CDT ‘Big Sky route’ alt notes

A 350 mile approx. variation from the CDT in southern Montana and northern Wyoming The Big Sky variant or Butte Super Cut-off is a route that we hiked in 2009 that travels from the CDT south of Yellowstone (at Two Ocean Pass) north to meet the CDT again north of Butte (at Delmoe Lake).

It cuts out the Montana/Idaho border section of the CDT and travels through Yellowstone east and north boundaries, Gallatin Petrified Forest, Spanish Peaks and the Tobacco Root mountains.

We are not the first to thru hike this way. Jim and Ginny Owen did so northbound in 2006. The Onion hiked a roughly similar line in 2007, provided good notes and mapped out the northern half from Delmoe Lake to Yellowstone north border in ‘Jonathan Ley style’ maps downloadable on-line. Skittles and Recess have hiked it in 2008 too. I am sure that there are others.

Overview map with mileages (click on map to expand)

Why hike the Big Sky variant?
Well, we did it primarily for a bit of fun and adventure away from the CDT and to explore different ground. Southbound we thought the CDT in mid-Montana a bit dull with lots of lodgepole pine and the alternative provided some varied scenery.

It was also refreshing to be heading out on our own making the route up as we went along- or at least it felt like that. Somehow if we got into less interesting hiking we made more of it because the route felt ours more than the CDT. It covers some interesting territory too- the Spanish Peaks offered the best mountains we had hiked since Glacier NP, Gallatin Petrified Forest has nice ridges and … petrified trees, and we meandered on a long hike through remote, scenic and wildlife rich parts of Yellowstone. Yellowstone isn’t quite up to Glacier or the Winds but it still provides a worthy hike on good trails with few other hikers around.

It’s also a fair bit shorter than the CDT equivalents; about 353 miles as described, to the CDT Butte route’s 576 miles and the Anaconda cut-off’s 517 miles. A mileage breakdown is shown on the overview map.

We used days saved on the Big Sky to spend more time in the wonderful Wind Rivers further south in central Wyoming.

Click here for our photos from the Big Sky variant

Below are annotated topo maps for the route, please note they were produced in 2009 at the latest and so may be out of date in parts!

MAPS – Big Sky SOUTH Brian’s 20 maps (36MB)

MAPS – Big Sky NORTH Onion’s 13 maps (52MB)

Other Useful Maps
You could navigate the route as we hiked it using the downloadable maps above. Listed below are other useful maps which would be handy for planning.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton Travel Map ($4.95) I couldn’t find this on the web but can be purchased locally and is great- almost a must have for planning. Extends from Union Pass in the Winds, Togwatee Pass, Two Ocean Pass to Yellowstone and also the Grand Tetons. Also good for planning another alternative between Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons to Green Lakes in the Winds but that’s another story…

National Geographic 201 Yellowstone Good overview of Yellowstone NP although it doesn’t show campsites.

Beartooth Bozeman, Big Sky,West Yellowstone Covers the Skyline trail in Yellowstone, Gallatin ridge, north of Yellowstone over to the Spanish Peaks. Sometimes the Beartooth maps lack detail but I was glad I carried this one.

Beartooth Tobacco Root Mountains I haven’t seen this but it looks nice and it should cover Ennis to Whitehall.

Southwest Montana Interagency Visitor/Travel Map This has been updated for 2008. I had the 1996 one but it has no contours and I wouldn’t buy or carry it if hiking the route again. The Beartooth maps would be better IMHO.

Yellowstone camping guide You have to book campsites in Yellowstone but as a CDT thru hiker you can do it over the phone. This link provides details and a campsite map for the park.

Other References
2006 Hike Jim and Ginny Owen’s journal

2008 Hike Skittles and Recess journal description The Onion’s notes on his hike of the route

Some photos from the final furlong…..

The long straight road across Wyoming’s Great Basin. We walked 23 miles in a straight line on this day…..

Great Basin, Wyoming


The sun and lack of shelter required some novel solutions. In this case lunch was under the tent propped up to allow the wind to flow around. Surprisingly- it worked!


We reach the 2000mile mark and celebrate with some artwork using local materials and powerbars!

Martina at our finishing point on September 26th- Battle Pass Wyoming. The next challenge was to make it to Denver , Colorado- it took four hitch hikes and two buses to get there. Ready for a rest…….!

