CDT Rally: 167 Trees and a Golden Chipmunk
Tales from a three-day bikepacking trip along the Continental Divide Trail on the Border to Backyard Rally. Plus, a Q&A with Scott Morris about his and Eszter’s 2014 thru-ride of the trail, the first in 30 years…
Memory and misery have an odd relationship. It’s as if the human brain is programmed to replace the bad with the good. A survival mechanism, perhaps. I’ve mentioned this phenomenon to many others and it seems to be universal. Specifically, I’m talking about how sufferfests magically become amazing trips… shortly after the fact. Just as your muscles start to cool, the moments of agony are deleted from memory and replaced by those of bliss. You forget the 167 downed trees you had to perform loaded bike gymnastics over, and the punishing scramble-a-bikes up loose scree. You only remember the wonderful humans you traveled with, campsite laughter, flowing bits of trail, eye-watering descents, and magically lit scenery. It’s kind of like a drug addiction in reverse. You know you’re going to feel like shit while you’re doing it, but the misery will be followed by an incredible sense of clarity, a lifetime of stories, and unforgettable highs. I think this is what makes some of us like trips like this one.
Enter bad idea #327. A few weeks ago I was invited to meet up with six other people—a couple acquaintances, but mostly strangers—on a mountain pass in the middle-of-nowhere Colorado Rockies. From there, we would ride for three days on steep, rugged, rarely ridden trails. How could I resist? It sounded like the makings of a “great” trip, after all.
The 39 miles of trail earmarked for this particular hikepacking outing was a section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The CDT follows its namesake closely for some 3,100 miles between Canada and Mexico. For those unfamiliar, it’s not the same thing as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a bike-optimized variation on the same theme. Instead of using gravel and two-track roads to follow the Divide, much of the CDT is made up of ridgeline singletrack, cairn-to-cairn backcountry, and rugged tracks, many of which are remote and unkept.
The folks at Big Agnes organized the trip, along with Honey Stinger and BAP, two other companies also based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. In 2017, Big Agnes adopted 75 miles of the Continental Divide Trail near their home base in support of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. As an adopter, they agreed to maintain a particular stretch of trail, mark it as needed, and keep it free of trash. To celebrate their adoption, as well as the CDT’s 40th Anniversary (not to mention the 50th Anniversary of the National Scenic Trails Act), the three companies decided to hike and bike the entire Colorado section of the CDT during the summer of 2018. While doing so, they would clean up the trail where possible, and have the grandest company team building exercise possible. They named it the Border to Backyard Rally. During this relay rally, individual groups of 5-10 Big Agnes employees and other invited folks would take on one of 24 segments of Colorado’s 740-mile stretch of the CDT. Some of the groups would bikepack and some would backpack these segments. Our group of seven “biked” segment #18.
On day one of our trip, Rob Peterson, chief bad idea officer at Big Agnes, told us that the initial mile of steep hike-a-bike had 37 downed trees on it just a month earlier. Thankfully, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps had cleared them just a week or so before we set out. Since chainsaws are banned within this forest, they had to use two-person crosscut saws to remove the fallen timber, weakened by the mountain pine beetle. Fortunately, there were only a couple of trees that had fallen and blocked this section of trail since it was cleared. Once we made it above treeline, we started up the flank of Parkview Mountain, a grueling ascent over rough scree, made especially taxing by the hot and dry mid-day sun. The calf-searing push was all but forgotten at the summit when a member of our party—who will remain nameless for reasons you will soon learn—came back to our then-lunching group from a nature call. Catching his breath from laughter, he told us about a chipmunk who decided to run under his pee stream and then proceed to dance around frantically. Uncontrollable laughter ensued. There’s an image I will never forget. Our grins remained as we descended down an memorable rocky slope along the ridge. We made camp that evening with visions of an army of revenge-seeking chipmunks invading camp and urinating all over our bikes and gear.
Without a doubt, our second day was the toughest. It started with a section of perfectly carved singletrack that would be absolutely stellar on a bike if it wasn’t for almost 100 fallen trees blocking the path. It went something like this, over and over: 20-30 seconds of pedaling, dismount, clear enough branches to approach the fallen tree, lift the front wheel onto the tree, hoist the bike and clamber over, catch your breath, mount the bike. Sometimes the trees were so thick and high above the trail that it required a couple of us to portage the bikes over, and often it was more like an assembly line. All in all, it took three hours to go just over two miles that morning. I am still impressed that none of us broke a derailleur, spokes, or a back.
