Indigenous People have called the Rocky Mountains home since time immemorial and used the passes along the Great Divide as trading and hunting routes. Today, the Great Divide Trail passes through the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut’ina, Stoney (Ĩyãħé) Nakoda, Cree, Lheidli T’enneh, Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, Sinixt and Métis.
The first record of the Great Divide Trail appears in 1966 when the Girl Guides of Canada proposed the idea of a trail running the length of the BC‐Alberta border through the Rocky Mountains. In 1970, Jim Thorsell developed the first‐ever GDT guide: the “Provisional Trail Guide and Map for the Proposed Great Divide Trail” and the national park service approved the project with the objective of completing the GDT by 1975. However, five years later Parks Canada stalled its planning process altogether, citing inadequate trail planning methodology and unresolved overuse issues.
Outside of the National Parks, the Great Divide Trail finally sprang into being as a result of the federally-funded Opportunities for Youth (OFY) program, under which, in 1974, six students from across Canada joined forces to do the first formal survey of the GDT trail route.
The study area chosen as the focus for the OFY project was the Continental Divide region between Banff and Waterton Lakes National Parks. The group chose to focus their attention on areas outside of national and provincial parks, where no official protection existed. The aim was to generate public interest in preserving backcountry areas outside of the park system, and to provide recreational opportunities to counter-balance the commercial usage of the same lands.
During the summer of 1974, the group covered an enormous study area, each traveling about 800km on foot, taking a multitude of notes and mapping thousands of kilometres of old game, pack and First Nations’ trails. The group’s efforts resulted in a recommended route for the GDT between the two parks, crossing the Divide several times and traversing some of the most scenic areas of the region.
During 1975, many public presentations were given by members of the study group, promoting the concept of the GDT. Several motivated individuals joined the effort and the Great Divide Trail Association was formed. The first objective of the GDTA was to build a section of trail, and the Alberta government was approached for funding. The government was receptive, and the project was granted enough money to hire several students for the summer of 1976.
The first official stretch of Great Divide Trail was established between Etherington and Baril Creeks in the Highwood River watershed. This start led to similar work each summer through to the mid-1980’s. By the end of 1979, the GDT was complete from Fording River Pass in the north, to the summit of the Highwood/Oldman divide in the south. In addition, many kilometres of access routes were cleared, bridges built, and blazed.
During the 1980s the GDT project saw major accomplishments as the Trail was extended south to Tornado Pass.
By 1980, the Alberta government was allocating grant money to the GDT project annually. This support allowed the GDTA to hire trail crews each summer to carry out survey work and actual trail construction.
Supplementing these crews was a large contingent of volunteers, who spent many weekends in the summer and fall doing the necessary follow-on work such as pruning and paint blazing. There were also many organized hikes over the sections of completed trail.
Most of the work in this decade was concentrated in the Oldman River watershed, including the tributary valleys of Lyall, Beehive, Cache, Dutch and Hidden Creeks. Many of these areas are relatively inaccessible for day trips, and relatively untouched by commercial activities. The trail route in the Oldman country is characterized by high ridge walks and many spectacular larch forests, providing grand vistas of the Divide and the surrounding foothills.
By 1986, the trail had reached a southern terminus a few kilometers south of Tornado Pass. The pass is reached after crossing Tornado Saddle, one of the highest points on the GDT at 2445 metres.
Little or no work was done on the GDT during the 1990s. Many people have wondered why development of the GDT ceased during the last decade of the 20th century.
One problem loomed large – Alberta government land use policies. After many years of actively supporting the project, the government began to allow new logging and motorized access to the land traversed by the GDT route. In some cases, trails built only a few years earlier were destroyed when the surrounding landscape was heavily logged. In others, ATV users immediately took over newly completed sections of trail. Many of the original volunteers were very discouraged by these developments and lost interest in the project.
As well, several members of the original core group had dispersed to different parts of the country as their careers and families developed, some “old-timers” passed on, and these people were not replaced by fresh blood.
One promising development was a commendable effort by the government to create an Access Management Plan for the Castle River region (which was to be the model for other areas traversed by the Trail such as the Upper Oldman/Livingstone). Unfortunately the process was completely derailed following complaints to the government from a handful of ATV enthusiasts who were afraid they’d lose their unfettered access to these areas, and once again the GDT project suffered a setback.
Nonetheless, many people travelled the trail route during the 1990s and became interested in reviving the GDT project, and some of these individuals are now spearheading new efforts to protect and continue development of the Trail.
In 2000, Dustin Lynx released his guidebook “Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail”, breathing new life into the GDT. And after a fifteen year hiatus, a volunteer group known as the Friends of the Great Divide Trail began to work on the GDT once again, dedicated to maintaining the original section of the GDT from Tornado Pass to Fording River Pass, that was constructed in the 1970s and 80s.
