Trail Profile: The Great Divide Trail, 680 Miles Through the Canadian Rockies

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The very name “Great Divide Trail” is a bit of a misnomer, implying a walk on a cleared two- foot-wide strip of dirt. Instead, this trail delivers so much more; part wilderness, part rugged equestrian and game trail, and yes, part hiking trail. All of this is mixed together over 1,100 kilometres (680 miles) running along the divide of the Canadian Rockies.

Despite its wild state, this is not a new trail. The concept that would become the Great Divide Trail was first proposed by the Girl Guides of Canada in 1966, with the first survey of the route performed in 1974. The route was devised with the intention of avoiding already popular national and provincial parks where feasible, instead following existing game trails and First Nations routes. The development of the trail continues to be a work in progress, with trail building and maintenance performed largely by volunteers organized by the Great Divide Trail Association.

Great Divide Trail By the Numbers

Distance: 680 miles
Highest Peak: “Unnamed Pass” 2,590 metres (8,500 feet)
Estimated Number of Attempted Annual Thru Hikers: 60
Sections: 6
National Park Crossings: 5
Provincial Park Crossings: 8
Overall Elevation Gain: A lot

Terminuses

The Southern Terminus of the Great Divide Trail is located on the American/Canadian border in Waterton National Park, sharing the spot with the Northern Terminus of the Continental Divide Trail.

The Northern Terminus is slightly more complex; the original terminus is located at kilometre 940 in Mount Robson Provincial Park. For even more adventure, hikers can continue onto the Extended Northern Terminus at Kakwa Lake around kilometre 1,100.

Section Overviews

Section A: Waterton to Coleman
Kilometre/mile 0 – kilometre 143/mile 89

A forest fire ripped through Waterton National Park in 2017, and the effects are immediately visible; ashy skeleton of trees and colourful wildflowers reclaiming the forest. Less then 20 kilomotres (12 miles) into the hike, there is a signifcant fire trail closure at the time of publication, visit the Great Divide Trail Associations website for current status and recommended alternates. The trail wastes no time whipping hikers into shape, as the trail quickly arrives at what is considered to be the most difficult section, La Coulotte Ridge, at kilometre 68 (mile 42). Not for the faint hearted, this segment has hikers ascending and descending four scree covered peaks while covering a mere 12 kilometres (seven miles) of trail. Recovery time will quickly follow as you spend the rest of this section trudging along relatively flat ATV roads.

Section B: Coleman to Peter Lougheed/Kananaskis Lakes
Kilometre 143/mile 89 to kilometre 339/mile 210

If you enjoyed the ATV roads from the end of Section A, you’re in luck! Section B starts of with… more ATV and Forest Service roads. The trail winds through forestry and mining activity, even involving a short trespass through an active coal mine. Things turn around shortly after kilometre 200 (mile 124) as the the trail transforms into mostly single track, elevation gains increase significantly and the views start getting grand again. Outside of fellow Great Divide Trail hikers, trekkers are unlikely to see another soul out here. This is untamed Canadian wilderness; be prepared for unbridged river crossings, steep climbs, navigational challenges, and a lot of solitude.

Section C: Peter Lougheed/Kananaskis Lakes to Field
Kilometre 339/mile 210 to kilometre 543/mile 337

Be prepared to share the wilderness with weekenders, but with good reason. Section C takes you on a tour of two of the most majestic (and popular) hikes in the Canadian Rockies—Mt Assiniboine and the Rockwall Trail. The volume of visitors also means that the trail is further developed and maintained for much of the section then elsewhere on the Great Divide Trail; you may find yourself pondering why a full boardwalk-style bridge covers a minor creek when 50 kilometres south you were wading through a thigh-high river crossing. Take advantage of the smooth trail to stretch your legs out and fly through increasingly high-elevation scenery.

