Last weekend marked the four week mark until I embark on thru hike of the Great Divide Trail (GDT)
Like so many segments of society, COVID has thrown the thru-hiker community a nasty curveball. In March, parks and other private lands began to close and/or restrict access. I have nothing but empathy for the many folks whose plans to complete the AT, PCT or CDT went from “living the dream” making arrangements to get off trail. Months of planning, training and preparation have hopefully only been delayed.
Due to its northerly location, the GDT doesn’t generally become accessible until late June (particularly in high snow years like this year). Those leaving sooner often encounter hundreds of miles of snow, mud and the risk of late season avalanches. At only (700 miles) most folks complete it in 6-12 weeks. While I watched these development with concern, I took solace in the fact that my trip was still months away. I chose to be optimistic and continue with planning and preparation.
Planning for the Great Divide
Last fall (in no small part due to the inspirational stories on the Trek and Backpacker Radio), I decided I was going to hike the GDT in 2020. Thanks to the incredible support of my family and work, I was able to arrange to take the summer off.
January began with the mad rush for permits in the Canadian National Parks. Yet as COVID began to rear its ugly head, I began to hear of increasing demand for freeze dried meals. Mountain House stopped taking orders and Costco was starting to sell out (nothing like three cheese mac to see you through the apocalypse). I decided it was time to get my food orders in, and thanks to the rapid turnaround by the folks at Packit Gourmet, I crossed the US border into Montana to grab my package just hours before it closed.
For much of March, April and May my family stayed at home. My work transitioned to a seemly endless sequence of Zoom calls. I began packing my supply boxes and dialing in the last of my gear selections. As the snow melted and word outside began to green up, I kept a close eye on first the growing COVID numbers in Alberta and then the thankful decline. Starting in early May Federal and Provincial governments began to publish plans on how Canada would start to re-open.
Where things stand today
- The Great Divide Trail association is asking folks who are hiking the trail to be self sufficient and avoid re-supplying in small towns that may not have the capacity to manage an outbreak
- Alberta Provincial Parks are open for day use and camping (at 50% capacity). Like many jurisdictions, reservations can only be made by Alberta residents. For GDT hikers, this affects camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. If necessary, the park can be covered in a single day (starting at Elk Lakes and ending in Height of the Rockies).
- BC Provincial Parks (in most cases) are open for day use and camping will be re-opening through June. While reservations were initially limited to B.C. residents, exceptions have been made for Mount Assiniboine (as most access is through Alberta). Elk Lakes, Height of the Rockies, and Kakwa Provincial Park will also be open for non-BC residents (note: the ACC Cabin in Elk Lakes and the BC Parks Cabin at Kakwa will likely remain closed for the summer)
- The National Parks remain question mark. While day use has re-opened, camping is yet to be determined. As of now, we only know that camping will not re-open until after June 21st. For GDT hikers, this means potentially having to start the trail north of Waterton Lakes National Park making use of the same detour in 2018 when the park was closed due to damage from the Kenow fire.
- Regardless of the National Parks date to re-open camping, we do know that the Akamina Parkway will be closed this summer for repairs. This closure currently includes sections of the Alderson-Carthew Trail, the Tamerack Trail and the Akamina Pass Trail. For GDT hikers, this means you will not be able to access the Mt Rowe Alternate and will need to detour past Crandell Lake and hike the Red Rock Parkway. Options to rejoin the GDT are via the Blakiston Creek or Snowshoe Trail.
- Accommodations along the GDT have begun to share their re-opening plans. A Safe Haven B&B in Coleman will still welcome hikers, The Crossing Resort will be opening on June 4th, and hotels in Jasper and Banff are starting to re-open.
- For folks outside of Canada, the border this will be the biggest barrier to hiking the GDT this year. All non-essential travel (which includes tourism and recreation) into Canada remains restricted. You will likely be turned back if you are trying to enter the country to hike the GDT. Any international arrivals are also required to self-isolate for 14-days (hiking the trail doesn’t count)
Right now things are looking positive for folks in Alberta and BC to hike the GDT this summer. Regardless it will make for a unique experience this summer, with flexibility the word of the day