Skip to Content

CDT New Mexico: Northbound Versus Southbound

CDT New Mexico: Northbound Versus Southbound

If you’re interested in the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), you’ll probably look into how soon you can start going north in New Mexico. The CDT New Mexico section has many alternates, sometimes terrible water, and often either very hot or frigid cold.

I’ve completed two CDT thru-hikes: one southbound in 2015 and one northbound in 2022. While finishing the CDT in New Mexico doesn’t have the epic appeal of Glacier National Park, it feels like a victory lap as you finish.

So is the CDT New Mexico section hiked better northbound or southbound? That depends on what you’re goals are for your thru-hike.

Personally, I felt like overall the CDT is better southbound. However, New Mexico makes more sense northbound. Thus, in most years, a flip can be very helpful.

CDT New Mexico Nobo vs Sobo Pros and Cons

Let’s be honest…there are pros and cons for either direction.

You need to take water, elevation, and daylight into account to figure out what’s best for YOU.

Something I never thought about until I went southbound was the decreasing daylight in the fall. Starting a CDT sobo thru-hike just before the summer solstice meant that almost every day I lost sunlight. Not super important until we got on some cross-country or barely marked trail/cow paths.

I’ll list what I found as pros and cons so you can see what you’re willing to suffer through more.

Northbound Pros

A trail through the desert of New Mexico with a CDT trail marker.
Most of these signs face south so Nobos can see them.

There are many perks of going nobo in New Mexico, such as:

  • The GILA RIVER is way more epic in the spring.
  • Due to the CDTC insisting northbound is a good way to go…there are many new services to the boot heel region.
  • The trail gradually ramps you up to a higher elevation. This really helps you get your trail legs.
  • Because spring is drier, there is less super sticky mud that makes your feet 5 pounds each.
  • The CDT square signs are mostly facing the nobos.
  • You have the option to flip to Glacier if Colorado has a particularly heavy snowpack.

Southbound Perks

While I do feel like New Mexico is better north, there are a few perks to going south as well, such as:

  • After Colorado, it feels like an easy victory lap.
  • The trail gradually loses elevation and the climbs feel easy.
  • Sobo hikers hike into New Mexico just after the monsoon season, so water carries are not as long.
  • Fewer people go southbound than northbound.

The BIGGEST reason the CDT New Mexico is better Nobo

Thru-hiking woman crossing the Gila River.
Crossing the Gila River.

Two words.

GILA. RIVER.

In my opinion, the Gila River (alternate) is the crown jewel of the CDT New Mexico.

It’s literally the best part of the trail in the state. Yes, it is hard. Yes, you will have wet feet every day. And, yes, the scenery is stunning.

I’ve found over the years that most of the people who argue about following the “red line” as much as possible diverge and hike the Gila Alternate instead. The whole area has a magical feel to it.

3 Reasons the Gila is Better Northbound

Some of the most uncomfortable days I’ve ever had on a thru-hike were hiking through the Gila Alternate southbound. I

n contrast, when we hiked the same route northbound at the correct time, it stands out in my mind as one of the best places I’ve ever hiked.

1.) Water Level:

The water level is lower in the spring. This is important because as someone who is 5’2″, river crossings are far more pleasant when they are shallower. Going northbound, the lower Gila crossings were mostly between my knees and mid-thigh. The Middle Fork was between my ankles and my knees (with one exception around a rather successful beaver dam). Going southbound, the crossings were all above my knees after we spent quite a bit of time reviewing the best possible crossing. As we kept going south, the crossings became increasingly deeper.

2.) Water Pressure:

The water pressure is less in the spring. This is important because you can see your footing more often and you can get better footing amongst the rocks easier. Going northbound, the river has a current, but it is not strenuous. On the flip side, going southbound, the river is raging. Full of fresh monsoon rains, the Gila River has a lot more power. This pressure obscures the bottom of the river and makes hiking poles quiver as you cross slowly.

