This was written in 2013, after finishing the trip, since this date, the trail has regained popularity and it seems like some part are now maintained.
Here is a slideshow with pictures taken from the trail, here is the full gallery : Full Gallery
The Great Divide Trail (GDT) is a hiking trail following the Canadian Rockies and the Great Divide between Alberta and British Columbia in western Canada. It begins in Waterton Lakes National Park and ends in Kakwa Provincial Park and is 1200 km long. It is said to be the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping, challenging wilderness trail on Earth. The GDT goes through five National Parks including Waterton Lakes, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper, and seven Provincial Parks including Akamina-Kishinena, Elk Lakes, Peter Lougheed, Height of the Rockies, Mount Assiniboine, Mount Robson and Kakwa. The route also passes four wilderness areas including Beehive Natural Area, Kananaskis Country, White Goat Wilderness and Willmore Wilderness Area and five forest districts including Castle, Bow/Crow, Cranbrook, Golden and Robson Valley.
The idea of a trail following the Rockies was born already in the 60s and in the 70s a few youngsters explored the area south from Banff and later started construction work of the trail. However little by little the project lost support and funding and the concept of GDT basically vanished. To this day Parks Canada hasn’t endorsed the route and since the trail isn’t officially recognized, it is not marked. Since most of the route is not maintained, it is degrading every year under the influence of vegetation, floods and erosion. Summer 2013 was especially challenging because of a storm that hit southern Alberta and swept right over us. It left us dealing with flooding rivers, washed-out trails and bridges and high water levels, mainly in the area between Coleman and Banff, making it even harder to complete the GDT for few hikers who try it every year. And since not many people do the whole hike, it means you are basically alone in the wilderness the whole time, except in the areas close to Banff and Jasper. Links : http://www.greatdividetrail.com
Our first plan was to walk 1700km, the GDT is about 1200km but we wanted to loop back to Banff and by doing that explore more of the rockies. Here is the original route that we planned to do:
The plan was to follow the GDT from Waterton to Kakwa with tow resupplies along the way, one in Banff and the other one in Jasper. The third resupply would happen in Grande Cache, located about 150 km from Kakwa. At this point our total hiking distance would be 1350km. To continue the hike we would go back south to Jasper and finally Banff following a different route through the park. After finishing the hike in Banff the total distance would be about 1700 km.
The hike went pretty much as planned until Grande Cache and we arrived there feeling already like winners. Unfortunately my partner developed a serious infection while arriving in Grande Cache which forced us to stop there. Our route, finishing in Grande Cache was a pretty nice addition to the original route of the GDT, the way back down would have been amazing but well another time.
Here you see our actual route:
Waterton - Banff - Jasper - Kakwa Provincial Park - Grande Cache, total distance : 1350 km.
We were really happy about our route of choice. The traditionnal route finishes in Mount Robson Provincial Park, which is not the best in our opinion. Areas after Mt. Robson were the most beautiful ones along the whole hike, though they were also the most challenging ones. You go through some nasty swamps and spend lots of time trying to find trails that usually don't even exist. The good thing is that you forget all those difficulties as soon as you reach the passes which are amazing. We also really enjoyed the remoteness of these areas: we didn't see anyone in 11 days! So we seriously advise everyone with good navigation skills to explore Willmore Willderness Area and Kakwa Provincial Park. However following the GDT there means facing resupplying issues, since it is not possible before Grande Cache.
Statistics about our Great Divide Trail
First part : Waterton - Banff It took us 14 days to cover the 500 km between Waterton Lakes National Park and Banff National Park. During this travel we climbed about 19 000 m. We started with 15 days of food in our bags which meant carrying about 10 kg per person. Our backpacks weighted around 6 kg without food or water.
Second part : Banff - Jasper This leg was 450 km long and it took us 12 days to cover the distance. The elevation gain was around 14 000 m. The highest point of this part, and also the whole hike, was at 1590 m just before Pinto Lake.
Last part : Jasper - Grande Cache It took us 11 days to cover the 400 km between Jasper and Grande Cache. We crossed the Jackpine River about 40 times in one day which is our record. The elevation gain was about 10 500 m. We didn't count the number of hours spent in bushwhacking and swamp-walking but saying "a lot" would be downplaying it.
Our daily average was about 36 km per day and our longest day was 53 km. The shortest was 12 km after a resupply. We ate a bit more than 12 kg of peanuts and about the same amount of chocolate during our hike.
When planning the trip, we decided to not take the official book for the trail, named : "Hiking Canada's Great Divide Trail" book written by Dustin Lynx, this book describe the route really accurately. We wanted to rely only on maps and test our orientation skills so we didn't bring it. In this section we will point out a few of the spots that were the most difficult orientation wise for use.
