A little over a year ago I moved to Homer, Alaska, a town of approximately 5,000 people located about ﬁve hours from Anchorage. I had no friends, no furniture, and next to no daylight, which sounds as depressing as it was. I landed the dream salary job that I was supposed to want, but after I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about my dogs, Prima and Skittles, and wondered what it would feel like leaving them home alone for eight to 10 hours a day. That’s when I started thinking that I should chuck it all and thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
At this point in my life, I had hiked three long trails, though admittedly none came anywhere close to being as long as the CDT, where you walk from Canada to Mexico along the Divide. I’d always considered hiking the CDT as something that would be done after the dogs passed away, as the rate of completion on those trails with a dog is notoriously low. But the previous summer I’d finished a 750-mile hiking route with Prima and Skittles, and when I remembered that the following summer both dogs would turn eight years old, I realized that the clock was ticking on how much longer they would be able to physically keep up on an adventure of such epic proportions. If we were going to give this a go, then this was the time. I quit my job and spent the next several months planning and preparing.
On June 12, 2021, we arrived at the northern terminus of the CDT, which typically travels through Glacier National Park, but since dogs aren’t allowed on backcountry trails in national parks, we had to take an alternate route down from the Canadian border; we faced this issue again with the other two national parks along the route: Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone. After the happy pups and I soaked in the moment beside the little metal monument that marks the start of the trail, we turned our sights south and started walking.
The ﬁrst few weeks were blissful. I could ﬁnally decompress in this newfound freedom and found great joy in watching the dogs investigate various smells along the trail as we entered the magical Bob Marshall Wilderness. With four legs instead of two, Prima and Skittles were much better equipped to handle downed trees and snow on the trail, and to thrive in rugged environments like those found in northern Montana. Few things brought me as much joy on the entire CDT as seeing how excited they were by the hordes of ground squirrels we met along that section.
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Central Montana presented new challenges, with extreme heat waves and wildﬁres plaguing the Northwest. Many days we took a six-hour siesta during the hottest part of the afternoon, because with the dry, waterless ridges in this part of the state, it would not have been safe for the dogs to do otherwise. Then Skittles began to develop blisters on her pads, similar to what a hiker wearing wet boots might encounter. Fortunately, a visit to a veterinarian in Helena and some time oﬀ over the next few weeks made a huge diﬀerence, and because of it, her feet were like iron the rest of the trek. Prima wasn’t as lucky. While many people say that dogs’ feet just need to be properly conditioned to handle any terrain, that was not at all my experience; Prima’s paws needed to be closely monitored and periodically pampered throughout the trip.
Fortunately, after a week oﬀ in Butte, things took a turn for the better. We left the CDT in favor of an incredibly scenic shortcut known as the Butte Super Cutoﬀ, or Big Sky Variant, which routed us away from the wildﬁres burning on the Idaho border. Prima struggled on with some sore feet, but overall things were much easier, and neither dog could get enough of the frequent wildlife sightings or interesting smells.
At the end of July, we crossed our first state line into Idaho. Skittles celebrated by rolling in the dirt while Prima looked less than impressed. When I realized that the water source I was counting on had gone dry, we ended up walking over 50 miles in about 48 hours before coming across the next water source. After a handful of days in Idaho, we crossed into Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park, and the weeks that followed were some of the trip’s best. From atop a bridge, Skittles watched as a family of river otters played in the Snake River before we hiked through the beautiful courthouse-like peaks of the Absarokas.
The incredible mountain scenery continued into the Wind River Range, where both Prima and I found the increasing amount of granite to be a bit bothersome for our feet, but with careful management we both remained healthy. Completing the Knapsack Col route in the Winds had to be one of the high points of the trip. Both dogs traversed large boulder and scree ﬁelds to ascend the 12,000-foot-high oﬀ-trail pass, defying all of the other hikers who told us it was too difficult for dogs. The granite spires of Titcomb Basin and the remnants of Twin Glacier are surely some of the most picturesque places we visited. We were hiking from 20 to 25 miles a day as we crossed into Central Wyoming, with a decent amount of daylight, close to a thousand miles under our belts, and the knowledge that winter was coming.
