This post explains what the continental divide is and why the continental divide splits in Wyoming. It also gives pro tips on best times to hike the CDT in the basin. Lastly, this post describes how to enjoy hiking in the continental divide basin despite heat, lack of water, and wind. And the bonus? Wildlife!
List of Contents
What is the Continental Divide?
The Continental Divide of the United States runs through the Rocky Mountains. Essentially, it separates two watersheds. On one side, all water eventually flows into the Atlantic. On the other side, all water flows to the Pacific.
A trail follows this divide from Mexico to Canada (and vice versa): the Continental Divide Trail.
Why does the Continental Divide Split in Wyoming?
The Continental Divide does something crazy in Wyoming! It splits.
Water separates off each side of a ridge until an area near Rawlins, Wyoming. There, a large basin formed that once held a lake. Within that basin, water does not leave. It will not go east to the Atlantic nor west to the Pacific.
The continental divide basin continues north until around South Pass City, Wyoming. There, the continental divide rejoins and heads north into the Wind River Range.
Hiking in the Continental Divide Basin
Best Times to Hike
Your hiking experience largely depends on the time of year that you hike. If you’re on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) you mostly likely will not hike through in an ideal time. The average northbounder will enter the basin in July. The average southbounder will enter the basin in August.
July and August tend to have hotter temperatures and less water unless a storm passes through randomly.
If you’re looking for cooler weather and more water, June is a better time. The long grasses will still be green after the recently melted snow. Water sources will have fresher water from the snowmelt and spring rains.
Yes, you do have to pay attention to water.
Generally, it’s hot, dry, and you’ll only pass 1-2 water sources per day on foot. The number of water sources you pass in a day depends on how many miles you hike.
The average distance between water sources in the basin is about 15-20 miles.
Ranchers developed most of the water sources to help their cattle. This means that you will drink out of cow tires, cow tanks (ponds made with bulldozers), and cow troughs. If cattle have not yet entered the range, those sources might not run.
Overall, while there is a greater distance between water sources, the terrain isn’t outrageous. For a thru-hike, its relatively flat and will feel great after the Zirkels or the Winds.
Finally, while you’re drinking out of water sources meant for cows, it’s mostly piped water out of ground springs. The ranchers pipe the water to a convenient spot where cows can drink: like a tire. Personally, I still filter the water coming out of the pipe because cows have disgusting habits around water sources.
You should definitely check the weather forecast for heat before hiking the in the continental divide basin.
There is hardly any shade. Let me repeat: HARDLY. ANY. SHADE.
The continental divide basin consists largely of big mountain sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and a lot of sand. Yes, trees exist. But, not a lot of them. A few miles of good shade trees live about halfway through on the CDT, about 60 miles into the basin.
Dehydration and heat exhaustion can sneak up on you while hiking here. They can compound over days and hit you hard when you don’t expect it. Keep an eye on your water intake and bring electrolytes! I elaborate on this in a larger post Is the Continental Divide Trail Dangerous?
I like to bring a shade umbrella with me. It works fantastically under the right conditions. For example, the umbrella works very well with little to no wind. When the air becomes stagnant, the umbrella really shines. However, it does not work well in higher wind.
Speaking of wind…because of the wide-open space in the basin, wind is a thing.
Without trees or large shrubs to block the wind, it runs rampant across the plains. There is no shelter to duck behind or around. It just…is.
When checking the weather forecast for heat advisories, also check for wind forecasts.
Winds more than 30mph are hard to walk in a straight line. The backpack becomes a sail and your body becomes tired from tensing up frequently.
Furthermore, YOUR TENT IS IN DANGER. Wind in the continental divide basin can and will destroy tents.
All tents have one way to set them up where they can withstand the most wind. Know that direction and set up the tent accordingly. For example, our Haven Tarp & Bug Net can withstand wind better when the head section takes the brunt of the wind. Not the sides or the feet, but the head area.
If it’s windy, but not threatening rain, choose a tent spot lower with a natural wind block. Sometimes you can’t find a full wind block, but a partial wind block works. Otherwise, try to find some tall sagebrush to block a portion of the wind, at least to the bottom of your tent.
Continental Divide Basin WILDLIFE
Wait…animals live out here?!
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see quite a vibrant array of wildlife in the continental divide basin! Some of my favorites include pronghorn antelope, wild horses, sage grouse, and horned toads.
Pronghorn are some of the coolest animals around. As the second fastest land mammal in the world (behind the Cheetah), they can run upward of 60 mph. Pronghorn are the fastest land mammals in the United States.
Sometimes you will see male pronghorn off on their own. They often make huffing noises that until you hear it, you won’t think much of it. Once attuned to this huffing noise, you’ll see more pronghorn. Other times, you’ll see groups of pronghorn or whole herds roaming about.
Wild horses also roam the continental divide basin in Wyoming. How much more Wild West can you get?!
They often roam freely in small family groups. The males can become protective of their family or if they are courting a female. If you tend to watch your feet, you may spot a horned toad. They look a bit like a lizard, but they have a fatter body and small “horns” by their head.
If you like seeing wildlife on trail, check out my Instagram here!
I’ve hiked the continental divide basin twice on the CDT. The first time going south at the end of August, I had cooler temperatures and more wind. The second time going north, I had hotter temperatures and less wind.
While it appears as though “nothing” is going on in the basin, there is so much out there. There is far more wildlife in the basin than you’d think. But, it does blend in to the sagebrush and sand.
Personally, going north or south, I also think it’s an incredibly important part of the CDT thru-hike. Because it’s so empty, it empties your head and helps reset your mindset for the rest of the trail.
Going north, you’ve completed Colorado and suddenly you’re flying. It gives you that mental shift to the rest of the trail after Colorado beat you down. You’re only halfway done, but your legs are ready to eat up easy terrain.
Going south, you’ve finally hiked out of grizzly country. You’ve gotten through the roller coaster of the Idaho/Montana border and through the amazing Wind River Range. Now, the basin clears your mind before you tackle the crux of Colorado.
Don’t let basin madness get to you. Grab some music, podcasts, audiobooks. Or purposely empty your mind completely. You’re choice. Either way, it will shift your mindset on trail.