Helena and Deerlodge National Forests


The general route of the Continental Divide Trail through Montana and Idaho.

The thought of getting to town with all the restaurants closed was just too painful to fathom. Rather than try to hitch a ride on the highway at 8pm, I laid out my sleeping bag in a bush to get out of the wind and hoped no animals would harass me. None of the windbent, scrawny trees were ideal for a food hang, so I just hung my smellables from a branch and hoped for the best (no bears got past my shitty bear hang, success!).


Smoke from the fire near Lincoln.

The smoke had cleared up dramatically from the previous night and the wind had quieted. It was peaceful in the early morning as I worked my way down a series of switchbacks in the green tunnel to highway 200, my first paved road in eight days.

Seeing the cars whizz past at 70mph was a bit of a culture shock, and my heart was pounding as I stood by the asphalt with my thumb out. Best road to town, but a hard hitch, my guidebook advised. Hitching is kind of nerve wracking the first time, but after doing it a couple of times on a hike I think nothing of it. Statistically, I’m way more likely to get hit by a car than have an issue with a hitch.


After 35 minutes of standing by the highway I’m in the car of a retired geologist, whizzing down the highway 18 miles to Lincoln.


High on the divide.

Where East Glacier was touristy, Lincoln is redneck. And I mean that in the best way possible. Redneck beats touristy any day of the week. $8 gets you camping, wifi, and a hot shower at the RV park, and I get to journey to the trailer park for the town’s only laundromat.


“I OWN THIS PLACE AND IF YOU DON’T WANNA BE HOMELESS TONIGHT YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR CAT AWAY FROM HIM!” Trailer park entertainment came free with the laundromat, where I think if I touched anything I’d probably get tetanus.

I’d planned on leaving town early after a restful night in the quiet campground, but it’s not until noon when I hitch a ride back to Rogers Pass and the divide. I’m still able to do 17 miles by 7:40pm.


View from the trail.

It’s hot and dry on the continental divide above the treeline, but even in the green tunnel of the forest the trail has got its own special charm. It’s peaceful, and I’ll see at most one other person a day. The constant solitude and prospect of not seeing anybody for days on end was a little discomforting before getting on trail, but it’s now my favorite aspect of the CDT. I hate everyone ❤️


Water cache laid out for hikers.


Some road walking.

Once again I find myself standing by the highway early in the morning, pack on the ground and thumb out as cars zoom past me. Hitching already feels pretty natural at this point in my hike.


Not shown: how goddamn hot it is.

Basically my life right now is walking a marathon a day, trying not to get lost, sleeping in the dirt, and hitchhiking to and from small mountain towns. I’m fine with that.

After 25 minutes a car pulls over. Gonna give me a ride or…oh shit, government license plates. Wondering if I’m about to get ticketed for soliciting a ride, I walk up to the car.

“Heading to Helena? Hop in!” the federal prosecutor calls out, and I oblige.

“You’re on the right track. I used my 20s to do stuff like this, though I sailed the Pacific and rafted the Colorado rather than hike across the country,” he told me. “I went to law school in my 30s, and I have no regrets about taking time to do the things I wanted.” He then insisted on getting me a coffee before he headed over to the courthouse and dropped me off downtown. This was a nicer welcome than all the people who think I’m homeless and avert their eyes. Montanans are so friendly!

I head to the cafe my guidebook recommended to get a smoothie and wifi.

“You hiking the CDT?” another patron asks. I chat with him and his friend about the hike, and he gives me his number.

“If you want a ride back to the trail, just call me and my wife or I will take you back up,” he adds. No need to stand by the side of the highway and hitch!


In Helena I ran into Murphy and Movin’ On, two of the people I did the Bob Marshall Wilderness with.

Helena is spread out and, I think, the largest town I’ll visit on trail at 31k inhabitants. But it’s surprisingly pleasant, with pedestrian areas and lots of hipster cafes.

It’d be even better if there were a hostel or campground, but I’m not interested in getting a motel room so I call up the cafe dude and get whisked back to the CDT.


Back on trail! 


Glad this was here, definitely thought I was on the Appalachian Trail. Not sure why they put this in the middle of the woods far from the road. 