3.) Daylight:

In the spring, there is more daylight and thereby more warmth. Going northbound, April and May are closer to the summer solstice than October. With the high canyon walls, the daylight reaches the river bottom much sooner in the spring and stays longer in the evenings. Going southbound, in late October, the sun did not reach us until just after 10am and left us around 2:30pm. Without the sunlight, the canyon became very cold and the surrounding vegetation became covered in frost.

CDT New Mexico Nobo and Sobo Negatives

Two hikers on the summit of a mountain.
Hanging out on top of Mt. Taylor

While I’ve just mentioned all of the positive aspects of both directions, there are a few negatives to mention.

Nobo Negatives

Tire full of water with algae.
Sometimes, you walk 20 miles to a water source like this.

Yes, there are still a few, don’t get me wrong…

  • The spring heat will drain you of electrolytes fast.
  • Water carries are often 20-25 miles between sources.
  • Road walking that early in the hike can be especially hard on the body. While the body is still building thru-hiking legs and calluses, it’s better to do it on trail for several hundred miles before a long paved road stretch.

Sobo Negatives

  • The Gila is not as fun in the fall with less daylight, stronger water currents, and high water level.
  • Daylight overall is frustrating as it decreases significantly in October.
  • The CDT boot heel shuttle is not as amenable for sobo hikers. It exists, but can be hard to plan so far ahead. (The CDTC doesn’t like to do sobo shuttles as much.)

CDT New Mexico Then and Now: 2015 vs 2022

Two thru-hikers walking down a dirt road in New Mexico on the CDT.
Walking Side-by-Side on a Dirt Road

The overall essence of the CDT New Mexico section is very similar. New Mexico has a mix of trail, cross-country, and road walking. Inevitably, you will still lose the trail by following a stray cow path or missing a junction and need to navigate yourself back.

Trail Sections

I did see quite a few areas where new trail was built in the last 7 years. Whole sections had been redone and in a few cases re-routed as well.

For example, the CDT had new trail just south of Silver City. Instead of road walking around the ugly mine, there was new trail that continued north to the highway. Although the new trail felt great and went along a scenic ridge, it did not actually decrease the road walking miles into Silver City. Instead, it just added trail to a different road walk.

Another noticeable example was north of Cuba. Both Karma and I thought the trail seemed very unfamiliar leaving Cuba until we looked at the tracks from 2015 and saw a drastic difference in how the CDT entered the San Pedro Wilderness in Santa Fe National Forest. Great new trail with lovely switchbacks through there.

Cross Country Sections

I did notice that many of the cross-country sections were not very cross-country in 2022 because of the sheer numbers of nobo hikers. The classic “post to post” hiking sections had a foot track. Going south in 2015, there was not a lot of foot tread.

Also, the Gila River sections north and south of Doc Campbells were largely bushwhacks in 2015 with scattered bits of old trail. In 2022, almost all of those sections had trail and suggested crossing points marked with large cairns.

Basically, there was significantly less cross-country travel in New Mexico than either of us remembered from 2015.

Road Walk Sections

The dreaded road walks. They’re not that bad. The road walks are about the same as before and nothing much has changed about them.

No, paved road walks are not inherently fun.

Yes, paved road walks hurt everyone’s feet.

But, they are part of trail and if a continuous footpath matters to you, then you’ll find your own fun.

Conclusion

Overall, I think think the CDT might be best as a flip-flop. New Mexico is mostly better northbound, however, the rest of the trail is usually better southbound.

If a flip is not an option for you, most years southbounding is a better option despite what I said in this post.

But, THE GILA. I waited 7 years to see the Gila River sections northbound and it was amazing. It made it all worth it. The Gila made all the road walks fine. It made the CDT New Mexico awesome.

If you liked this post, you may also like my post on what I did to prepare for thru-hiking the CDT and our favorite thru-hiking gear as a couple.

Woman's hand next to a black bear track in the sand.
Following a bear in New Mexico