One month in, 1,000 miles ridden and with Montana in the rearview, Kurt Refsnider shares stories from his progress so far riding the entirety of the Continental Divide Trail. As Kurt tells it, it’s been slow going but he hasn’t yet once questioned his desire to take on this monumental backcountry route.
“Oh, it doesn’t. It’s in that valley down there,” I replied, motioning toward the green meadows a few thousand feet below the rocky singletrack we were both following.
“What are you riding then?” she replied, looking mildly perplexed as she took a closer look at my bike and bags.
“The CDT,” I answered, pulling a few cookies out of my frame bag. I could see the wheels in her head turning.
“Wait, you’re biking the CDT?” There was a pause as her eyes lit up. “To Mexico? That’s badass! Are you serious?” Most of the southbound hikers I’ve chatted with hadn’t yet encountered a single cyclist on the trail, but they almost all had been excited to learn that I was riding the full thing.
We chatted for a couple minutes, the conversation and questions mirroring that of ones I’d had with a few dozen other thru-hikers over the past few weeks: what our daily mileage tended to be, remarks about the bugs, and exclamations about the beauty of the Continental Divide. As we both finished our snacks, we wished each other happy trails, and I bounced off down the rough track as the rhythmic click-clack of her trekking poles resumed. Before long, I was off my bike and pushing it up a steep section of trail, steep enough that my helmet was level with my handlebars. I could hear the hiker’s poles behind, but the sound quickly faded as I coasted away over the top of the rise, picking my way through rocks, awkward water bars, and sharp switchbacks.
It’s rare to find a fast section of trail out here on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), but there are so many sections that bring a grin to my face and keep the excitement high: techy climbs and challenging descents in the shadow of towering cliffs, rolling sagebrush-covered ridges, and meadows absolutely packed full of wildflowers. I’m now roughly a third of the way through my adventure, having covered around 1,000 miles with 125,000 feet of climbing as I made my way south through Montana over the course of the past month. Forty-five miles per day is a good average on this trail for me. That’s not even twice what most thru-hikers are covering, and I’m usually moving for 10+ hours. It’s a tough trail on a bike to say the least – I’d equate average miles of the CDT in Montana to the toughest miles of the Colorado or Arizona Trails.
My journey began at the Canadian border on the east side of Glacier National Park. I followed quiet pavement and dirt across the Flathead Reservation and joined the CDT proper at Marias Pass where the trail exited the Park and becomes open to bikes. I was elated to pass that first official CDT sign at a trailhead, and very quickly, the reality of the trip set in as I pedaled along at hiking speed on a very overgrown track, littered with scattered deadfall and ablaze with wildflowers beneath colorful crumbling peaks. I had planned out the three-month trip around 40-mile days, and it was already feeling like that might have been an ambitious goalpost. By early afternoon, I turned off the CDT near where it headed into the Bob Marshal Wilderness Complex, a million-acre area closed to bikes. My route instead linked together trails along the Rocky Mountain Front, a magnificent region where the rolling mixed-grass prairie of the High Plains collides with imposing limestone cliff bands that rise several thousand feet and extend for more than a hundred miles.
The limestone layers here became bent, broken, and stacked upon themselves during the Sevier Orogeny, the mountain-building episode that built large swaths of the modern Rockies in Montana, Idaho, and Utah. I followed seldom-traveled trails down the linear valleys between those cliffs and through the deep notches carved by rivers as they work their way east toward the plains. Bears and elk seemed to be the primary trail users here, deadfall was extensive, and I was pretty dang happy when the trails I followed had any sort of obvious loamy tread. It was slow going, and I didn’t encounter another soul on these trails for several days.
I traversed the Badger-Two Medicine, the area from which the Blackfeet people come according to their beliefs. The protection of this remote and roadless area, threatened by oil drilling, has led to a decades-long struggle around the nexus of federal mineral leases, treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, the colonial values of conservation groups, and the Land Back movement. I had dug into the history of this conflict a bit thanks to the encouragement of a friend who lives in East Glacier, and all this provided a valuable backdrop for reflection at the beginning of a trip like this.