2000 – Major clearing and blazing in South Hidden Creek; bridge building along Cache Creek access trail and GDT crossing
2001 – Bridge built over the Oldman River at Soda Creek access trail
2003 – Brush clearing and bridge maintenance in the Oldman basin
2004 – Bridge building, major clearing and trail blazing between Cataract and Lost Creeks
2005 – Clearing and re-blazing in the Lost Creek area
2006 – Bridge built over Baril Creek, trail clearing up into Fording Pass, Baril Creek access trail re-blazed
2007 – Trail re-surveyed in Lost Creek area in preparation for rerouting off of logging roads
2009 – Bridge building, trail clearing and re-blazing in upper Oldman area
2010 – Trail clearing, re-routing and blazing between Lost Creek and the upper Oldman
2012 – Bridge building over Etherington Creek, and trail clearing in difficult cut block in the creek’s north fork
In 2012, the Friends of the Great Divide Trail met to discuss how best to continue trail maintenance and to begin approaching government for formal protection of the GDT. Although maintenance had been quite successful, the informal nature of the volunteer group made obtaining the necessary permits increasingly difficult. And, although the Government of Alberta does respond to inquiries from concerned citizens, lobbying required a more formal entity. A decision was made to charter a new organization dedicated to the GDT. In the course of investigating a new charter, the group learned that the Great Divide Trail Association has been dormant but not extinguished.
As a result, effective April 2013, the Great Divide Trail Association was formally revived and is now fully active again! The GDTA continues to organize trail building and maintenance trips every year.
2013 – Major flooding in June and backcountry closures in July and August, prevented scheduled work in Hidden Creek from being performed.
2014 – Bridge building, trail building and blazing in the Hidden Creek area.
2015 – Bridge building over Cache and Lyall creeks; clearing and re-blazing in the Baril Creek area; restoration of the Aldridge Creek Trail; the first GDTA Trail Maintenance “Walking Trip” took place from Owen Creek to Pinto Lake.
2016 – Began construction of the High Rock Trail, the first new section of GDT in 30 years! Also in 2016, the GDTA partnered with Alberta Environment & Parks to clear and restore the trail around Pinto Lake; and the GDTA partnered with BC Parks and the Backcountry Horsemen of BC to clear the Colonel Pass Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park.
2017 – The GDTA expanded significantly from 1 or 2 trail maintenance trips per summer to 8 separate trips, involving 45 volunteers building 5 km of new trail and two new bridges on the High Rock Trail.
2018 – The GDTA expanded again, with 112 volunteers participating in 11 separate trips, including 7 trips on the High Rock Trail and a Walking Trip on the Original GDT. The GDTA partnered with Recreation Sites and Trails BC to restore 8 km of the historic David Thompson Heritage Trail. The GDTA partnered with the Jasper Trails Alliance to clear 6 km of trail in Jasper National Park, the first ever GDTA trail maintenance trip in a national park.
2019 – This was the wettest and coolest summer in the Rockies in decades, however that didn’t stop 135 volunteers from participating in 12 trail building and maintenance trips and 2 scouting trips – the most volunteers and total trips ever in one season! We had 54 first-time volunteers, including: students from the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Montana and Junior Forest Rangers from Calgary. Our volunteers constructed 4 km of new trail on the High Rock Trail, restored 13 km of the historic David Thompson Heritage Trail and built one new bride, cleared 6 km of the Maligne Pass Trail in Jasper National Park and re-built 1 km on the Original GDT.
2020 – The GDTA celebrated the soft opening of the 45 km-long High Rock Trail on July 24, 2020, and saw the first thru-hikers on the new trail only days later. In total, 7 trail building trips took place on the High Rock Trail, 1 trip on the Original GDT, and 3 trips to the Blaeberry, with almost 100 individuals volunteering over a span of 50 days on the Great Divide, including groups from the Junior Forest Rangers and the Outdoor Council of Canada. And all of this done under pandemic restrictions without a single incident, other than maybe a blister or two.
2021 – This was our busiest year yet, thanks to the hard work of more than 100 volunteers donating over 5,600 hours of their time. By the end of the summer, we had successfully operated 15 trail building trips through an ever evolving pandemic with zero incidents or injuries. With the help of 3 youth leadership groups: Crowsnest Bible Camp, Outdoor Council of Canada, and the Junior Forest Rangers, Great Divide Trail crews performed maintenance and trail enhancements on more than 150 km of trail including significant improvements to the remote Jackpine Valley Trail, a temporary bridge over Cairnes Creek, a long-term bridge over Cataract Creek, repairs to Lambe Creek bridge, and 8 km of new or improved tread on the High Rock Trail. 6 years, dozens of trail building trips and thousands of volunteer hours later, we can now officially open to the High Rock Trail as the main route of the GDT in 2022!