At the end of August, the Winds gently spun us out into the Great Divide Basin, which is, in many ways, desolate. There are no trees, so the wind often roars across the open expanse. The most common occupant is the Angus cow, and most of the water to be found is shared with the herd. For all its brutality, I found much beauty in this extreme landscape, but that didn’t make it any easier to hike with the dogs. We were fortunate to enter the Basin at the tail end of a cold front, which kept the temperatures bearable for much of our walk toward Rawlins.
The ﬁrst of September marked our re-entry into our home state of Colorado. This presented many opportunities to meet up with friends along the way, which helped keep my spirits up as the days became noticeably shorter and the nights colder. The first snow of our hiking season arrived the night before hiking over the highest point of the CDT: 14,278-foot-tall Grays Peak, which was Prima’s first-ever hike six years prior. Unlike the last time, though, we didn’t do an out-and-back on the standard route and instead dropped down the talus-covered southwest ridge into Chihuahua Gulch.
As September stretched into October, we enjoyed a wonderful mixture of golden aspens and snow. Prima especially seemed to thrive in the colder temperatures, and watching her lead the way up snow-covered passes in the Collegiate Peaks gave me great hope that we would actually make it to Mexico. With the snow already accumulating, and more on the way, I made the decision to bypass the San Juan Mountains by heading through Del Norte and Platoro. This gave us a few days to visit some of our favorite human and dog friends in Durango while bracing for the coldest stretch of the trip.
Single- digit temperatures welcomed us back to the CDT, and as the day slowly warmed, the dogs got mucky and wet as we hiked over Indiana Pass. With the shortening daylight, there was no choice but to camp in the snow somewhere near 11,400 feet above sea level. Skittles solidified her habit of sleeping inside my quilt that night, and Prima snuggled up close as well. We all managed to keep our toes, and while the few remaining days to the New Mexico state line were by no means balmy, they were certainly warmer than that night.
Crossing into New Mexico meant that only one state stood between us and the Mexican border. It also meant that we were past the worst of the potential snow and, barring disaster, would most likely make it to the end. The appropriately named Land of Enchantment offered impressively varied terrain that conspired to wreck Prima’s feet. The lava rocks were particularly devastating, especially around the town of Grants. At least we had plenty of time to take days oﬀ, so we ended up resting for at least two days in every town thereafter.
The last great hurdle to be crossed was the Gila River, an alternate route I chose not only for its acclaimed scenery but also because I was tired of carrying six liters of cow water every day. But my decision came at a cost. The already short days were even shorter in the deep canyons of the Gila, so the river froze over where it was still, and the low air temperatures made it difficult to keep the blood flowing in the feet. We enjoyed one day hiking through the incredible pink pinnacles before bailing to the high route and taking a diﬀerent path to see the Gila Cliﬀ Dwellings.
After that, the pups and I enjoyed Thanksgiving in Silver City before restarting our trek through the desert. In many ways the last 120 miles were the most magical of the trail. We had complete solitude among the yucca, creosote, and mesquite. The weather was perfect for the dogs, the sunsets were incredible, and sleeping out under the stars was the stuff of movies. There were still diﬃculties, but getting to cuddle with the dogs and laugh at their antics made me wish that the trail was never going to end.
On December 7, 2021, we ﬁlled up with water, struck camp, and walked south for the last time. The Big Hatchet Mountains embraced us in all their glory before releasing us into the flat valley of the borderlands. We arrived at the fabled Crazy Cook Monument in the golden light of a beautiful afternoon, ending our six-month trek.
As I lay in my tent on that last night, I again pondered the lives of my dogs and wondered — as I still do — if I could have done anything to make their trip more pleasant or comfortable, and if thru-hiking with dogs is a good decision. But as I rewatched the videos of them observing ground squirrels, rolling in the dirt, and scooping up snow like excavators, I knew that the love and friendship they have brought to my life has paid dividends for them, as well.
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