Waterton - Coleman
We started mid-June which is a bit early, Waterton National Park was still covered with snow so that slowed us down a little. Beginning of July should be slightly better, the navigation is quit easy from Waterton to Twin Lakes Campsite. We had lot of snow mid-June at the beginning but the navigation is easy from Waterton to the Twin Lakes campsite. We went up to the Sage Pass and continued along the ridge without trail until the south of Mount Matkin. The lack of trail isn't a big deal since the area is quit open. At that point you need to be careful to not go down too much, there are some trails but not always going the right way. The route then climb La Coulotte Ridge which is really easy to follow until La Coulotte Peak. At that point we choose to go North by the ridges, from what we have seen there is no trail but it might have been under the snow. This part is really easy as you follow the ridge all the way. We had some trouble at that point, we didn't find the way to go through the steep and rocky part of Burnaby ridge so we ended up going down some steep scree to the road which was challenging. Here is a link to the area's topo (Topo map). After some time on the road we found a path to our left which ended up being a dead end so we bushwhacked to find a large tractor trail. For this part it might be useful to check more in details the book or maps. This area is used mostly by ATV so you might be able to find some up to date maps ( Topo Map ). Once on the large trail there is no problem for about 11.5km until Carbondale river. This area is a bit complicated : there are quit a few forestry roads ( Topo Map ). There is a real road if you continue straight on the dirt road, you would then reach Ohagen Road and follow it on the left. Once in the valley follow the road, pass the campground and continue along the road, after that you want to find a dirt road on the left just after a bridge that head north and then north-west for about 3km. After that you are looking for forestry road/large trail that head north and up a hill towards willoughby ridge. There is at least one other trail that goes up and north just before the good one so you might want to double check with map or GPS that it is the good one. The ridge is pretty easy to follow, it's about 15km between the two roads. You might want to double check the part just before reaching the road as there are a few different road that can be disturbing. There are many different way to reach the road, and many different dirt road that leaves the road, and leads or not to Coleman so it's good to check, decide and map the area beforehand to avoid to loose a lot of time there. Our problem there was that we didn't know where we reached the road so we had a hard time finding our way (Here is the confusing area : Topo Map ).
Coleman - Elk Lakes provincial park
Once in Coleman everything is pretty straight forward for a while. We were hit by a huge storm just after Coleman so part of trails and bridges were washed out. The 30 first kilometers after Coleman are easy to find and follow, There are some tricky crossroads but manageable with a map, and the small map we had was enough to not get lost so no problem. It was like that until the North Fork pass, easy to follow and to pass, the way is pretty straight forward until Tornado pass. We didn't find any trail as we were on the snow between Tornado pass and Tornado Mountain but it's pretty easy to find. We bushwacked after Tornado Mountain almost until Hidden Creek but we then found a large trail. At that point the trail is marked, it is actually the only part of the whole GDT marked as GDT. It's probably the most maintained part of the trail too. Until Fording river pass the trail is pretty easy to follow, you might want to check if the bridge have been rebuilt in the area since after the storm every single bridge were washed out which could lead to pretty hard river crossing. After Fording river pass the trail goes left, it hasn't been maintained for a while and bushes are invading the area. It is pretty fast to go down until the river, then the trail follow it for a while until passing the weary ridge, then it turns right and join a large dirt road. From that point until Elk Lakes provincial park it's problem free. The way down has been heavily damaged by the storm so you should check with Peter Lougheed park and Elk Lakes to see if it has been fixed.
Elk Lakes PP - Banff
For Peter Lougheed you might want to make sure that the bridge that was washed out during the storm has been repaired as it is nearly impossible to cross the Kananaskis river without this bridge. From there to the North Kananaskis pass the trail is pretty easy to find/follow. After the pass there is a trail, we had some trouble to find it at the end of the scree but it's there and freshly maintained. A trail is present too along Palisser river even though we didn't really see the jonction and had to bushwack a bit after crossing the river to find it. From the Palisser pass we had some issue finding the trail probably because nobody really hike there and as well because all the valley was flooded. We just walked at the the bottom of the valley the whole time, we found the trail on the right part of the valley and finally found a trail around Birdwood campground. Then it was easy to follow, this part is not really well maintained but some signs are still up, be ready to encounter some hard river crossing if Banff National Park didn't fix the bridges washed away during the storm. Apart from the bridge problem the trail is good until and pass the Bryant creek (fortunately this major bridge is still intact). Then we had no problem until Marvel lake. We didn't find a real trail to the wonder pass but well you just have to climb straight. From wonder pass to Banff absolutely no problem.
Banff - Field
No Problem from Banff to Kootenay. There we had so much snow that it's nearly impossible to tell if trails are good but even without trail the way is pretty obvious. From there until Field there is no problem. The trail is actually the railway before Field, we didn't find the trail to cross the river, apparently the GDT take the natural bridge over the river (we didn't know that so we followed the road). Study map or enter the coordinates of the turn so you don't have to go around by the road.
