A Natural Boundary
The headwaters of our nation spring from the Continental Divide. The map below shows how water flows from the Continental Divide into streams and rivers that eventually make their way to the oceans.
Choose a small stream that begins on the eastern side of the Divide, the white line on the map, and notice how it joins up with other creeks and streams to become a larger and larger river, finally ending its journey at the Atlantic Ocean. All of the streams that run together into the same river make up that river’s watershed. Major watersheds are shown in different colors on the map.
Many of the nation’s mightiest rivers begin as a trickle of water near the Continental Divide. The Columbia and Colorado rivers flow west to the Pacific Ocean, while the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, and the Rio Grande flow east from the Divide to the Atlantic Ocean.
Humans and the Divide
Though the Continental Divide separates the waters of North America, for thousands of years it has brought people together.
The first people to see, name, and live among the lakes, rivers, and mountains of this land were the indigenous peoples of North America. Along the Divide in the southern deserts of modern New Mexico, the Zuni and Acoma Tribes established a trail between their pueblos that has been used for over 1,000 years. Ancient stone bridges and cairns built by the Zuni and Acoma to mark their way are still used by hikers on the Continental Divide Trail today. Far to the north, the Blackfeet Nation named the steep mountains of the Divide “Mistakis,” the “backbone of the world.” These peaks in Montana and southern Alberta, Canada are central to the creation story of the Blackfeet people. Similar cultural connections for indigenous people exist along the entire length of the Continental Divide. These lands are still home to Native American people who continue to cherish the homelands of their ancestors and their future generations.
European settlers in the 17th and early 18th centuries encountered the Continental Divide as a deadly obstacle during their push for westward expansion. While searching for a water route to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark crossed the Divide at Lemhi Pass in Montana. Families struggling westward on the Oregon Trail crossed through South Pass in Wyoming, just north of the Great Divide Basin. At the time, this was the only safe way for wagons to cross the Rocky Mountains.
The Continental Divide Trail runs right through the historic town of South Pass, allowing trail travelers a direct connection to the paths of these settlers along their westward migration, and a window into this pivotal era in our nation’s history. The map to the right shows the migration routes that are now designated as National Historic Trails, and where they cross the Continental Divide Trail on their journeys west.
A historical camp set up at the BLM's National Trails Interpretive Center at South Pass, Wyoming. BLM photo by Emmett Pruss.
A rider on the Pony Express National Historic Trail. Many National Historic Trails intersect the Continental Divide Trail. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM Wyoming.
A Trail for the Divide
“The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways.” -President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965
In the 1960’s, public concern about industrialization, urbanization, and vanishing access to natural spaces was growing ever stronger. Landmark environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act were flying off the presses at Congress, and not least among them was the National Trails System Act of 1968. This Act set the stage for a network of long-distance trails throughout America, each line on the map carving out a path both for recreation and for the conservation of the incredible landscapes along each trail.
The Continental Divide Trail was designated by Congress as a National Scenic Trail in 1978, and the Forest Service was given the responsibility to manage the trail. At the time, the trail was more like a patchwork than a continuous footpath - shorter trails and dirt roads along the Divide were linked up to create a route, but there were many gaps where the trail only existed as a line on the map. Much of the Continental Divide Trail’s character comes from its patchwork origins: the entire trail is open to hikers and equestrians, but some sections allow other uses like mountain biking or motorized vehicles, since they were allowed before that section became part of the larger Continental Divide Trail. In the decades since, the gaps between existing trails have been filled in to create a continuous path on the ground.
The history of the Continental Divide Trail is not complete - there’s more work to be done! As of 2018, 96 percent of the Trail is located on federal land managed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or the National Park Service. Though the trail now provides a continuous, marked route from Mexico to Canada, a number of sections are currently routed along roads or highways. The US Forest Service is working with other federal land management agencies and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition to acquire key plots of land, secure easements, and build new sections of trail to provide for safe, permanent public access and better recreation opportunities along the entire trail. See how we’re working with our partners to manage and complete the Continental Divide Trail!
The Piikani (Blackfoot Nation) Trail Crew on the Continental Divide Trail in 2019. Photo courtesy of Sonny Mazzullo, Montana Wilderness Alliance, and Montana Conservation Corps.