Somewhere in a jungle gym of blowdowns I get off trail and have to spend 20 minutes bushwacking back on. I take a wrong turn an hour later, getting my flashlight out since it’s now dark. I’d like to just camp, but I’m almost out of water and need to get to the stream just a mile away.


More road walks. 

Walking the dirt roads, I get the feeling that I’m being watched. I hear a branch break along with something moving about 100 yards or so behind me. I stop, and whatever is out there stops too. I walk some more and it picks back up, stopping when I do.

This happened once before, back in northern California on a stretch of trail with lots of reports of getting stalked by cougars. I take a deep breath, yell a lot, and just keep going. I set up my tent, hang my bear bag, and get to sleep by 11pm.


Morning on trail. 


Not as dramatic as Glacier, but still quite nice. 

It’s hard waking up the next morning after going to bed so late, but I’ve gotta make the miles so I don’t run out of food.

This section involves a lot of forest walking, which would be fine if it weren’t so goddamn hot and dry. The waterless stretches are up to 20 miles, for which I’ll carry 3.7 liters.


The road walk to Anaconda was mostly like this. 

Like almost all other hikers, I’m taking the Anaconda cutoff. Although the divide curves around towards Butte, it’s possible with 20 miles of highway walking to cut across west towards Idaho and rejoin the divide near the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. It saves four or five days, giving more time to take scenic detours in Wyoming and Colorado.


Filtering water from a cow trough with my pack and trekking poles in front. There was a jet of water from a pipe above the trough, so it wasn’t disgusting. 


Walking along the highway to Anaconda in the evening. 

The Bob

I keep on comparing myself to how I was by the end of the PCT: ridiculously strong and constantly ravenous. In both respects I’ve been falling short of what I remember. Of course, I’m forgetting how long it took for me to build up my trail legs, and for the hiker hunger to set in.

Waiting for a train to pass at Marias Pass, the last time we see motor vehicles from the trail for quite a while.

Leaving the motel room around 7:30am, I head across the street to find Murphy and Movin’ On getting ready for the day outside of Brownies.

“It’ll be nice setting off with a big group,” Murphy mentioned. This next stretch of trail goes 180 miles, or 8 days, before intersecting with a paved road and a hitch to the small town of Lincoln. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, or “the Bob” as it’s more popularly known, is one of the largest roadless wilderness areas in the lower 48. And it’s also home to around 900 grizzlies. Safety in numbers is the general rule in grizzly areas. And although I enjoy my solitude more than most, going 8 days without seeing another human is pushing it. Plus I sleep better in groups when I know there are grizzlies around, which is somewhat irrational considering 90% of encounters are on trail.

The Chinese Wall, one of the highlights of the Bob.

I’d originally planned on eating a big breakfast before heading out, but as per usual I just wasn’t hungry right after waking up. Brownies has breakfast burritos, so I bought one rather than get a sit-down meal. Someone’s three legged dog was hopping around the porch, so I was entertained while I made sure I had everything.

We had great weather in the Bob, with only a few storms.

The way out of East Glacier is on a dirt road, where I passed Phoenix and Mad Science stealth camping on a golf course. It’s wonderful seeing familiar faces from the PCT, and I think I would’ve been better off discreetly camping rather than staying in an expensive motel with others. I’d heard about a nuisance bear and a pack of Indian reservation dogs that harassed campers, so maybe not.

I reentered Glacier National Park for 13 miles, meandering along streams in thick forest. It’s hot, and the undergrowth rakes at my legs. But I’m enjoying it all, amazed for the 300th time at how much difference a day off can make on my feet.

Hanging my food so the animals can’t get it.

Murphy, Movin’ On, Dingo and I take a break at a picnic table in a campground across the highway from the Glacier exit. We’re finally in Lewis and Clark National Forest, and will be hitting the Bob the next day. We raid the pit toilets for a little extra toilet paper, trying to gauge how much we’ll need for 8 days, and set off.

There were few people in the campground, and nobody once we leave it on an obscure trail heading south. Prints and scat of bears, mountain lions, and wolves are everywhere, and I feel better knowing the three others are just ahead of me. I meet up with them right as we get on an alternate route along the river bypassing the main trail, which is overgrown and has been described as a “jungle gym of fallen trees.”

A rare trail sign.

The alternate is great. My feet are screaming after almost 24 miles, but we push on wading across the river every few minutes until we find a nice, overgrown and abandoned campsite for horse packers.