A few days later, I went looking for an old Forest boundary monument that was marked on old USGS topo quads, a metal post in the ground with a cap stamped with “U.S. Forest Reserve Boundary Post. 1904 Reserve.” The Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve was one of many created by presidential proclamation during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, lands that today remain within the public domain and are managed with minimal (or absolutely no) engagement with the tribes whose lands these are. Ongoing discussions between the Forest Service and the Blackfeet Tribe about co-management of the Badger-Two Medicine could yield another example for the future management of these federally-managed lands that many of us cherish and rely on in so many ways.
South of the Badger-Two Medicine, I made a few forays out on to the plains to bypass private land and Wilderness. These offered respite from the exhausting singletrack, and I was shocked at the beauty of the lush green rolling terrain. With its paucity of development and ranches, this area feels nothing like the much more developed western edge of the Great Plains in Colorado and New Mexico. Extensive swaths of land along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front are owned by old hunting organizations like the Boone and Crocket Club, and many collaborative large-landscape conservation efforts are ongoing in this region. Despite strong winds and oppressive temperatures, I pedaled with an enamor that kept me pleasantly distracted.
But the four-day-long Wilderness bypass around the Bob wore me out. My legs were empty, my arms ached from the steep hiking, my back was sore from the even steeper bike-on-the-back climbs and hefting my rig over hundreds of downed trees. An evening of scrambling up a 200-foot-tall cliff band several times with the pieces of my disassembled bike only further exhausted me. These were hard miles on trails that turned out to sometimes vanish entirely on the ground. But by the end of the first week, I finally returned to the CDT proper. At dusk atop a treeless ridge, I turned left onto the comparatively buff and well-traveled track at the end of my long Wilderness bypass and let out a few excited hoots and hollers. Ironically, I knew that the next few weeks of riding a long stretch of mostly bike-legal CDT (i.e., with just a few rather shorter Wilderness bypasses) had to be easier than what I had just done. There was no way it could continue to be that hard, right?
Fortunately, things did get easier after I joined the CDT. That’s by no means saying that the CDT through the rest of Montana has been remotely easy, but it’s at least a well-established backcountry trail that sees some regular traffic. It’s got absolutely delightful sections, remarkably difficult-to-ride sections, bits of two-track that are often far more rugged and unrideable than any of the singletrack, and of course, ample bike pushing. It’s legitimate mountain biking on backcountry hiking trail at its finest, and I haven’t once questioned my decision to try to ride the full length of the CDT – it’s the biggest adventure challenge I’ve ever undertaken, and so far, the fun quotient has been on par with the scale of the challenge.
I also have to express my gratitude to all the dedicated individuals who clear thousands and thousands of downed trees from the CDT every year – folks like Corey Biggers and the volunteer crew he and the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association rally, riders like Tracy and Andy who I encountered on the trail north of Butte with chainsaws sticking out of their backpacks heading out to clear a section of their local trail, sawyer crews from the USFS and Montana Conservation Experience, and everyone else. Their collective work to clear at least some of the downfall each summer is absolutely critical to keeping a trail like the CDT reasonably passable.
Next up is the rest of my long bypass around Yellowstone National Park and the closed-to-bikes Wilderness areas of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. I’ll follow familiar and yet still daunting trails through the Palisades and the Wyoming Range before turning east to rejoin the CDT near South Pass. From there, I eagerly await the wide-open country of the sprawling Great Divide Basin, a landscape through which I always relish riding. I think those miles are going to offer some respite from the rigors of Montana, but I’ve quickly learned to never expect CDT miles to be anything but tough.
If you’re curious about the gear Kurt is carrying, head on over to the Revelate Designs blog for a detailed look. And if you want to learn more about the backstory to this trip or see a gallery with photos of Kurt’s bike, see part 1 of his CDT Reportage series here on The Radavist.