At some point later that afternoon, we made it above treeline. It started to rain. More steep hike-a-bike. But, as these types of trips often go, our day ended on a good note. The last stretch was an amazing, uninterrupted downhill on an incredible ribbon of pristine backcountry singletrack, the stuff dreams are made of. After high fives and a water stop, we made camp in a beautiful clearing where the afterglow of sunset painted the stands of lodgepole pine reddish pink.
As far as dead-fall, we thought the next stretch of trail would be worse than what we went through on day two, so we got an early start on the morning of day three. There were quite a few trees to contend with; I think 60-something was the last number someone shouted. Later that morning they thinned out and there was nothing left but a 1,000-foot climb to our last ridge. After an up and down ridgeline ride, our trip culminated with 20+ miles of fast downhill over chunky forest service road. “How many trees did we cross, again!?” I shouted to the group as we sped towards our pick up point, where pizza and cold beer were waiting. “I don’t remember,” someone else yelled, “but what a great ride!”
More on bikepacking the CDT below. If you are interested in learning more on Big Agnes’ Border to Backyard Rally, click here.
Bikepacking and the CDT
In case you’re wondering, the Continental Divide Trail isn’t a typical bikepacking route. In fact, it’s a thru-hiking route which happens to allow bikes on the majority of its trail. Back in 2014, Scott Morris and Eszter Horyani set out to bike the CDT from end to end. It was an incredible trip because they were the first (or so they thought) to tackle the Continental Divide Trail on bikes. In addition, the recon and data the two collected along the way is invaluable for bikepackers who are interested in such a trip. After cycling the Parkview segment myself, I decided to ask Scott a few questions about their trip and the state of the CDT for bikepacking.
As far as I know, you and Eszter were the the first to “cycle” the CDT. What led you to take on such a feat?
During the trip we discovered that a pair of brothers with the last name of “Moe” completed a thru-ride on the trail in the early 80s. Actually, they were the first divide riders, period. They had hiked an early version of the CDT, so certainly had the knowledge to put together a bike route. Mike McCoy considers their route to be a precursor to his. So I would say we were the first to ride the CDT in 30 years (their trip was ’82 or ’83, I believe).
We took it on partly because we believed it had not been done. More than that I think Eszter and I had raced a bunch but were looking for a challenge that wasn’t competitive but was still difficult. We were looking for something that we were not sure was possible, or a good idea. Could we bikepack 3,000 miles of hard trail? We didn’t really know.
Also, it was getting hot in Tucson and we were moving out of our house, so why not live of the bikes for the summer!? Turned out to be a great, if last minute, decision.
What were a few of your favorite sections of the CDT?
Parkview was honestly a highlight. So close for so many mountain bikers in the state of Colorado, but it’s rarely ridden and no one knows what you are talking about when you mention it! The Lionshead section in West Yellowstone was another sleeper we weren’t expecting. Stunning geology, cracking lightning storms, and well built batteries of switchbacks.
Which sections were the most challenging and rough?
We generally got burned, badly, any time we chose unknown trails for our Wilderness bypass routes. Sticking to roads would have made more sense, but the call of an unexplored singletrack trail on a map is often too much to resist! The CDT gets a little maintenance but some of the non-CDT trails we took were covered in deadfall or simply didn’t exist. On the other hand, a few of the non-CDT trails we took on a gamble turned out to be solid gold. Win some, lose some.
Due to land use restrictions and sheer difficulty, a bikeable version of the CDT has to be substantially different than a hiking version. Can you quickly explain why and how much it differs?
Over half of the official CDT is open to bikes. Wilderness closes at least a third of the trail, and much of the rest is closed simply because the CDT is not a modern National Scenic Trail. The CDTC fails to see how compatible bikepacking is with the mission of the National Scenic Trail system, doesn’t recognize how much historical use by bikes there has been on the trail, and is stuck in its outdated ideas of conservation, sadly. Witness the Arizona Trail, a progressive trail, where much of the trail was built by and is maintained by mountain bikers.
Do you think an official CDT bikepacking thru-route is feasible?
Definitely. In 2016, Aaron Weinsheimer rode essentially our route minus the four or five worst sections, and proved it to be a viable route. He completed it with much more grace than we did. I was duly impressed.
Are there any sections of the CDT you’d recommended for general bikepacking? Sections that are perhaps more rideable or better maintained than others?
Where its coincident with the Colorado Trail it’s certainly good bikepacking. I found the CDT route through the Great Basin (Rawlins to Atlantic City) much more enjoyable than the GDMBR (with many water sources!). Much of New Mexico, particularly the northern 100 miles, is also fantastic bikepacking. In short, much of the trail is good!
Interested in more CDT bikepacking talk? Make sure to check out Dylan Kentch’s story about his CDT thru-ride, North of Eden, published here back in May of 2016.