…Reader, I Married Him

Dear readers,

From the lofty Wind River mountains we were washed into the Great Basin of Wyoming by a spell of wet weather. The Great Basin is a curious natural feature where the Divide actually splits in two: in the basin itself, water just goes “down” and seeps into the ground. Mountain ridges either side of it shed the water into Pacific (Green River) and Atlantic (Sweetwater River and Platte River) respectively. What falls in between just soaks in! It is a high plateau covered in silvery sage, inhabited by antelope (more of these later) and wild horses. No shelter, no people, no towns for mile – and very little water. 120 miles of this – our final challenge!

After a recovery stop in the town of Lander (home that weekend of the annual “one-shot-antelope-hunt” – it seems we were lucky to get a motel room!) we headed into the sage desert in bright sunshine. Here we crossed path with the Oregon Trail, the Overland Trail, the Pony Express and the Mormon Trail – thousands of hopeful souls who crossed these waterless plains in search of brighter futures in the 19th century. Now there’s just a big network of trails for the benefit of people who want to shoot wildlife it seems.

The pronghorn antelope isn’t one (an “antelope” I mean), actually. It’s the only exponent of a family of ungulates unique to the USA and wonderfully adapted to being on every predator’s dinner menu between the ice ages: it is the fastest runner in the Western hemisphere at 60 mps – and not just for a sprint but for about an hour solid if necessary – it has very sharp eyesight and can spot things at 3-4 mile distance (or so I read on the WWW), it is certainly very wary of two legged animals walking towards it – we never got closer than 300 meters to any of them. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem concerned about things on wheels (a bit like the sheep on Skye) which, given that your average American hunter shoots from the truck window, is rather a shame for the species. They also are the only animal that grows proper horns (as opposed to antlers) and then sheds them every year. We didn’t find any though.

On day 3 in the basin we camped by a little cow infested yet promising spring under benign cumulus, tent turned into a mild Westerly evening breeze – only to wake 2 hours later to the tent being flattened by a northerly gale with snow … bell-end departed company with the pegs and someone (a man’s job this, surely) had to go out in the lashing storm (in underpants) to re-peg the whole mess. The next morning, snow lay on all the hills around us and an icy northerly continued to blow us infront of itself down the endless straight jeep-roads that serve as the CDT in the Basin.

This morning, we descended from our last Divide peak (Bridger Peak 11,000ft) to a trail head at Battle Pass. This is the pass where we set out in 2004 on a 300 mile taster-hike along the CDT, the end of which was Dillon Lake in Colorado (where we started this year’s Colorado Southbound hike) … sigh … sorry to be so complicated. The upshot is that this morning we completed to make a set of footsteps between Mexico and Colorado on the CDT (with 300 miles of steps from 2004). This year we have walked 2,100 miles.

Now we are finished
Now our feet get a chance to recover
Now we must eat lots so as not to frighten our parents on our return
Now we will hire a car for 2 weeks and be tourists

It doesn’t seem real yet
We’ve done it!

Thanks to all the lifts and support and spontaneous help we have had.
It’s been FAB

ps thanks to Tom and Debbie , Florida for the rare photo of the 2 of us hiking….

Southern Wind Rivers…….

We pride ourselves in pitching the tent quickly, but maybe not this speedily !!

Our trek along the Wind River mountains of Wyoming has now been completed. We made it to the southern edge of the mountains in prairie country at South Pass City. Its been a great hike taking about 11 days. The supermarket in Pinedale, Wyoming shows that we are in hunting country………..

Pinedale supermarket


And autumn is on its way….

Our tent (middle bottom of photo) lost in granite slabs, lakes and mountains. Spider Lakes, Wind Rivers Wyoming.


Martina makes a river crossing with Warbonnet Peak looming above.


We approach the Cirque of the Towers looking like the Skye ridge in Scotland – with Scottish weather.


Cirque of the Towers. Two classic rock climbs here- Pingora Peak’s right hand skyline and the Wolf ‘s Head in the middle.

The end of the mountains… We hit prairie and dirt roads heading for South Pass City, Wyoming


Mountains of Light and Wind

We have just returned from 6 days of walking through the Wind River mountains. Again we spurned the CDT propper for a more adventurous and wilder route, but moving steadily South.

We started out in the town of Dubois (pronounced: Doo-Boys) and after aprox 15 miles of trail into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, left preformed trails and notions behind and headed straight up Shale Mountain over a wild, broken plateau of tortured looking granite slabs and not much else. It was freeing to be rid of the trail! Our route led through wildly undulating landscape past deep blue lakes rimmed by snowpatches and steel granit slabs. Every 20 minutes the views changed completely. Small alpine flowers gave it their best before the onset of winter: purple primroses, alpine asters and sunflowers.