“This looks just like the campsite in The Blair Witch Project where they hear their missing friend screaming all night, and then wake up to find his teeth in front of the tent in the morning,” I casually mention over my ramen noodles dinner.

Heading up the divide.

“What a delightful thought,” Movin’ On replies.

“I bet we walk four hours and end up back where we started,” I add as we’re all falling asleep. I always think of that low budget independent film while camping.

The next morning I’m out of camp and on the trail before any of the others are awake. It’s eight hours before I see two other thru hikers, the first people I’ve seen all day. Though plenty of evidence of mountain lions, bears, and wolves.

Murphy and Dingo chatting after we cowboy camped.

I persuade Funny Bones and Stomper, both older guys, to camp with me in what I’ve heard is a great spot near a stream. I don’t like camping alone with grizzlies, and they’re both hurting after pushing through thick brush, so it works out. There’s a loud thunderstorm for 20 minutes, starting right after we get in our tents.

I’m again out of camp before the others are awake, and I run into the three others I’d camped with the previous night. I hadn’t seen them for 24 hours, but somehow they’d passed me and set up camp 2 miles down the trail! The CDT is weird, such a labyrinth of various trails. I’m constantly getting out my paper maps and compass, using skills I learned on Boy Scouts to make sure I stay on the right path.

We spent so much time walking along rivers in the Bob.

Early morning is my favorite time on trail, and that’s the key to making big miles. Movin’ On, Murphy, and Dingo all walk together while I prefer to hike solo and meet up with them for breaks.

We take the Spotted Bear Alternate, which is supposedly more scenic and saves us 16 miles. It’s 135 miles to the remote Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, where we’ve all sent food packages, and then another 60 miles to the first road where you can hitch into town. On such a long stretch, and so early in the hike, we’ll take every advantage we can. It’s a little nerve wracking knowing that if something goes wrong out here you’re screwed.

Cruising along.

We camp together, and I rest better in a group. At least until a psycho deer runs through our camp all night and tries to reach my food bag in the tree. The deer chewed up Dingo’s trekking pole handles during the night, but on the PCT I heard stories of people waking up to deer licking their face. Quite a wakeup call.

I don’t see the others all day, camping beneath the Chinese Wall. One of two people I see all day is some dude with llamas, and is apparently something of a trail celebrity. He seemed really lonely, but I wanted to make some miles and after 10 minutes of conversation plugged onward.

A clear day on the divide, walking above everything.

Camping solo in grizzly areas has been easier than I thought it would be, mainly because I’m so exhausted and immediately drift off to sleep. And in the morning I always find myself very close to the other three I’d spent most of this section with.

As we get closer to Benchmark, and our resupply, we start to see more hikers (like a couple every three hours). We cowboy camp by a river, despite having just seen three black bears and a mountain lion. Nothing attacks our faces in the night, and we get up periodically to watch the billions of stars in the night sky. 

View in the morning from one of our campsites. It was somewhat chilly at night, since we were around 7200 feet.

Posing for a photo at Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, where we walked to from the trail along an unpaved, little-trafficked road. 

The packages were kept in the locked box to prevent bears and other animals from getting into them.

The porch was where the packages were kept, and I definitely took advantage of the shade there to take a siesta.

Dingo walking back to the trail along the road from Benchmark.

Lots of wide open spaces on the CDT.

I descended from the divide to get water and take a break here. The wind up above was pretty intense.

Seeing the sun, the little red dot in the upper part of the photo, blocked out by smoke was a little concerning.

Once I got service, about a half day’s walk from highway 200 and the 18 mile hitch into Lincoln, I was able to figure out that the smoke and fire were not coming from near the trail. Since it was getting late, and I didn’t want to get to town after the restaurants had closed, I laid out my sleeping bag in a cluster of low hanging trees to get shelter from the heavy wind. No tent that night, which helped me get up and do the 40 minute walk to the highway without having to do much to break camp.

I’ve had a great time on this section, but I’m definitely ready to take a day off in town. And although I enjoyed seeing others a lot, I think I’d like to get some solitude over the next week.

Glacier National Park

My second day on trail the sun and birdsongs had me awake by 5am. With only 16 miles to my next campsite (in the national park you can only camp in certain campsites, which you must reserve beforehand), I spent a few hours chatting with the other long distance hikers before finally hitting the trail.

