So, while I cannot claim to have done anywhere near the full number of alternate routes the CDT has to offer, I did enough of them to justify this post. I think. So, in NOBO order (because the trail is so damn good northbound and because several CDT guides are only available in southbound format like it’s the only way to hike the trail which it is NOT) here are the purple/alternate routes I took on my 2015 thru hike and what I thought of them.
1. Gila River Alternate-Recommended
This was a good one. I actually ended up getting lost out of Silver City and taking a wrong turn onto the official CDT route through the Black Mountains, but managed to get back to the Gila on the connector for the Columbus terminus, so I don’t know what some of this alternate is like.
What I do know is that the lower Gila was gorgeous, clean cool water. You follow the river upstream for almost this entire route, so you’re in constant danger of taking a swimming break at all times. As you get walk upstream, the water gets shallower and full of tadpoles, the canyons get narrow and dramatic and the hot springs and hippies start showing up. In short, it’s a great alternate that almost everyone ends up taking- the official route is typically very dry, not as pretty and not as cool. Things to note with this alternate is that the trail can be damaged by floods depending on the year, parts of the route may be difficult to follow and you ford the Gila River about a thousand times. Or several hundred at least. Anyway it isn’t worth taking your shoes off, unless you opt for the technique I used which was to hike 90% of the alternate in crocs and socks so my regular shoes stayed fresh. Campsites are pretty abundant on this route. Nav was fairly easy, even though the tread may be poor at times; the rhythm of the trail becomes your guide; you walk on one side of the river bank until you hit a sheer rock wall. Cross the river, continue on other side until you encounter a sheer rock wall. Repeat a trillion times. Take a couple swimming breaks in there too.
I nighthiked a fair portion of the Gila because I had a couple clear nights and a full moon. This was extremely memorable. Moonlit river walking in a canyon….I felt like I was just strolling along in Mother Nature’s Cathedral.
2. Arches Alternate-Recommended But Dicey Descent
This alternate takes you off a dangerous portion of road and onto a pretty popular day hiking trail. Views are great once you get up on the rim of the canyon, but getting down is pretty dicey.
I heard from other hikers that there were cairns and a very faint route down to the parking area. Neither me or the girl I was hiking with at the time could see that, and I ended up taking us down a very sketchy dry creekbed because I thought it would be easier. Definitely some hairy sections in there, wouldn’t recommend doing it unless you’re comfortable with climbing a little. Lots of elevation change and little sheer cliffs/walls.
3. Mt. Taylor Alternate-Recommended
This one’s a no brainer; a little more climbing and the same mileage to end up on top of New Mexico itself. Note that it can be dry up there, as the Trail Angel maintained water cache has been removed by local authorities who are apparently bent on destroying trail magic and weakening thruhikers’ morale. This tactic was ineffective on me, as I am used to being completely miserable at all times and generally assume that all trail magic is doled out with the single caveat that I should receive none. I probably deserve it.
The views from Mount Taylor are good, the climb up is scenic and steep, but very cool. First time you feel like you’re in the Rockies.
4. Ghost Ranch Alternate-Not Really Recommended
I’d guess most hikers take this route because of the easy resupply and historic coolness of Ghost Ranch. I took it because of the AYCE buffet, which was a gigantic disappointment. It’s not really AYCE, it’s AYCE with an hour long time limit and an inefficient line. The wait was a good 15 minutes, and it really cut down on my effectiveness. I managed to get thirds in at breakfast but it was a close call. Lunchtime had a worse rush and the quality of food took a dive.
I’m not a picky guy, but if I pay 13 dollars for lunch I expect to either get delicious food or alot of bad food. I got a little bit of bad food. Also the ranch was charging thruhikers 10 bucks a pop to use the campground showers which is blatant exploitation if you ask me. The alternate tread itself was fun, with a little bit of XC action in there and some really cool canyon walking out of Ghost Ranch. Also as much as I dislike the shower and food prices, Ghost Ranch is kind of a cool place to hang out at.
1. San Luis Peak Alternate-Recommended
Here’s an opportunity to climb a 14er while you’re already up high and then enjoy a pretty pleasant walk down along some beaver dams and nice creeks to join up with the official trail again. The fish were going crazy on the descent when I went through, I would have stopped to wet a line but unfortunately the mosquitoes were getting busy too. Still a nice, scenic walk.
