The Continental Divide Trail: An iconic resource in Grand County

Jordan Williams
Continental Divide Trail Coalition
Two hikers enjoying the Muddy Pass area on the Continental Divide Trail.
Dan Carter/Continental Divide Trail Coalition

Along the backbone of the continent, there is a trail that accesses some of the most remote and beautiful terrain in the U.S. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail spans 3,100 miles across five states from Canada to Mexico. Designated by Congress in 1978 for its nationally significant cultural, historic and natural features, the trail is home to thousands of species of wildlife, the backyard for dozens of rural and Native American communities in the West – and the watershed for over 180 million people. In addition to being a place for all to explore, learn and connect, the trail contains some of the most vibrant pockets of biodiversity in North America.

Grand County is uniquely connected to the iconic Continental Divide Trail, boasting over 100 miles of the trail and many different access points. There are numerous organizations focused on outdoor recreation and conservation within Grand County, and the Town of Grand Lake even has the distinction of being one of the few locales where the trail goes through the town. 

As a Continental Divide Trail Coalition designated Gateway Community, Grand Lake and other community organizations embrace the coalition’s mission to complete, promote and protect the trail and the surrounding landscapes. Grand Lake earned designation as an official Continental Divide Trail Gateway Community in 2018 and now partners with the coalition to implement place-based stewardship work, while simultaneously elevating the community as friendly to trail users and a notable outdoor recreation destination. 

Completing the trail — challenges and solutions

While it may be hard to believe, the trail is still only 95% complete and protected on public land. Near the northwest corner of Grand County is the last remaining gap in the trail in Colorado. Referred to as the “Muddy Pass Gap,” this section of the trail deviates from traditional “single-track” trail and forces travelers along 11 miles of busy highways and another 18 miles along unpaved roads. Closing the gap would complete the 735 miles of the trail traversing the state and create a safer, more enjoyable experience.

About 5% or 160 miles of the trail is incomplete throughout the five states that encompass the Continental Divide Trail – Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. There are collaborative efforts to find solutions to complete the Muddy Pass Gap and create safer, more enjoyable opportunities for recreation in the area. 

With the input of community members, businesses and other stakeholders along the trail, the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act was reintroduced earlier this year in the new Congress. With bipartisan support, this bill directs the secretaries of agriculture and interior to prioritize trail completion by the 50th anniversary of the trail in 2028. The proposed plan is a cooperative stewardship model that explicitly restricts the use of eminent domain, respecting private property rights. 

Completing the Muddy Pass Gap is a collaborative effort between land management agencies, non-governmental organizations like the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, private landowners and local communities in Grand, Jackson and Routt counties. 

Volunteers make improvements on the Continental Divide Trail in Grand County.
Katie Hearsum/Courtesy photo

Trail communities — Grand Lake 

As one of 20 designated Gateway Communities, Grand Lake continues to be a shining example of community-centric conservation at work. Grand Lake effectively promotes the Continental Divide Trail and educates locals and visitors about the importance of natural resource conservation and economic development on the Western Slope. 

Gateway Communities rely on volunteer advisory committees and other partners to succeed. In Grand Lake, groups including the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, Never Summer Outfitters, Headwaters Trails Alliance, Otherside Gear & Coffee Shop, local volunteers, area-specific land management agencies, and other small businesses all make this work possible. 

With this designation comes administrative and resource support from Continental Divide Trail Coalition, including educational materials, access maps, promotional products and programming. Grand Lake also partners to offer additional trail amenities modeled after best practices from other Gateway Communities, such as discounts at local businesses, shuttle options, additional tent camping in town, hiker boxes and trail angel support. 

It is common in towns like Grand Lake to provide “trail magic” to thru-hikers by offering a ride to or from trailheads or some other form of support. Thru-hikers are people who try completing the trail or another established long-distance trail in one effort. Typical thru-hikes can last around 4-6 months on the trail. However, the majority of trail users along the trail just visit for the day or explore smaller sections. So please keep in mind that the trail is for everyone to experience.

Hikers take a rest on the Continental Divide Trail on a summer day.
Katie Hearsum/Courtesy photo

Protecting the trail for future generations

Continental Divide Trail Coalition relies on grassroots partnerships to further its mission and to ensure efforts are community-driven. By working with long-time local partners such as Headwaters Trail Alliance, the coalition has been able to gain better information about the local conditions and create buy-in from community members. Headwaters Trails Alliance and the U.S. Forest Service, including the Sulphur Ranger District, help coordinate with Conservation Corps members and other volunteer organizations to ensure that the work is high quality. 

Additionally, the coalition’s local trail adopters through Headwaters Trails Alliance help sustain the work outside of specific one-time projects through a community-led conservation model. The coalition is intentional with opportunities that are open to first-time participants with no previous experience to support more diverse participation like those along the High Lonesome Trail in 2022 and 2023. 

The mission of the coalition is to complete, promote and protect the trail, which requires a multi-faceted approach to stewardship, conservation and recreation that involves local communities, trail maintenance projects, legislative support and many other efforts. Grand County is a tremendous example of this cooperative model in action. 

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This story first appeared in Explore Grand.

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