Stoney Indian Pass. 

Stoney Indian Pass, which the rangers told me needed ice axe and crampons, was kind of a joke. There were small patches of snow that were easily navigable, and no big deal at all.

The quality of trail was pretty hit and miss. In some places it was overgrown by brush, which scratched up my bare legs, but above the treeline it was perfect.

Overgrown trail.

Glacier National Park seems to be incredible vistas with miles of dull forest trail in between.

On the PCT, a much more frequented trail, I would run into other thru hikers every couple of hours near the Mexican border. Nobody but thru hikers is out hiking the SoCal desert under the relentless sun and border patrol copters April through June. In contrast, Glacier seems to mainly be the thoroughfare of couples and groups of friends out for a hike of anywhere from one night to a week.

Walking along the lakeshore.

The second day on trail was phenomenal, and I was just so happy to be back on a long walk. The third day I began to have some doubts. Would I be able to make it to warmer New Mexico before winter hit? Would I be alone for the next five months? Could I get over Piegan Pass without falling hundreds of feet down snowy slopes?

Another spectacular vista in the park.

It’s hard to get 5 months off to just go hiking, and since all the stars had aligned for me to do the CDT this summer I decided I might as well enjoy it whether or not I was solo for the whole time. The fourth day, shortly after realizing I was fine going months without seeing others, I ran into my first thru hiker. Because of full campsites, his Glacier permit had him hiking north through the park and then hitching back to the south to continue his southbound hike of the continental divide.

There are tons of different route options on the CDT, and this was a more scenic path I opted to take.

“There are two women going to Mexico just ahead of you!” he told me, and which I heard multiple times a day thereafter.

Upon reaching East Glacier, my first town stop, I was ready to take a break. My feet and legs were killing me after going up to 25 miles a day, so I opted to stay a day and a half in town to rest up. Brownies, the main hiker hostel, had and was everything: laundromat, cafe, pizzeria, restaurant, hostel, hotel, and grocery store. I love it when I can just hang out on the front porch of a place in a small town, eat, and just people watch!

Perfect time for wildflowers at the higher elevations.

My fears of being lonely on this trail came to naught, for there were 11 thru hikers in town at the same time as me. There are probably close to 20 more within a week ahead of us, and more behind.

Walking by the road to the Many Glacier Campground, where I spent a night. There was a restaurant run by my old Yellowstone employer there, and I was able to resupply, eat dinner, and have breakfast before getting back on trail. Although most of my nights were spent in backcountry campgrounds far from the road, I spent two nights in developed car campgrounds.

I finally got to meet the two women a half day in front of me that I’d heard so much about, Murphy and Movin’ On. They met on the Appalachian Trail and did 900 miles of the PCT before bailing because of snow. Movin’ On is a grandmother, and Murphy used to be a third grade teacher. They’re both pretty cool. 

Just trudging along. My feet were killing me at the end of each day.

I got dinner in town with a woman I worked with at Yellowstone who’s now a backcountry ranger in Glacier, after which I got to hang out with hikers I know from the PCT who are out on this trail this summer. 

Hardly any snow left because it’s been so hot lately, up to 90F/32C every afternoon! When I got to the East Glacier post office the postmistress took one look at my ice axe and crampons before saying, “Honey, I’ve shipped my fair share of these things over the years. Just hand them to me and I’ll get them to Ohio for you.” I definitely looked crazy walking around town with an axe. 

CDT: The Beginning

CDT start photo at the Canadian border!

The Pacific Crest Trail Association provides thru hikers with a single, free permit that allows camping almost anywhere along the 2660 mile route. The Continental Divide Trail has no analogous arrangement, although camping permits are only needed in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park.

My father, in his infinite greatness, drove me 2000 miles from Ohio to Glacier, after first driving to and from Vermont for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.

Planning to start in Glacier and head south from the Canadian border to Mexico, I arrived at the St. Mary backcountry office. At 6:50am, 10 minutes before opening, there was already a line of backpackers hoping to get camping permits, 50% of which are kept for walk-ins. I was number 19.

The route of the CDT in Montana.

“We want to do a part of the CDT,” a group of four guys in front of me told the ranger.