2. Argentine Spine-Super Recommended
The best alternate I took on the entire trail. Just so cool. You stay on the divide the entire time and the views are incredible. I caught some weather up there, and I was definitely not the only one to get dumped on in 2015, so be prepared for that. Anyway, there were a ton of cool mining ruins, 360 views and a lot of up and down….I initially thought I might make up a little time on this alternate because it was a few miles shorter than the official CDT route, I was very wrong. Lots of steep ups and steep downs, and no tread to speak of, but there were quite a few markers in the form of little wooden stakes. There is an official CDT marker on Argentine Peak, and this is supposedly going to be the official CDT in the future. I hope so, because it was a highlight of my trip, and I had to hike until like 11 o’clock at night because I hit the alternate late, go caught in a hail/lightning storm and took so many pictures. Not much water up there, there was some holes filled with snowmelt but I had enough so I kept going. Fill up before starting. There’s a small hut just south of argentine peak that could serve as an emergency shelter, but you’ll have some furry roommates (marmots). One of the most beautiful sections of trail I’ve ever seen.
3. Berthod Pass Divide Alternate/Official Route-Not Recommended
I took the official route on this one because I was on a pretty big sugar rush and had my head down. Basically I trucked right by this time-saving and scenic alternate, and it’s my only real regret on the CDT. The official route sucks and nobody takes it. There’s not much good to say about it. It’s a big PUD, you walk down to pretty populated lakes and parking areas, and all you can think of the entire time is how much fun everyone else is having scrambling around on the Continental Divide. Also, Jonathan Ley describes the trail here as “very new and nice” but it is overgrown and muddy when I went through. Hard to follow, messy and altogether kinda shitty.
Having said that, it’s a testament to how good the CDT is that even this alternate had it’s “stop and stare” moments. There really isn’t a bad walk on this trail.
4. Grand Lake Alternate-Not Spectacular, Do It if You Feel Like You’re Gonna Puke
This thing is basically just a way to cut off the RMNP loop. Having spent some time in the area before, I elected to cut off the loop. I don’t regret it, I was pretty exhausted from the previous section of trail and didn’t feel like I was going to get anything special out of it. Add to this the fact that my guide said that both the shortcut and the longcut were official routes, and this became a no brainer for me. Your MMV. It turned out to be a good idea for me because I spent the next two days sick as a dog, due to some food poisoning in town.
5. Road Walk South of Steamboat-Fun But Wouldn’t Wish It On My Dog
I only included this because Jonathan Ley made a notation advising against shortcuts in this area and I ignored it to my detriment. I tried to cut off 2 miles and ended up crawling through thick brush, primordial slime and rusty barbed wire fences. What a time sink, just take the official route. Grizzly Creek doesn’t look like shit but it is. If you decide to ignore me too, cross Grizzly Creek where the little bridge is. Otherwise you get stuck trying to walk across this slimy, leech-ridden ditch that’s too far to jump.
The reason I made this decision was because I was nighthiking along a dirt road and could see, not 150 yards west, the road I was walking 1.5 miles to meet up to. Basically the trail here is a big switchback and since the terrain looked easy and I could only see scrubbrush, I thought it would be an easy cross country shortcut to hit. Like I said, damn near impenetrable willows. A surprisingly wide creek. Leech ditches. Do I regret it? Fuck no, it was a bundle of fun. I made a bridge/raft out of branches and followed weird little tunnels in the DENSE willows that the cows had carved out for themselves. Was it an efficient hiking decision? Certainly not. Cross at the little bridge on the paved road, you’ll be drier that way.
1. Rawlins Shortcut-Not Spectacular
This was another mistake made by me. I put my head down and shut my brain off on a boring roadwalk and missed the turnoff for the official CDT. 2 miles later I realized that something was wrong, sat down and ate some popcorn and thought about backtracking. I did not, obviously.
According to another hiker in 2015, the official route is longer and just as dry, not particularly scenic. Having said that, people were driving fast on this shortcut and dust clouds aren’t very much fun. Water was an issue; even if it’s running on this section, it’s probably too alkaline to drink unless you want some stomach issues. If you pay attention, there are two good sources. One is bubbling out of a concrete deal to the Northbounder’s left and the Southbounder’s right. I believe it was called ????? creek. Either way it’s a hot, dry, windy and dusty walk. A nighthike would be the best way to do this alternate I think.
