For us, it felt a lot of times that the GDT was suffering from schizophrenia…on the one hand, we were often walking through unbelievably beautiful landscapes, yet on the other hand, we encountered some of the worst trail we have come across. This dichotomy was hard to wrap our heads around sometimes in the moment on trail…do we love the GDT or hate the GDT? That answer was up for grabs depending on the day. We are glad that we hiked the trail…it checked off a lot of boxes for us: (1) We got to do our first long distance hike outside of the US (2) We got to explore the Canadian Rockies – something we had only heard about, and they truly are a mountain range of world-class beauty (3) We were able to hike with our good friend, Mace – even though our time with him got cut short.
So, here are some thoughts from our experience on the GDT which we hope can be helpful to hikers who may be considering hiking this trail.
The GDT is a ROUTE
Just like the Grand Enchantment Trail we hiked this spring, the GDT is a trail along the lines of a “create your own adventure.” There are alternates on the GDT which gives people with different hiking styles the option to fit the hike to their own preferences. The possibility of wildfires also means that the GDT experience can change from year to year and even within one season. For us, we generally did not do any of the official alternates, and instead stuck primarily to the main GDT route. The big caveat for this, however, is between Banff and The Crossing, and this encompassed roughly 1/4 of our GDT miles. Because of wildfires in the national park, we were unable to hike the main route from Banff to Field. Instead, we created (with the help of Trail Angel extraordinaire, Leslie) a way to get up to Lake Louise from Banff. From there we hitched to Field to pick up our resupply package. We could have just continued on with the main GDT route starting at Field, but because of all the horror stories we had heard about the section from Field to The Crossing, we decided to continue with our own route. For us, the alternate route that we chose turned out to be mostly great and a little terrible, but from what we’ve heard it was lightyears better than the true GDT. The beauty of hiking a “route” versus a “trail” is that you can modify the trip to suit your goals. Our goal was to have a nice hike in a beautiful area…that was mostly fulfilled on our alternate, whereas if we had hiked the true GDT in that section, we probably would not have enjoyed ourselves nearly as much.
For navigation, in addition to the paper maps, we were happy to have a GPS app with us. We used both GAIA and Guthook (Atlas Guides) and felt that on some days these two apps were critical. We met two GDT hikers who got significantly lost or turned around. One of the guys was off track for a couple days and another for a solid half day. While we did carry the paper maps and often consulted the “Notes from Previous GDT Hikers” (found on the GDTA website), we believe that navigation on the trail would be quite challenging with a map alone. Chances are high that there would be significant loss of time due to wrong turns.
Many Faces of the GDT
There are really three faces to the GDT. Firstly: The Pretty Face…smooth trail similar to the Pacific Crest Trail or other well-groomed National Scenic Trails found in the US. These trails are found in Banff and Jasper and some sections of the Provincial Parks. These stretches of nice trail were always a welcome respite after some challenging days. Second: The Easy Face…easy dirt road walking or ATV trail walking. In the southern part of the GDT before Peter Lougheed, there are many miles of hiking that are largely on easy ATV or logging roads. The miles can come quickly on these types of trails, which can give you a false sense of the trail at the beginning. And lastly, The Ugly Face…ironically, this is often in the most beautiful and magical parts of the whole GDT! This consists of tough decommissioned or unmaintained trails…or sometimes no trails at all. These trails are often the connector sections between the Provincial Parks and National Parks, and in some cases the edges of National Parks. They can be overgrown, poorly built and often hard to find trails. These sections can really slow down your daily miles per day, as a lot of time can be lost just in trying to find the trail over and over again.
The GDT is EXPENSIVE
There are several components that make up this statement. (1) Travel to and from the termini – For us the real expense in 2018 was getting to the southern terminus, because the trails in Waterton Lakes National Park were closed and we needed to hire a shuttle to get us to the alternate terminus, which ended up being over $200 (Yikes!). Luckily for us, Greyhound was still operating in AB and BC when we finished the trail, so we could take a bus from Robson Provincial Park to Vancouver. For those hiking the GDT starting in 2019, Greyhound will no longer be an option for getting close-ish to the southern terminus or the northern terminus. So, getting yourself there could end up costing more if you need to employ shuttles. (2) Permits – We purchased both the Annual Park Entry Pass and the Annual Backcountry Camping Permit. For two people, it ended up being over $150. We have heard that the Annual Backcountry Camping Permit is no longer being offered, and we aren’t sure what the alternative is, but if you have to pay per night, that could also increase the fee for permits. (3) Trail Towns – The GDT is quite unique in that the trail towns are almost all very popular tourist destinations. And for most people hiking the GDT, they are going through these towns during peak tourist season. Basically that means that cheap lodging is going to be very hard to find if not impossible. We ended up paying more for a room in Jasper than we have ever paid in our lives. But, when you come into town after some pretty trying days in the woods, you can be willing to pay almost anything for a shower and a comfortable place to lay your head.
