Last summer, Andrew Cotterell was one of about 200 people who completed the Great Divide Trail, an epic hike that crisscrosses the Rocky Mountains and winds 1,123 kilometres from Waterton, Alta., southwest of Lethbridge, to Kakwa Lake, B.C., east of Prince George.
After the roughest northern section, the experienced outdoorsman and Canmore resident cried tears of joy. The hanging glaciers, multiple passes and bushwhacking made for a potent mix of challenge and triumph. “I really liked that it went to some lesser-travelled places and that it was a bit more wild,” said Mr. Cotterell, who did it in 20 days, six hours and 55 minutes.
The Great Divide Trail traverses two provinces, five national parks, five provincial parks and a variety of wilderness and public land areas. It follows North America’s continental divide, where “if you poured your water bottle out, the water on your left would flow to the Pacific and the water on your right would flow to the Arctic or Atlantic,” said Brad Vaillancourt, a past president of the Great Divide Trail Association, a volunteer non-profit that maintains and promotes the trail.
The trek draws hikers who have completed other renowned trails, such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, which span the eastern and western regions of the United States, and New Zealand’s 3,000-kilometre-long Te Araroa, said Doug Borthwick, the Great Divide Trail Association’s current president. “We often get hikers that have hiked all kinds of major trails,” he said.
“We’ve had major, major bloggers. And this is at the top of their list of any kind of organized trail.”
Yet despite being a magnet for long-distance backpackers, the GDT, as it’s commonly known, has not been formally designated as a trail by the Canadian, B.C. or Alberta governments. It is controlled by a variety of different land managers – typically federal or provincial agencies.
The lack of a formal designation means some sections may be cut off if a land manager decides to close public access or limit the number of hikers and campers allowed to transit through their boundaries each year. For instance, there is a short section in Banff National Park that GDT association volunteers have never been allowed to maintain or clear, requiring the trail to stray from its official route to an adjacent floodplain, Mr. Borthwick said.
Currently, there is no formal way to have a hiking trail nationally designated in Canada, nor is there overarching federal legislation to promote and protect hiking trails, something the GDT association is advocating for. Canada has no equivalent to the National Scenic Trail Act, which protects long-distance hiking trails in the U.S., Mr. Borthwick said. Such legislation would require various land managers to work together to create a comprehensive plan to preserve and operate an entire trail.
Without this kind of protection, the fate of the GDT as a whole is at the mercy of each land manager. Mr. Borthwick cites as an example the White Goat Wilderness Area, a critical 20-kilometre section in the Rockies between Jasper and Banff. “If [the province] decided to not allow hikers in, that would disconnect the trail completely right in the middle,” he said, noting this would not be likely but still possible for maintenance or conservation reasons.
In other areas, he worries trails could be closed for mining, logging or other industrial uses. “Having a designation as a national trail, as in the U.S., would enable the association to have more meaningful talks with the land managers,” he said.
Volunteers from the GDT association maintain as much as 55 per cent of the trail, paid for through a hodgepodge of grants, donations and membership fees. But Mr. Borthwick says advocating for the trail’s protection is far more demanding than clearing brush. To raise awareness, this year, the association is awarding #WildestThruHike patches and certificates of completion to all those who have finished the trail.
Megan Hope, a media relations adviser for Parks Canada, said the agency does not have much oversight or budget associated with the GDT, as the trail is unofficial and the user numbers are low. She said few field unit staff know much about the trail or the association, and the GDT is rarely mentioned on local parks’ websites, even though much of it goes through park boundaries. The agency does not formally designate trails, she said.
“When we’re looking at budgeting, it wouldn’t necessarily go straight to that area first,” Ms. Hope said. “But having longer conversations with potential partners like the association is definitely where we can get started.”
Parks Canada does work with the GDT association and other volunteer groups to coordinate maintenance along the trail and helps hikers access backcountry camping permits, she added in a statement.
While only a couple of hundred people hike the entire trail every year, that’s an exponential increase from the 10 Mr. Vaillancourt estimates might have completed it four or five summers ago.
Those less-inclined to devote half their summer to a hike — or who want to avoid walking on razor-thin ridges — choose to do only the most accessible sections of the GDT. The association estimates that 400 people have hiked on the newly opened 30-kilometre section of the GDT north of Crowsnest Pass, known as the High Rock Trail, which is operated by the GDT association. Many more have hiked on sections made up of the Rockies’ most popular shorter hikes, like the Rockwall Trail in B.C.’s Kootenay National Park and the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park.
But the association does see promising signs that governments may be open to official trail protections. Federal Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, one of just two Liberal MPs from Alberta, was given a mandate after the last federal election to create a national trails tourism strategy. (His office did not respond to an interview request.)
Alberta’s new Trails Act, which took effect in February, is expected to make it easier for organizations like the GDT association to request official designation for portions of the trail on land controlled by the provincial government. Aside from offering an additional level of protection, a trail disposition – the allocation of public land for a recreational purpose – would formalize the association as the trail manager for those sections and facilitate formal engagement with Indigenous communities who have relationships with the land.
Even if the trail acquires this designation, it would still represent less than a third of the GDT and impart limited funding.
Organizers of the GDT association say they understand that an official trail designation is an uphill battle. Much of the trail is remote and lightly trafficked, with some sections stretching 200 kilometres between towns. While about half is well-maintained and marked, the rest often requires route finding and navigation.
Yet despite – and often because of – these challenges, the association’s online information sessions have never seen more traffic from adventurers keen to experience the trail’s unique beauty.
“It’s not a road, it’s not a path,” said Mr. Vaillancourt.
“This is a wilderness trail where you’re working hard and the rewards are world-class. You’re walking for days without seeing signs of humanity. It is that spectacular.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.