  • Day 43 – 17km – DONE Kakwa Lake (+27km of bonus road walk)
  • Bonus 60km – road walk, no cars
  • Bonus 14km – road walk, got a ride last 3km
Up on the Jackpine High Route in section G just before getting to Blueberry Lake. What used to be an alternate is now a truly amazing official part of the trail. There is no path to follow but navigation is mostly easy as for many many miles you are well above tree line walking mild terrain.
A male Spruce Grouse showing off and acting tough for a lady grouse just outside of frame. We saw hundreds and hundreds of these throughout our hike.
We did not take the Rowe Sage Alternate in Section A choosing to stick to the official trail. Both seem like great and beautiful options, but the Rowe Sage is certainly much harder since there is no water for the duration of it. Some take this alternate earlier in the season as the official route is known to hold snow and to be more dangerous.

Alternates

We did not take every alternate, nor should you! They aren’t always going to be better, they are almost always going to be harder (in a multitude of ways,) and they should mostly be reserved for good weather, strong legs, and a hiker confident in their ability to go beyond the normal scope of hiking. Keep in mind that these are alternates and not official for a reason, and in a lot of ways they ask the hiker to do things that you otherwise would never on a normal hike. Whether that be extensive bushwhacking, scrambling on dangerous rocks, hard river fords, or significant navigational problems. Here I’d like to list some of them out, and briefly talk about it so you can decide if it should be on your list or not.

Please be careful though, and especially in bad weather I would think twice about doing these.

  • Rowe Sage – A – This would be a rough way to start out your hike, when the official trail is already pretty great! We heard that this alt has a lot of blowdowns and bushwhacking, and has no water available for the entire length of it. You will see the ridge from the official trail and it does look very cool! Still I might reserve this for those who want more adventure right from the start, or if the main route has a lot of snow.
  • Barnaby Ridge – A – If you have enjoyed La Coulotte Ridge and want more then this is highly recommended. The hardest part is just in the very beginning where there is an exposed downclimb off the peak, then it looks like fun cruising along a ridgeline the rest of the way. It even skips a road walk! I highly recommend carrying 4 or so liters of water for this entire section as there is none to be found. You can break this up into two days by descending off the ridge down to Grizzly Lake, where there is water.
  • Coral Pass – B – This is towards the end of Section B and would skip some road walking. I don’t think many do it though as Section B is already a 200km food carry, and this would add another day or two onto that. We hear it starts out with a very challenging river ford that may not be possible early in the season, and later on involves some bushwhacking and route finding. This pass gets its name from all the fossilized coral you’ll find on top.
  • Northover Ridge – C – If you are comfortable with a lot of exposure on a knifes edge ridge, then this is highly recommended. It starts out with pretty great trail with even better views for most of the way up to the ridge, and then has two kilometers of stressful but incredible scrambling across the very edge of the divide no wider than your foot with sheer drops to either side. This was my best day on trail, but certainly not recommended for bad weather, or if you have a fear of heights.
  • Kiwetinok Pass – D – I think everyone should take this alternate and wouldn’t be surprised if it is made the official route in coming years. The vast majority of the time it is on really great trail through Yoho National Park passing by big glaciers above tree line with waterfalls crashing in the distance. Then the final bits of it get mildly harder and involve some easy rock scrambling and easy bushwhacking. There’s a couple steep parts of this, but none of it is all that bad. Worthwhile for sure.
  • Collie Creek – D – I don’t know the future of this alternate, as it hinges on a bridge across a massive river being there which I think was recently removed. If a new bridge isn’t made then the river would be far too dangerous to cross, and you’ll have to do quite a lengthy dirt road walk instead. Otherwise this alt was great, follows the floodplain of a beautiful river, and skips a road walk.
  • Six Passes – E – As of now the six passes alternate is closed to camping to protect an endangered caribou herd in the area, which would make it an extremely difficult day, and not recommended. Otherwise, some basic route finding skills are needed as it’s entirely alpine without a trail. I don’t think there would be any harrowingly dangerous sections but we’ve heard it is very strenuous. Still to do this legally without camping would require a lot of effort.
  • Berg Lake Trail – F – We didn’t do this as it is currently closed and scheduled to reopen in 2024, but have seen pictures and think it would without a doubt be worthwhile to go down the Berg Lake Trail just a little ways for the view when it does open again. Mt Robson being the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, and then to see a glacier that goes straight down into a lake seems really cool! For most this would be an out and back (unless you are finishing your hike at Mt Robson) and would probably add half a day to your overall end of hike.
  • Perseverance – G – The biggest challenge of this one is where it’s located. Taking by far the longest food carry and adding an entire day to that made us skip this even though we had originally planned to do it. The area to the south was a most incredible alpine trailless expanse and I think the perseverance high route would just add to that, although certainly a very strenuous (extra 3300m / 11,000ft of elevation gain) alternative to the very easy official trail which follows a fun river. I think this route would also include quite the extensive bushwhack at the end. For now I would skip this and leave it to section hikers to vet further.
  • Surprise Pass – G – The final alternate of the trail, we were running out of food and it was getting dark so we didn’t take the chance on it, but it looks like a really great way to end your hike! Relatively short and would only take a few hours to complete. The official trail is just through a sloppy bog and field of willows while this alternate stays high above the trees.
When people talk about ‘willow wacking’ this is what they mean. Highly overgrown trail with this medium sized shrub. The branches lean across the trail and intertwine with one another making it difficult and painful to push through. The number one reason to wear pants on this trail for at least sections F & G.
Towards the beginning of the Northover Ridge Alt there is a brief section of rock climbing, in between sections of loose scree fields. The rest of the alternate does not require hands, but in my opinion is much more challenging than this.
Well above tree line navigating across the Jackpine High Route, almost done with the GDT, and enjoying our final days

