Completing the Continental Divide Trail
A bill to finish the Continental Divide Trail is making its way through Congress. Here's how it will impact outdoor recreation in your area:
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DENVER, CO — March 8th, 2022
Hundreds of miles of trails may soon be available to you; the push is on to complete the Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, before the project turns 50 in 2028.
Let me catch you up:
The CDT stretches across 3,000 miles, taking hikers over the geological midpoint of the United States, from Canada to Mexico
You’ve probably hiked some of it without knowing it. Some of Colorado’s most popular trails — including the hike to Grays Peak — are small stretches of the CDT
There are roughly 160 miles of “gaps” in the trail. Here, hikers need to hop on the road to walk from trailhead to trailhead
A bill to finish the CDT by closing those gaps is currently making its way through congress
Congressman Joe Neguse has been a driving force behind the CDT Completion Act. One of the bigger gaps in the trail is located in his district1, just east of Steamboat Springs and north of Kremmling.
How this Impacts You
The CDT completion act is mercifully only seven pages long. I’ve embedded it here in case you’d like to read it for yourself. But I’ll be going over the main points in this article.
Even if you have no intention of ever hiking the CDT in its entirety, its completion may still impact your outdoor experience. Logbook estimates from the CDT Coalition — a non-profit working to promote and protect the trail — put the number of end-to-end hikers in the hundreds.
But the number of people hiking segments of the trail each year are in the tens of thousands. This use estimate tracks hikers on Colorado’s most popular peaks:
There are two important takeaways from this graph:2
Overall trail use has been increasing steadily for years. So has the crowding.
A huge chunk of that growth has been on the Grays and Torreys trail, to the tune of 30,000—35,000 hikers
The Grays and Torreys trail is itself an extremely popular section of the CDT. Trail crowding is too complex a topic to address here. I plan to fully explore it in an upcoming series.
For now: expanding a robust trail which can handle a high amount of traffic is a great way to spread out people, cars, and traffic.
Who’s in the Neighborhood?
One of the targets for completing the CDT is a spot called “Muddy Pass,” located in Northern Colorado. This 14-mile break in the trail occurs between Steamboat Springs, and Granby Lake.
These areas are called “Gateway Communities;” towns and cities that provide easy access to the trails. They market themselves as jumping-off points to visit if you plan to hike a section of the trail, or re-supply locations if you are a thru-hiker.
Right now: hikers at the gap need to walk for miles alongside two busy roads: County Road 53, and State Highway 14.
Closing this gap would make a potentially hazardous stretch of the journey a bit safer. But will changing the route impact the community around the CDT?
Only a handful of businesses operate along this stretch of road. One of them is Rabbit Ears Adventure Cabins, owned and operated by Ruth Nixon.
“The way I have my business set up; I just try to let people do their own thing,” Nixon said. “Most of them just like to come and relax and do whatever their adventure of choice is. I do get a lot of hikers who come through.”
Nixon said gauging the impact trail changes or additions could have on her business would be difficult. Her concern is for a different kind of business operating in the area:
“My biggest concern is we’re such a big agricultural county. We have a ton of ranches — and big ranches. Long term ranches that were homesteaded in this valley,” Nixon said. “My biggest concern when we’re establishing a path for more traffic is the impact it’s going to have on wildlife and range.”
Most of the surrounding area is taken up by wide-open ranch land. This opens up a problem for the effort to finish the trail:
“In this area, there is not very much continuous public land,” explains L Fisher, of the CDT Coalition. “We’re trying to thread the needle on where that optimal location would be.”
This is a challenge the coalition has tackled along other stretches of the trail, south of Colorado.
“We work with local landowners there, the ranching community down there, to put up these gates so hikers can walk through a gate and close the gate behind them,” Fisher said.
“The last thing we want is a whole herd of cows out on the highway on right where a CDT hiker has left the gate open.”
The Impact on Businesses
When the bill passed out of the Natural Resources Committee, Congressman Neguse said, in a statement:
“The CDT is home to beautiful landscapes and world-class recreational opportunities, serving as both a refuge for communities to experience being outdoors and an economic driver for the mountain towns and businesses that rely on visitors for their livelihoods. By passing the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act, we ensure that more people have access to these recreational benefits and we invest in Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy.”
The CDT Coalition already has some data on hand to assess that potential economic impact. In 2019, the organization surveyed 200 small businesses to gauge whether the trail was bringing in more customers.
Some of the figures from the survey are difficult to objectively quantify, but these findings are important:
58% report seeing growth in their business due to increased use of the CDT
Of business owners in Gateway Communities specifically:
51% have seen increased awareness of their community as an outdoor destination
40% noted an increase of customers at their business from CDT trail users
Reviewing the Challenges and Impacts
As Fisher puts it, there certainly is a needle to thread here. Filling the Muddy Pass gap brings tangible benefits, while raising some issues that need to be overcome:
Use data shows demand is increasing. More mileage of trails would help meet this demand
Business owners near the CDT report it does bring attention to their community, and in turn, pull in customers
Limited land is available in the area. This makes cutting through private ranch land a necessity
A new trail installation could impact wildlife migration, or grazing habits in the area
These factors will all need to be carefully considered, should the CDT completion act come to pass.
Congressman Neguse represents Colorado’s 2nd District
This data is drawn from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative trail reports. Their data is measured using thermal counters at choke points along the trail