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Guest Editorial
by John Fielder, Continental Divide Trail Alliance

Colorado's Longest Trail

Continental Divide Trail spans Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The Continental Divide Trail spans five states and 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico.
Graphic courtesy of CDTA.

For those of us who love the alpine and subalpine ecosystems, there can be no greater joy than hiking America's Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.  And the 759 miles that course the tops of Colorado's mountain ranges may very well be the most magnificent of the roughly 3,000 total miles from Mexico to Canada.

From the remote South San Juan, Weminuche, and La Garita wildernesses of southern Colorado to Mount Zirkel Wilderness near the Wyoming border, including many other mountain ranges in between, the Trail is an elevated one.  During the 80-mile hike in the Weminuche, I can only remember being below treeline an hour or less.  This makes for lofty and lengthy views!  Remember, trees quite growing this high.

Nestled in the alpine tundra are countless dwarf plants with names like phlox, moss campion, and forget-me-not.  Though small and delicate, they burst with color disproportionate to their size.  Lower down, their larger cousins (paintbrush, columbine, and senecio) only dream of such garish displays.  Amongst all the color scurry marmot, pika, weasel, and marten, with an occasional visit from coyote, lynx, and lion.

Yet the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is not just a haven for those who have no fear out in the open (lightning is not something to ignore).  The Colorado portion descends into old growth forests of fir and spruce, aspen, lodgepole and Ponderosa pine.  It is during these woodland respites that one can hide from rain and snow (yes, it snows twelve months a year at 12,000 feet), or savor the pungent aroma of coniferous denizens.  And the trail skirts many a meadow.  I have fond memories of campsites on the edge of the forest with views across creek and beaver fond-fed valleys of willow and grass.

Colorado's Mt. Aetna.
Mt. Aetna is a sentinel along Colorado's portion
of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
Photo by J. Fielder, courtesy of CDTA.

Forest and tundra are spaced so felicitously that, in fact, one can set up camp in either place without having to hike too far or too little on any given day.  Personally, I prefer the views, storms, outrageous atmospheric lighting, and wind of the alpine zone for camping.  I borrow my water from fresh snow melt (and rarely purify as a result), cook Ramen noodles under the stars, and sip hooch right after an evening of photography, soon to dream about photographic expectations for morning.

Though the Colorado Trail is contiguous with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail for about 200 of its 759 miles through Colorado, there is so much more.  Like the Colorado Trail, it is hikeable in summer, as well as over a lifetime in increments.  There are countless trailheads and side trails to visit and enjoy.

Traveling the Continental Divide Trail is far from being what many would consider a "secure" experience.  Nevertheless, part of the fun of being in wilderness is not being completely secure.  That is what wilderness is supposed to be:  challenging, dangerous, invigorating, awe inspiring.  I like getting a "little" lost, for it is then that I see and photograph things I might never have experienced.


John Fielder is a nationally renowned nature photographer and the author of 24 books of photography, including 19 about his adopted state of Colorado.  He is a past recipient of Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.  Fielder photographed the Colorado Divide National Scenic Trail through Colorado to illustrate Colorado's Continental Divide Trail, The Official Guide (written with Tom Jones) as well as his large-format book, Along Colorado's Continental Divide Trail (with M. John Foyhee).

Terrain.org also recommends Colorado Skies: With Selected Prose & Poetry, by John Fielder, and Where the Waters Divide: A 3,000-Mile Trek Along America's Continental Divide, by Karen Berger and Daniel Smith.

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