Useful Links

There’s all sorts of information and guides (both brief and extensive) about this trail but the problem with many of them as I surf through to potentially link them here is… the trail changes so much in just a span of two years! A lot of past guides are outdated and confusing because of this. Section B and D have undergone massive changes for the better. The maps available are no longer convoluted or confusing. The GDTA provides so much information about permits. So I think I’ll leave it at what I have above.

I feel like throughout this article we’ve touched on how to deal with most of the challenges along this trail. From what gear will help with the worst of weather, alleviate animal concerns, or general safety given the remoteness. To the extensive permit process and how to best go about it. When to hike the trail for the best possible weather conditions, and where or how to resupply in the best ways. With the information here, and a little prior experience backpacking I think that you will do great!

Thanks to the GDTA, I just don’t think more is needed. Which is a huge relief as prior to my hike I was going nuts with all these past resources, not really knowing what I needed to know. This trail is improving rapidly and it really makes the hike go quite smoothly. Please consider becoming a member of the GDTA to aid in their efforts to make this the greatest long trail that it can be!

At the northern terminus of the Great Divide Trail, still standing, still happy, but ready to be done. The terminus sign is right along the shore of the remote Kakwa Lake, a popular spot for snowmobilers in the winter but otherwise doesn’t seem to receive many visitors.
At the southern terminus of the Great Divide Trail, yet to know what was in store for us. We swam in the lake, and then began our 1,200km hike.

Thank you!

Thank you for reading! I hope this article is of some help to you in your own planning stages or while out on trail. It’s been fun to sit and reminisce about what I wished I knew or heard before setting off on our hike.

The Great Divide Trail truly does have more potential than any other trail I have ever done to become the best hike in all of North America. I think by getting out there, volunteering, becoming a member, and helping others that dream can come true.

Jupiter

Me, in a field of fireweed flowers somewhere in Kootenay National Park shortly before reaching the town of Field
A GDT bingo card for thru hikers and section hikers, just something fun to consider while you walk 🙂
A full map of the Great Divide Trail that provides some perspective as to where the resupply points are, all the provincial parks and national parks it passes through, and how closely it follows the border between Alberta and BC the entire way.

Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, at no cost to you they help to support this website, my videos, and allow me to create more helpful stuff like this! Thank you for using them, it is much appreciated!

7 Comments

  1. Yermo

    Well guess what. You write wonderfully. Edward Abbey-ish king of writing. Thanks so much Jupiter. I am glad that you and Sprocket are in Canada and enjoying a little down time.
    All the best and looking forward to even more videos as well.
    THANK YOU JUPE!

  2. Vicki Rogerson

    Incredible, informative, gripping recount of your GDT adventure. I enjoy your writing so much. The compilation of tips, resources, and your experiences should prove really useful to others contemplating this hike. You and Sprocket just blow my mind.

  3. Jeremy

    Did you consider continuing on the Great Divide Route? It is a route that was described in some of the material from the GDT and extends about 170 km to Kinuseo Falls. It looks rugged and about like section G.

    1. We did consider it, and it’s known as section H as mentioned in the article here. The problem now and why we didn’t do it is that there is no resupply solution unless you have friends nearby. Otherwise you’d have to do some supremely stupid things to get food, like a 160km out and back to town on a side trail. The other problem being how unofficial it currently is. I think only one group has ever done it as a section hike, they mapped a very rough route, and there hasn’t been enough section hikers to vet that further since. So as of now it’s kind of out of the scope to include in a thru hike

  4. AdventuressAli

    Great post and sooo much helpful info, even for local sections. I’d love for you to get into the FOOD tho, especially as you have to carry such long hauls and doing big days with elevation, tough bogs whatever. How you get calories into such small bags has got to be a big question for people besides just me.
    AND you didn’t do many shipping so what did you get at the tiny stores?!

    Thanks so much, loving the rabbit hole I’ve gone down today in your content.

    1. Nothing special about our food! Same as what anyone else would carry. Typically a few things of oatmeal for breakfast, loads of random snacks throughout the day, then dehydrated beans or two ramen for dinner. As for the tiny stores there was only one really, as we did send two packages overall (to Sask Crossing & Blueberry.) Peter Lougheed was indeed quite the small store but that was made much simpler because it was only three days from there to Banff so even that wasn’t so bad. Everywhere else was pretty well stocked! I think if we hadn’t sent a box to Sask that would have been a problem though, as the resupply from there to Jasper is *very* long and the Sask store is terribly small. Overall though and the towns were great! Much better than I had first expected them to be.

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