Campsite Reservations SUCK
We found the campsite reservation process to be one of the most frustrating aspects of this hike. To plan in February and March where you will be on a particular night hundreds of miles into your hike nearly impossible, and just plain silly. We booked everything we could, but could not get reservations for each night we needed, as we were coming through during peak hiking season. The Parks Canada’s website as of 2018 is a real frustration. It is pretty dated and is not set up to handle “thru-hiker” reservations. We kept getting errors when trying to place a reservation for several days in a row, as the site said the campsites were “too many miles apart”. Basically it is set up for folks going out who are doing maybe 10 miles per day. The only way we could get around this was to treat each day as a “new reservation”, but unfortunately, this meant that we were paying the reservation fee for every night, instead of just once.
We only saw a Ranger one time on the hike (in Peter Lougheed) and he did ask about where we were camping – although once he knew were weren’t camping in AB, he didn’t really care what we did. We did see multiple ranger cabins in the National Parks, but all of them were unoccupied. Although we had made our camping reservations, we only made it to our assigned campground one night of the whole trail. Otherwise, we did camp in the designated campsites…just without the reservation for that site. We never saw a ranger at any of the campsites and only one night was the campsite we stayed at full with the “real reservations”. Luckily, since we hammock, we were still able to find a spot to camp. Most of the nights, however, the campsites were less than half-full.
We chose to camp at the designated sites throughout the National Parks rather than stealth camp. Our rational was that any encountered rangers would be more pissed about stealth camping than camping without reservations at a designated site. Since we are hammocking, our setup is higher and less stealthy. Still stealth-able for sure, but this is just how we went about it on this hike. We know that plenty of thru-hikers have taken the stealth route and we don’t begrudge that approach either.
Hammocking is a Piece of Cake
We had no problems finding a place to hang both of our hammocks each night. There were plenty of trees the whole way. Certainly there were large sections of the trail above treeline, where there were no trees, but it was easy enough to hike down to the next clump of trees without leaving the trail. While we had good weather for most of the trip, we still hung our tarps at least 60% of the nights. Sometimes we hung the tarps just to avoid condensation on our sleeping quilts, but usually we figured it was easy enough to hang the tarp, so we would just put it up in case we had some passing rain during the night. Sometimes we would just put up our ridgeline with the thought that if it started raining, we could just quickly clip on the tarp and cover up our hammock.
There was one stretch of the trail (the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park) where hammocks were not allowed. In order to comply with the park’s regulations, we ended up hiking off the trail about .3 miles to the Curator campsite where we were able to hang our hammocks.
Bears are REALZ in Canada
We decided before starting the trail, that we would both carry bear spray on the trail. We figured that it we were actually in a situation where it was needed, it would be important for us each to have easy access to it. Of course, it is another cost on the trip, but one that we didn’t want to scrimp on. It was easy to buy in Waterton Village, so no need to buy it ahead of time.
We didn’t have a Ursack, but wished we had one. Even though some folks still had mice get into their Ursack when they left it on the ground, we figured it would have made hanging our food a bit easier. We had hoped to buy one from an outfitter along the trail, but when we went into multiple stores in Coleman and Banff, nobody knew what we were even talking about….baffling.
We ended up hanging our food most nights. Despite the fact that many hikers say it is hard to do on the GDT (skinny pines with short branches), we found it pretty doable. On a couple of occasions, we just laid our Loksacks away from our hammock hangs, but in general, we were able to find a tree with long enough branches or a half blown down tree that we could make work. We have used Loksacks successfully for years over several thousands of miles of backpacking trips (these are the odor proof bags made by Opsack). We have never had a problem until this trip…then within our first two days, we had two bags with holes in them! We will continue to use these bags on future hikes, but will hang our food when hiking in grizzly country again.
Finishing at Robson
There are a couple different places to finish in the north. We ended at Robson. Our timing was slightly off. We didn’t want to skip the trail to Mt. Robson visitors center since another hiker (Buck30) had mentioned in his hiking journal that it was one of the most beautiful trails he had hiked. This extra side trail would add two days that we simply didn’t have to spare. We should have started a week earlier and given ourselves more time. There was a lot of great hiking in Banff, Jasper, Mt. Robson, Peter Lougheed and Assiniboine and since we are planning to come back and catch the Kakwa to Mt. Robson section, we’d like to do the North and South Boundary loops in Jasper and much more in the future. Another friend who was on the trail at the same time we were, did head out from Mt. Robson to hike the section to Kakwa. The weather was pretty bad and he ended up bailing midway. The idea to ‘take the high route’ in the Mt. Robson to Kakwa section is something that several people suggest, and they mention the lower route as a terrible swampy mess. The tricky thing is this: everybody warns that the danger would be increased if on the high route in bad weather.
Have any questions about planning a hike on the Great Divide Trail? Drop us a line in the comment section below.