“Sure, we can get you the last one from Chief Mountain Pass on the low route,” she replied. Fantasizing about throwing them all into a volcano for getting the last permits and messing up my plans, I tried not to scream as they told the ranger they had plenty of snow and ice experience….from Michigan. There aren’t any f@#king high elevation passes in Michigan, let alone mountains!

“Uh, I’m not sure I should give you guys this permit,” she replied slowly. I don’t know how the rest of this trainwreck unfolded because the other ranger at the desk motioned for me to come forward.

It’s generally a good idea to hang your food so bears can’t get it. In the park, Glacier provides bear hang poles.

Most of the people in front of me (which was everyone, since I was last) asked the rangers to make them an itinerary, which is difficult when they provide no further input. I sympathize with the rangers, since I too would be hesitant to give a backcountry permit to people of unknown abilities who obviously have no interest in planning ahead. They were banished to the corner to look at the map with campsite availabilities and then come back.

The backcountry rangers in American national parks are usually phenomenal, and after a few minutes of chatting about trail conditions I had permits to do a slightly nontraditional route starting from Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Starting from Waterton is much more scenic albeit not typically  accessible for a couple more weeks. Yay for unseasonably hot weather and snowmelt!

After a weekend in Vermont at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, my father in his infinite greatness drove me 2000 miles to Glacier. With the permits taken care of we spent the rest of the day hiking and driving along the Going to the Sun Road, the park’s main thoroughfare. Then the next day, July 1st, we crossed the border into the Great White North.

Canada Day!

That happened to be Canada Day, and doubly special for being the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Hopefully an auspicious start!

We picked up a couple hitchhikers along the way to Canada, dropping them off at the Chief Mountain Border Crossing on the American side. One of the pair happened to be Anish, who as the holder of the unsupported speed record for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails is something of a celebrity in the long distance hiking world.

Crossing into Canada was quick and easy, and after a short drive we entered Waterton Lakes National Park. Canadian national parks are free in 2017 in celebration of the country’s 150th anniversary.

“OH GOD THERE’S A BEAR!” I heard while waiting for a large group in front of me to enter the trailhead. They hurried back and decided to go watch the Canada Day parade instead.

Bear survivors bravely plotting their next move.

My dad spotted two hikers coming down the trail less than a minute later. They hadn’t seen anything, so we figured I’d (probably) be fine.

The American border is about 4.5 miles from the Lake Bertha trailhead in Canada, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Clear skies, warm temps, and a well graded trail made for smooth sailing.

Passing lots of families enjoying the perfect day alongside Waterton Lake, my prior nervousness was morphing into excitement. I was a little concerned about some of the higher passes in Glacier, for which I had an ice axe and microspikes (basically lightweight crampons).

The trail to the American border while still in Canada.

It’s only been two years since I started my last trans-America hike, but this feels different in some ways. As the trail turns to shit and gets overgrown by ferns I don’t wonder if I can do this, and I’m not overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’m about to do. I’ve done it before, and I will do it again. I know there will be times when I’m so lonely/hungry/hot/swarmed by mosquitoes/hobbled by blisters/etc. that I’ll get frustrated and overwhelmed. But that’s part of the experience, and it’s worth the discomfort to spend five months exploring America’s vast wilderness and small towns.

Grizzly warnings. I carry bear spray and hope not to use it.

There are a million of these signs telling hikers entering the US to report to register at the border station.

Hiking along.

I just enjoyed the moment, and reveled in being outside and disconnected from the rest of the world.

I camped at the customs and border patrol station, which nearby had a pavilion with flush toilets and electricity. Pretty fancy.

View from the Goat Haunt camping area at sunrise.

There were shelters at Goat Haunt, but I set up my tent in the grass because it’s not free standing and wouldn’t stay up on a concrete floor.

By pure coincidence, I shared the backcountry campground with one of my favorite hikers I met on the PCT. Sass and I corresponded pre-hike, but I had no idea she was hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail to the Pacific (like the CDT, the PNT starts in Glacier). We spent hours chatting, and she introduced me to a couple other PNT hikers she’d met while doing the CDT last summer. Mermaid was 60, and her hiking buddy Beacon was probably around that if not older. Both have many, many thousands of miles of backpacking experience, and I think the latter has done the CDT four times. I love chatting with older hikers.