2. Cirque du Towers-Very Recommended
So as far as Wind River alternates go, I found this one to be somehow less cool than Knapsack Col. Fortunately, it was still incredible. Really beautiful rock formations, mostly good tread except on a few surprisingly steep passes, where you just kinda wing it. Good water situation on this route. Navigation is fairly easy despite sections of nonexistant tread. Just remember to look at the big picture and relax, it’s hard to get too far off track here as long as you watch your maps. Fishing situation was nothing short of spectacular. I was catching tons of little brook trout on a hand line and cheddar cheese.
A little less claustrophobic than the Gila River alternate, but you still get that “cathedraled” feeling alot. Definitely a good alternate, but I didn’t make great time through here due to a couple really stiff climbs and picky descents. Don’t plan on making 3-4 mph through here.
3. Knapsack Col-Very Recommended
This was my favorite alternate in Wyoming. I hit the Titcomb Lakes at sunset and that alone was one of the highlights of my entire hike. I had good weather on the scramble up the “Col”, and the entire day was just beautiful.
In fact, my only real problem with this alternate was that I didn’t know what a Col was. Wasn’t sure if it was a peak or a pass or some kind of omnitopent bird-pokemon that roosts in an alpine aerie. Sorry to say, a Col is indeed a pass. What a let down that was. Can’t believe I carried all those pokeballs through Wyoming for no fucking reason at all.
Anyway, Knapsack Col is a top 5 CDT alternate for me and not to be missed
1. Henry’s Lake Official Route (vs Mack’s Inn Alternate)-Recommended
I included this route even though it is the official one because almost nobody takes it. I don’t know how it stacks up to Mack’s Inn but I had a good time on it. It is a fairly dry route however.
It is definitely scenic in a few parts, but one of the coolest parts about it is that you really get the feeling that you are doing the trail back in the day when there weren’t so many hikers on it. The tread is good but not great. Water situation is spotty. When I was going through here, a heatwave had hit and some sources were dry. Also on my Ley maps, the “main/red” route had H20 options that the “official/purple” route did not. The springs just before the climb to Targhee peak (Northbound) were flowing strong.
The hitch into and out of West Yellowstone (Targhee Pass) was difficult for me. Took me quite a bit of time. The resupply options in town were excellent. Targhee Peak was an awesome side hike and there were some really cool candy cane patterned rocks on the way up to the ridge. All in all, a pretty good time.
2. Nicholia Creek/Deadman’s Pass Alternate-Recommended
This was a fun alternate to take, but I had a hard time passing up a ridgewalk on the divide for this route. Ley’s enthusiasm for the route helped me decide to give it a rip however, and that’s what I ended up doing.
Water situation was pretty decent, not great. Couple cool canyon sections, Deadman’s Pass wasn’t all that scenic. There was a picnic table there though. You follow a dry riverbed after the pass, get into some more canoyon stuff. The tread gets pretty weak but there were a few cairns in 2015. Nav was fairly straightforward. You will pop up into a pretty cool alpiney area a few miles before rejoining the official CDT, very reminiscent of the Wind River Range.
Overall a good alternate, but I don’t know why Jonathan Ley was so enthused about it.
3. “5 Rams” Cross Country Alternate near Coyote Creek.
This was one of the best alternates I took on the CDT. There’s no tread, so if you find yourself following a faint footpath, check your map because you’re probably on a game trail and you are probably going the wrong way.
Great views before you descend to Tex Creek. Not to be missed. I didn’t see any sheep.
On my way down from this alternate, the sun was setting and I was thinking that I’d never stepped foot on a trail as good as the CDT. So good. #blessed #Ilovethistrail
4. Pintler Pass Cross Country-Reccomended but READ BELOW To See what you’ll be getting into.
This was not accurately described on Ley’s maps, so I will do it here.
It is awesome. It is also a time sink and has some technical parts. The divide above Pintler Pass is a real knife edge and took me some time to get through. I was using my hands for a good part of this alternate, all in all the thing took me ~3 hours to complete.
On the plus side, it was very scenic, very remote feeling. I was clinging onto a rock on the divide when a big eagle swooped over me; the sheer wall to my left had hidden me from his view. Plus, there’s just something about walking around cross country that I love.
I enjoyed this alternate, but definitely took issue in the way Ley described it. I liked it, but had no idea what I was getting into before I got into it.
9. Larkspur Spring Official Route-Not Recommended
Ley tells hikers to take the southern route that goes by Larkspur Spring.
I took the official route. It was cool, but pretty shoddy tread and poorly signed. I also hit quite a few blowdowns. If I did it over again, I’d listen to Ley on this one, but I will say that the official route had a cool “mesa covered in trees” feeling to it.