Section D: Field to Saskatchewan Crossing
Kilometre 543/mile 337 to kilometre 650 /mile 403

To start Section D, Canadian history buffs will appreciate the enormity of following in the footsteps of the famous fur trader and map maker on the David Thompson Heritage Trail, which was traditionally a well-travelled path for First Nations people. What they may not appreciate is the intermittent, but heavy, bushwalking that comes along with it. The trail then bursts out into the open space of the Howse River Floodplains, where hikers travel freely without a marked trail, crossing various channels of the Howse River that weave through the flat, rocky surface. This may be the shortest section of the Great Divide Trail, but it comes with a distinctive character makes it one of the most memorable.

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Section E: Saskatchewan Crossing to Jasper
Kilometre 650/mile 403 to kilometre 839/mile 521

Get ready to climb; the peaks get higher and the views are stunning! Section E takes you up to the highest point on the Great Divide Trail, which fittingly for this elusive trail, is still unnamed. The section starts of remote and rugged, taking you up scree and snow covered slopes, then dropping you into turquoise lake filled valleys. Hikers should be ready to bushwack their way through Maligne Pass, as the trail and campsites have unfortunately been decommissioned by Parks Canada. As you inch closer to Jasper and the world famous Skyline Trail the crowds of weekenders return, as do the maintained trails.

Section F: Jasper to North Boundary Trail
Kilometre 839/mile 521 to kilometre 940/mile 584

Hikers exit Jasper with the longest road walk of the trail, 21 kilometres along Highway16. Boggy equestrian trails welcome you back into the remote wilderness, but muddy shoes are regularly cleaned with never-ending crossings of glacier-fed rivers and damp alpine meadows. Section F finishes off with the grand finale of rugged Moose Pass, a grand reward for the efforts expended. Meeting other hikers in this section is unlikely; revel in the having this remote wilderness to yourself. For hikers finishing at the original Northern Terminus this is the end, congratulations!

Section G: North Boundary Trail to Kakwa Lake
Kilometre 940/mile 584 to kilometre 1095/mile 680

The most remote section of the Great Divide Trail, Section G forces hikers put their navigational ability to use as it winds through the remote backcountry of the northern rockies. For those that reach Kakwa Lake, great work! This is a rarely visited jewel. Once hikers reach the end of the Great Divide Trail at Kakwa Lake, the adventure keeps coming. Hikers need to walk a further 28 kilometres to a forest access road, then travel an additional 73 kilometres down the access road before being deposited onto highway 16. A helicopter service is also available for a hefty price tag, but would certainly be a grand way to end an epic journey.

Navigation

Guthooks, the ubiquitous app for long trails, became available in recent years for the Great Divide Trail, providing a welcome additional navigational tool.

GPS maps are also available for download on here.

Trail Culture

This challenge of the trail attracts a particularly diverse group of adventurers, from Triple Crowners looking for a challenge to first time long distance hikers wanting to experience life off the beaten path. The pride of attempting such a unique and difficult endeavour provides a bond that crosses the boundaries.

This is not a trail hiked for the buzzing social scene, meeting other thru-hikers along the way is a less common experience then during other long trails. The trail is also still mostly unknown to many that reside or vacation in the area, leading to a relatively thin support network. Established Trail Angels or Trail Magic not something to be expected, and hikers may find that it takes longer then expected to get a hitch. However, there is an devoted crew of volunteers through the Great Divide Trail Association that work every summer to maintain the trail.

Permits

Here’s where things get complicated. There is not a single long-distance permits for the trail; potential hikers must navigate the national park permits through Parks Canada and individual permits for the three provincial parks. Many of these permits are location and date specific, requiring hikers to predict their location day by day months in advance. For some of the more popular area, dates fill up shortly after reservations open, so potential hikers should watch opening dates carefully and act quickly. For more information, visit the Great Divide Trail Associations website.

For those who attempt it, the Great Divide Trail is an enviable feat; a real test of ones ability and fortitude. It offers back to those brave souls a remote experience and rugged beauty not often available on other long trails. It’s a thru-hike in its barest state, hiker against wilderness for an incredible 680 miles.

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