One afternoon a thunderstorm brewed above our heads and out of nowhere, lightning struck a cliff 200 meters above us. We could see a small cloud of smoke or rockdust followed by a chunk of rock tumbling into the valley. The electric discharge increased our walking pace valleywards considerably.

We spent fun hours bush-wacking through blowdowns and burns until we got to the valley of the Green River and the Green Lakes. The river eventually joins the Colorado (in the state of Colorado) and flows to the Pacific – or rather it doesn’t make it there for abstraction and damming, but that’s where it is headed.

From the Greenriver Valley we crossed into the stunningly jagged Titcomb Basin via a coll called Knapsack Pass which sounds like fun and picknicks but turned out to be a pretty hair raising lose-boulders and semi-frozen scree affair. Luckily the glacier hanging under the far side of the pass had retreated and softened (thank you global warming) significantly and we were able to leave the tottering boulder fields and run down the ice (much safer).

In Titcomb Basin (did I mention it is very beautiful?) we made a base-camp and the next day climbed the 2nd highest peak in the Windrivers: Fremont Peak at 13700 (or there abouts – map and guidebook could not agree on its actual hight) to gain wonderful views of the area (did I mention it is VERY beautiful?).

There was a puzzling absence of wildlife in what is a huge wilderness area. None the less we saw 2 moose, an osprey carrying a fish, the first marmot (yellow bellied) since Glacier National Park as well as the usuals small friendly mammals (Pika, Chipmunk)…and a dead horse (!?).

Now we are resting in Pinedale and are heading back for a 2nd part of the Windrivers tomorrow. Hoping to post some pictures at the next stop (did I mention it is very beautiful here?)

Leaving Griz-country

One day in Yellowstone National Park we had just descended into the big valley formed by the Yellowstone River upstream of the big Lake, when we saw 2 horses and 6 mules trotting along the path towards us. They were riderless, bridle-less and looking very naughty. None the less, the lead mule walked right up to me (even as I stepped off the trail to let them past), sniffed my hand which I extended in welcome, and then gave me a dismissive looked and lead his little herd on past us and towards the Lake. 40 minutes later, a gentleman and a black horse gallopped past us as we were sheltering from a rain shower under a large pine. A further 3 hours later, the same gentleman overtook us again, leading 2 horses and 6 mules, all looking very guilty, dusty but also slightly smug. ” Don’t know where they thought they were headed, ” he said to us as he passed. “Home?” I suggest – after all, camping in grizzly country for nights on end is pretty nerve wrecking …

PS: that is NOT one of our photos thank goodness! We’ve still not seen any bears though lots and lots of signs of their omnipresence! We are now heading South and up (in terms of elevation) and will soon be out of range of the Grizzly bears. The one above is shown in full flight – they can sprint at 30 mph apparently!

Yellowstone National Park

Being off the CDT has been great fun! For the last 8 days, we have been in Yellowstone National Park, walking through the park on a route east of the caldera and lake. This is the serengeti of the USA! We’ve seen lots of buffalo (bison!), herds of antelope (they are not real antelope but that’s what they call these aninmals here), elk (wapiti deer) and their shed antlers (too heavy to carry – alas!), wolf tracks (lots!) and more evidence of bears than is good for a peaceful night of sleep: the euphemistacally named “bear cake”, hairs stuck to trees, scratch marks 3 meters high on trees and foot prints (look a lot like naked human feet). We also saw a badger, a fox, coyote, two toads and two frogs and the last third of a snake! Still waiting to see moose.

Because this is Yellowstone, we’ve also walked past steaming springs, lots of interesting vulcanic rocks and other signs of the areas eruptive past. Particularly amazing are pieces of fossilised wood that lie around here and there – some red, some white with clearly visible fibre structure of wood which could easily be mistaken for bleached bits of old timber … but they are 50 million years old! At the North edge of the park we passed an erroding hillside where whole logs of these trees were exposed.

Today we are resting after 9 very hot days in a row (still can’t cope with the heat!) in Cody, tourist town and famous for Buffalo Bill’s travelling show of “the Wild West”. He practically invented the whole romantic cowboy thing.

Brian has worn out his 3rd pair of shoes and my hiking dress (dress number 2) is starting to fall to pieces so we will be shopping for new apparel.

Deliberating over whether to hike a detour through the Tetons or whether to rejoin the CDT in 4 days distance and continue straight towards the Wind River mountains on the CDT.