Field - Saskatchewan Crossing
From the natural bridge to Otto Creek the way is straight forward. From that point the old road gets a bit bushy until it totally disapear. We first had some trouble to find a good place to cross the powerful river, it took us few hours to bushwack along in order to find an easy crossing. Then we weren't able to find the trail, it may be because we didn't find it or because it doesn't exist. A GPS or the book might have helped.(This area gave us some problem) (Topo Map). We found it back near Amiskwi pass, there the narrow trail join a large dirt road that you follow for about 27km until the bottom of Doubt Hill. There the dirt road stop and a narrow and rarely used trail take over. This trail follow closely the river so it was totally under the water for us. You might have more luck, this part is maitained by a small group of people, you can try to check with them to see if it has been cleared recently. It took us a long time to go over this section as we had to bushshwack in a really dense forest most of the time until Howse Pass. From there and for 3km it was good until we turn to the right. This part was a nigthmare for us, all the trees were on the ground, we were able to follow a trail but we had to climb or crawl under trees every 5 meters. It tooks us forever to cover the 15km before the turn to Glacier Lake. To access Glacier Lake you need to cross the Howse river which is apparently rarely possible, it's a wide river with strong stream and muddy bottom. We continued until mistaya river but were blocked by the strong stream so we bushwack until the Mistaya Canyon crossed by a bridge. It might be possible to cross the river at other time but for us it was impossible.
Saskatchewan crossing - Jasper
The trail follow Owen creek, it is a pretty good trail at first with some nice camping areas at the beginning. After 5.6km from the road we kind of lost the trail, we followed something that lead us on the wrong side so we bushwacked up until we found it again, you might want to stay close to the river. Then it's pretty straight forward until Pinto Lake. From Pinto Lake to Cataract pass we had many trails issues, we didn't find any trail leaving Pinto lake so we bushwacked and followed some wildlife tracks for a while.(We didn't find any real trail there :Topo Map) Then we crossed Cataract river and found some primitive trail that we kept loosing all the way up to the pass. The left turn to the pass can be easy to miss. At that point you are in alpine area so no trail needed. Once you reach Jasper national Park, there is a trail until Jasper, a nice, fast and easy trail, even in the part that is not supposed to be maintained anymore.
Jasper - Kakwa
Well this part is a bit more challenging, from the trailhead to Miette lake be ready for really wet conditions and some hide and seek with the trail. There is one but it hasn't been maintained for a while so it's sometimes pretty hard to find. Just before the Miette Lake there is a huge swamp if you don't have GPS just follow the river until you see the lake as the trail can be pretty hard to find in this area. After the campground (that we didn't find) the route finding game continue, sometime you find a piece of trail but most of the time you follow your own. It's not a big deal as the vegetation is low and easy to go through in this area. After Centre Pass there is a trail and a good one while you go down, it's pretty easy to follow until Colonel pass. From Colonel pass to Moose river there is a trail but all the last 4km are through a burnt area which is pretty slow to go through. We chose to follow the Moose river from the west side, there is sometimes a trail but most of the time you have the choice between crossing dense forest or knee deep swamps. We took the swamps Topo Map. After maybe five kilometers, we found a trail that was almost possible to follow but a lot of river crossing are involved. After the moose pass it's straight forward until Chown Creek Campground. At this point you get into the serious route finding game, along the river there is not much of a trail, then going up to Bess pass there is a trail. At the pass pay attention as the trail look like a moose trail climbing really steeply to the right. After that it's pretty straight forward until Jackpine Pass. Then along the Jackpine river it gets really hard, lot of bushes, no trail, and many swamps crossing. We never found a reliable trail and were constantly bushwacking. Depending on water level, plan to be on the good side of the river towards the end to avoid nasty river crossing, the West side of the river was slightly better for us (Topo Map). We lost the tiny trail that we had just before Meadowland Creek and its burnt area. There is some human activity signs and some confusing marker on some trees but they lead nowhere. So we bushwacked up and found a trail while going up. Then there was a trail going down towards Beaverdam Creek. Until Morkill pass there is some route finding challenge but nothing too hard especially if you have a GPS, we lost the trail at the top of Big Shale Hill and down beside Shale pass but we found it back quite easily. Then we had a trail or a route to follow until Casket pass but couldn't find anything going around Casket mountain, some trails were there but we lost them. We had a hard time finding our way to the forest part before Surprise Pass but there is a trail, the logging activity in this area made it challenging to follow the right direction. Until Cecilia lake it is quite easy to follow the trail, there are some difficulties towards the end but not a big deal.Then there is a trail until Kakwa pass, after that some swamps makes it harder to find a way but there is always a trail to find.
Kakwa - Grande Cache
This isn't a part of the official trail but since we did it we might as well give some trails updates : We walked around Cecilia Lake by the west side until the lake's north point, then turned east in order to reach the Côté Creek valley (The challenging part between Cecilia Lake and Sheep Creek : Topo Map). First we tried to follow the valley by hiking in the forest next to it but that proved to be too long and painful process. We ended up walking in the swampy valley without any trails until Sheep Creek. After that the trail is in really good condition. Crossing the Sheep Creek and Muddywater Creek can be challenging if the water level is high. We had to walk quite a while to find a spot to cross. Other than that the way to Grande Cache is pretty straight forward and gets wider and cleaner as you get closer to town.