Following Decade-Old Tire Tracks: Kurt Refsnider Sets Out On the Continental Divide Trail

As you read this, the last remaining dots on the 2023 Tour Divide are probably still trickling towards its southern terminus. Meanwhile, Kurt Refsnider is gearing up for a parallel but far more ambitious adventure of his own. An adventure that only three other humans have ever completed on bicycles. The Continental Divide Trail, like the Tour Divide route, runs from Canada to Mexico and tracks along the Continental Divide. But unlike the Tour Divide, the CDT is almost entirely singletrack.

This article will be the first of many that Kurt will be sharing about his ponderous trek. He starts by outlining the route, telling us where the idea came from, and detailing the years of planning that got him ready to take the plunge. Stay tuned. We definitely will.

On a weathered post in the lush tundra along the faint path, a small wooden sign read “CDT.” It was a warm late spring afternoon above tree line, and I vividly remember turning off a chunky 4×4 track and onto this new-to-me trail, despite it being nearly 15 years ago. I was out on a long ride preparing to race the length of the Great Divide MTB Route (GDMBR), and the east side of the peaks high above Boulder were finally snow-free. I hadn’t really expected this trail—just a thin dotted line on my map—to actually exist. But here it was, and it was apparently part of something more substantial. I snapped a murky photo of the sign with the camera on my cheap flip phone and continued on, bouncing down some stone steps that were lined with white flowers.

CDT. What exactly was this “CDT” of which I had never heard? I read up on this apparent hiking route when I got home – the Continental Divide Trail, a mostly-trail route from Canada to Mexico following the actual Continental Divide as closely as possible (see the map of the CDT and GDMBR below if you’re curious about the exact alignments). From what I could tell, many sections of it were closed to bikes, but many weren’t.

A wave of self-doubt hit me — why was I about to race Tour Divide on dirt roads when there was a trail that followed the exact same corridor? I ordered a CD-ROM map set for the CDT from a fellow named Jonathan Ley and poured over it when it arrived. Those topo maps revealed just how remarkably rugged (and truly amazing-looking) the route was as it traced the Divide along the spine of the continent – long sections atop mountain ranges, ridiculously steep plunges and ascents, and very few opportunities on route for resupply. I tucked the CD-ROM back into its case and my CDT pedaling ambitions into the back of my mind for another summer.

The CDT is one of eleven Congressionally-designated National Scenic Trails in the U.S. and one of only three that traverse the country from north to south. The far more popular Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails are the other two, and bikes are prohibited on both. The 3,100-mile-long CDT was officially designated in 1978 for foot and equestrian travel. In the subsequent decades, existing trails have been linked together, and new trail connections have been built to move the route off dirt roads.

As with so many long trails, it’s a never-ending process to create the best possible experience for users while also working to protect the trail corridor from external threats, and from the users themselves. It’s a process led here by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. Today, nearly 70% of the current CDT miles are open to bike travel outside of Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas, National Parks, and a few other scenarios.

In 2014, I followed along with awe and envy as my friends Scott Morris and Eszter Horanyi pedaled and pushed their bikes from Mexico to Canada on the CDT, bypassing sections closed to bikes on a massive adventure dubbed “CDT Bike.” After roughly four months on the trail, they reached the border monument at the northern terminus just as the fast-approaching winter did the same.

The pair was absolutely exhausted from the effort it took to complete the first through-ride of the trail, and I’ve drawn more inspiration from that ride than probably any other bike adventure I’ve followed. Remarkably, in the subsequent decade, Aaron Weinsheimer is the only other person to have through-ridden the CDT Bike route. Coincidentally, Aaron is currently out hiking the CDT. Dylan Kentsch also rode long sections of the route on a summer-long cross-country ride.

I’ve felt a magnetic pull toward the CDT over the course of that same decade. Big backcountry day rides and multi-day trips, including some during snowy winter months, have incorporated hundreds of miles of the trail in Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico. I’ve ridden the Colorado Trail a few times, long stretches of which run coincident with the CDT. Each of those rides only added to my desire to someday attempt to through-ride the full trail, but those rides also made me even more apprehensive of how difficult that would be. Recognizing the inevitability of a CDT ride, I’ve also dedicated a fair bit of energy to mapping out and scouting some Wilderness bypasses that work in other enticing trails. That process has just further added to the desire and apprehension.

It’s taken nearly 15 years, but my time to ride the CDT has finally come, and I couldn’t be more excited or nervous about the endeavor. I’m eternally grateful to have the opportunity to carve out a few months for such a lofty feat, and for the opportunity to incorporate a trail assessment project for the CDT Coalition and Bikepacking Roots.

Starting at the Canadian border, I’m hoping to be able to average 40 miles per day. Yes, that’s how demanding much of the trail is – let the accompanying photo gallery from past rides on the trail illustrate both its beauty and challenge. I’m eager for long days moving slowly in big mountains, for linking together familiar places via the unfamiliar, for all the transitions in landscapes, and for the evolution of the seasons. The only sense of urgency, aside from the inevitable emergency of running low on snacks, will be the eventual arrival of winter to New Mexico’s high country.

Montana and Idaho come first with a thousand miles and a whopping 130,000 feet of climbing. I’ll link together a sequence of the rugged trails along the Rocky Mountain Front and some miles on the edge of the Great Plains to bypass the Bob Marshall Wilderness before hopping onto the actual Continental Divide on the ridgelines above Helena and Butte. The daunting 200-mile stretch of tough trail along the crest of the Beaverhead Mountains follows, and has me more nervous than any other section. Then I’ll head into the comfortingly familiar Centennial Mountains and the world-class trails of the Lionhead Backcountry Area before veering south to avoid Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Range, a long section of the CDT that is almost entirely closed to bikes. Instead, I’ll divert to Teton Valley, pause for some recovery, and then continue into the stunning terrain and very challenging trails of the Snake River and Wyoming Ranges. After that, the gloriously sprawling Great Divide Basin lies in wait.

Stay tuned right here on The Radavist for a few dispatches from the trail over the coming months. If you’d like, you can follow my dot over on Trackleaders as it slowly migrates south, and I’ll also share some quick updates along the way on Instagram.