10. The Butte Route-Official and Recommended
I’ve included this because many hikers take the Anaconda cutoff and not much has been written about the official route.
I really don’t think there’s a wrong choice to be made here. I haven’t walked the Anaconda cutoff myself, but I drove from Idaho to North Dakota (and back) every 2 weeks for a year, so I’m familiar with both areas.
Butte has this really cool geology thing going on with it. It’s in this kinda dry little pocket of Montana, the best way I can describe it is there’s a lot of sand, big boulders and pine trees. Very cool area.
Ananconda is pretty classic Montana; grassy plains and a pretty good breakfast place in town.
So the choice is yours. I really like Butte, so I took the official route here. I got what I expected, which was not a whole lot of water, sand, big boulders and pine trees. A fair amount of the Butte route was also on these dirtbike/MTB trails that were well established but not quite wide enough to get a 4wd vehicle on. I really enjoyed this entire section.
The hitch into Butte from Pipestone Pass was awful for me. Like 3 hours of watching people drive by. I had no cell service either. Take that into consideration. Hitching in from another point might be a better bet.
11. Delmoe Lake/Homestake Lodge Alternate-Not Great BE CAREFUL
I took the Ley recommended red route in 2015, which is mostly on gravel roads and goes east of Delmoe lake. The new official route goes west of the lake and meets up with the red route north of the lake. I got turned around here and ended up going the wrong way at a junction. Instead of backtracking, I just cut cross country to the interstate and road walked back to the CDT. I imagine the divide is prettier but the gravel road is easier. Cutting cross country to the interstate because you spent all day going in a circle is neither pretty nor easy, so try to avoid that. If I had to do it over again, I’d take the official signed route on the divide.
12. FS622 Official Route
Included this one because Ley didn’t hike it and therefore couldn’t recommend it personally.
I will recommend this personally, even though it was wet and cold that day. Definitely a great walk, grassy ridgewalk for much of the alternate. Some pretty cool views on this one and I was very glad I took the official route here. Got water at the marked spring just west of Roundtop Mountain. I have a hard time remembering for sure, but I’m about 75% that I stayed on the divide near Greenhorn Mtn. and it was okay, but use yr noodle when you go through, my memory is spotty.
13. Straight Creek Trail (Into or Out of Benchmark)-Nothing Special
Took this alternate because I was resupplying in Augusta and it seemed more practicable to me to get into town sooner rather than later. It was well marked, wide and muddy. Pack animal throughfare. I imagine the official CDT is similar, but may never know. Oh well.
As an aside, the hitch into Augusta was pretty brutal. I walked towards town for 2 hours and only saw one vehicle. They picked me up. Going back to the trail, there was a similar dearth of traffic and I ended up walking around 8 miles in between 2 rides. Next time, I’d just get a food drop at the ranch if Augusta itself hadn’t been so cool. The town had a good resupply option, the guy at the hotel gave me a free beer and the bar food was good. It was a great stop, and a drop-dead gorgeous place to just walk around.
14. Spotted Bear Pass Alternate-If You Must
This was the only legal option to hike in 2015, due to recent and still-burning forest fires. I may have mentioned before that I consider myself weatherproof but not fireproof. Took the alternate and found it to be pleasant but not spectacular.
Given the choice, I’d hike the official route here. Your MMV.
15. TR101 Alternate, South of East Glacier in the Bob-Nothing Special
Took this alternate because of the many forest fires in 2015 and the fact that I wanted to save time. I wasn’t sure how the divide alternate would look, and was just really trying to finish this trail (I was rushing to start the AT SOBO ASAP). It was a pleaseant walk, lots of water crossings. Easy to follow and generally just good a time saver.
Having said that, my number one navigational truth on the CDT became “I Never Regret Taking the Divide”. It’s true. Even when the divide was at it’s worst, it was nothing short of stunning. So I kinda regret not taking the divide on this one. Live and learn I suppose. Still not a bad walk.
16. Mt Morgan Alternate-Recommended
The day I went through here, it was so cloudy on Dawson Pass that I could barely see 20 feet in front of me. But every once in a while the wind would pick up and the fog would clear to reveal some great views. Cool moody atmosphere+great views+good tread? I’ll take it. Really was a cool alternate to take.
Besides the scenic aspect you’re either just starting your thruhike or just finishing at this point, and you could use the extra miles to build up character, you crybaby. Have fun.