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Ok Kelly, I’ve figured out all of my permits, I know where I need them, when I need to book and where I need to go, but, what are all these “alternates” you keep mentioning?
As I described in my first post, the Great Divide Trail (GDT) is very much a “choose your own adventure” kind of trail. While in many places there is a single route for the trail, there are many alternatives to choose from along the way. Some take you to entry and exit points, others to resupply points off the main trail, others offer more challenging options, or less exposed places when weather is bad. It’s important to understand the route and the pros and cons of the various options as you plan your itinerary. Unlike the PCT or AT it’s harder to “wing” the GDT.
Over the next few posts I’ll be covering the trail itself and the various routes and alternates as it winds its way from Montana to Kakwa. The first thing you’ll need to know is that trail is divided into seven sections, labeled A-G running from south to north. We’ll start with section A and work our way north. For more details on any of these sections, I recommend picking up Dustin Lynx’s great book Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail . Section A starts on the US-Canadian border and runs north to Alberta highway 3 and the hamlet of Coleman.
STARTING SECTION A OF THE GREAT DIVIDE TRAIL
Starting at Boundary Bay on the Montana border, the trail heads through Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. Due to the 2017 Kenow fires, there have been several re-routes around closed areas. As of December 2019, most of the park has reopened, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the latest conditions and development. To get to the start, some folks will hike from the Waterton townsite (and back) or take the boat to the US side and hike from there. If you plan to do this, you will need a passport or suitable ID and check in with both US and Canadian customs.
THE GDT THROUGH WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK
From Boundary Bay, the trail heads north to the Waterton townsite. The town has full services for lodging and resupply. From there it’s up to Alderson Lake and back down to Cameron Lake. While there is an alternate trail that hugs the border, it is not maintained, and from last report is extremely overgrown. Once you reach Cameron Lake, you’ll have two options. The main route remains in Waterton NP and follows the popular Tamarack Trail, while the Mount Rowe alternate follows an unmaintained route on the British Columbia side of the divide. Normally this route is used by folks who are unable to secure permits for the Tamarack trail or who prefer the option of random camping.
TOWARD THE CASTLE MOUNTAIN SKI RESORT
The two routes converge at Sage Pass, leaving Waterton behind and entering Castle Wildland Provincial Park. Here the trail follows the divide fairly closely, with an entry/exit point at Font Creek. The next major split occurs at La Coulotte Peak where the Barnaby Ridge Alternate splits off. I hear that the ridge can be spectacular, but it does have some exposure. There is some class 3 scrambling on this section, and it’s not recommended in poor weather. In 2019 some additional work was done on the alternative to route the trail around the hairiest terrain and add flagging. This alternate bypasses the Castle Mountain Ski Resort, which can be reached along the main route. Some use the ski resort as a place to mail resupply boxes and there is a restaurant, but no store to buy supplies.
ON TO COALMAN
From here, the trail is about 22 miles (35km) of old forestry roads, OHV tracks, and seismic lines. In some places the trail can be confusing and not well signed. You’ll want your maps and GPS to help get through this section. At kilometer 129.7, the trail branches with the main route heading to the small hamlet of Coalman on Alberta highway 3. Coleman was a boomtown in the first half of the 20th century, but doesn’t have a lot of services today. If you have time, I strongly recommend taking in the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre about six miles (nine km) east. The alternate route takes you down a road to the larger town of Blairmore. Here you can find a grocery store for resupply. From Blairmore it’s a 2.5 mile (four km) walk to Coalman and the start of section B.