You are standing at a junction. If you turn left you have 40 miles of dirt road walking in your future, yea you could do it all today, but is that what you are really out here for? To your right you have 50 miles of bushwhack, ridgelines, epic wilderness. It will take you significantly longer, but you will experience and see so much more. Checking your food supply, your map systems, and conferring with your trail family, you voice the opinion that had already been made when you first learned of this alternate. You take the path to the right. The first footstep on this alternate brings about a sense of wonder, exploration, and achievement, outside of the "traditional" route and path you have been following for months. You are excited, more excited than you have been in weeks, to explore the path less traveled, the path few chose to wander, and the path that had been waiting for you!
The Red Line is the "official route", and the light blue line is the alternate. If you look the alternate tucks you into a view literally next to a glacier, while the regular route keeps you in a valley. Still beautiful but different types of beauty to be experienced!
This article is about the power of the alternate's while on a thru-hike. To define an alternate for those of you who are wondering.." well, to the left, to the right, they are all going the same place why does it matter which junction you take, why is it an alternate?" On long distance trails, there is a specific route that is the "original" route. This original route was the route when the trail was created, yet as time has gone on, the trail continues to grow and alternates are added on for those who prefer a different experience. There are some in the hiking community that are very strict about not deferring from the original route even if the "alternate" has been accepted by the trail association as part of the trail. Then there are those that open themselves to the trail experience and let the trail dictate their decision. Neither way is right, neither way is wrong, both ways are the right way to hike if you chose this method!
To a degree there are few trails out there that to deviate from the original route is frowned upon, because the original route is the "only" route through the landscape. The two trails that this is the most prevalent on is the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Even with these two trails having this thought hang around them the degree to which it is believed on each trail drastically shifts. On the Appalachian Trail you follow the White Blazes. There is no thought of alternates. There is no question. It is simple, there is a white blaze every few yards. The path has been defined for you and beaten down with millions of footsteps that previously tread the same ground. This is the Grandfather of all trail systems, it is old, it is wise, it knows the way. You just follow.
The White Blazes on the Appalachian Trail. Simply follow, no questions here!
Then when you look over at the Pacific Crest Trail, again the trail spans in front of you, millions of footsteps have tread the ground ahead, yet sometimes you see these footsteps split apart. Alternates on the PCT are mostly built out of necessity. When doing a long distance trail out west, you are likely to run into "fire-season." Fire-season is extreme, more and more extreme each year, and will close down sections of trail for you, that you are forced to find a suitable alternate. Yet, the original route always calls you back, back home to its embrace. So, with alternates on the PCT, the thought becomes, well only if I have to. There is so much beauty, support, and structure around these two trail systems, the AT and the PCT, that alternates are not really a big part of the trail experience, and that is awesome, but once you start getting into lesser known trails the power of the alternate becomes quite evident.
On to the CDT or Continental Divide Trail. The biggest physically and biggest mental hurdle of a trail of the Big 3, (AT, PCT, CDT). Alternates are not only a choice, but a necessity. The saying goes, "no matter who does the CDT, the footsteps connecting the route will never be the same." This is true not only because sometimes you have to pick your route across terrain where there is no defined trail, but also because there are so many alternates, that who knows who chose what. We ourselves had chose alternates on the CDT, and two of the biggest ones that speak out to us, and we are fortunate enough to have experienced are the Gila Alternate and the Cirque De Tower Alternate. In fact, the Gila alternate while not being the "original" path is the route that 99% of thru-hikers will chose, due to it being immensely more beautiful in its own way than the original route. With this route you get to hike in the Gila Canyon, and cross the river what felt like hundreds of times, and experience the Gila in its raw beauty. The next alternate the Cirque is in the Wind River Range. Again you will find 99% of thru-hikers choosing this alternate. Why? It has more elevation change and more passes, but it is epically beautiful. When a hiker sees an opportunity to experience the wild more, see another mountain top, see the bottom of a canyon, most likely they will take it! These are just the most popular two alternates on the CDT, yet this trail is absolutely peppered with alternate routes. The group-thought around this trail is not stigmatized around taking an alternate is "wrong", instead since it is such a necessary part of the experience, people boast of the alternates they have taken, and speak of them passionately. It would be a completely different trail experience if the group-thought was as strict as the AT and PCT. It truly is special, and it is the trail that opened our eyes to the power of the alternate.
The Gila Alternate, a world of beauty and adventure in these canyon walls! Not only highly recommended, but if you do the CDT almost guaranteed every hiker in your class will chose this alternate.
We wouldn't change anything about our AT or PCT hikes, in fact we would do the original routes again, because that is the right "feel" for those trails, no matter the group-thought pressure around it. The CDT the right feel was the power of the alternates. That is what it becomes about, you listen to the "feel" of the trail system you are on, and it lets you make the right choice for you in the moment, it will guide you.
This is not to say that you should disregard the original route. Of course we stick to the original route 99% percent of the time. Yet, there is a beauty in that 1% where you chose the accepted alternate from the trail association. Take for example the GDT or Great Divide Trail. When we did this trail system in the summer of 2020, this trail is so remote and continuing to find its growth, that alternates are everywhere. The alternates of this trail would only add to the experience. We were not able to do a few this year that had really excited us because of the trail conditions and extremely uncommon weather conditions, it would have been dangerous. But, there is the alternate of Coral Pass that would bring you into Boulton Creek by traversing a mountain range tucked next to glaciers, instead of a 20ish mile road walk. That looked epically beautiful, and would have only added to the experience. Then there is the High Rock Alternate that they just completed this year, that again avoids dirt road walking and looks extremely beautiful. The list goes on and on, and the thought around this trail, is these alternates are ingrained into what a thru-hike of the trail is about. Not taking away from the "original" route but only adding adventure and exploration to the experience.
Take for example another growing trail system, the PNT or Pacific Northwest Trail. Epically, epically beautiful every single day no matter the route you take. Yet, there is one alternate that 99% if not 100% of hikers take. This alternate is called the Lion's Head Alternate. Why do so many chose this alternate? Well, the original route goes through a valley thick with overgrowth and vegetation for 10+ miles. It is a bushwhack nightmare, moving at a snails pace of maybe .5 an hour. So, instead of this many chose the high route, or the Lion's Head Alternate. Not only does it avoid this vegetation, but it greets you with a complete wilderness experience in the alpine of the Idaho mountains. You climb out of the valley, and than stay on a ridgeline bouncing above and below the trees for miles. No defined trail, only a mountain peak in the distance that you set your sights on, and chose your path accordingly. Read the land, read the Topo lines on the map, feel the wilderness completely around you. The two routes, the original and the alternate, take about the same amount of time, yet the alternate rewards you with epic views and ridgelines filled with Class 3 scrambling that you simply would not get down in the valley. It is rewarding to a different level. It was one of our favorite parts of the PNT, and it added to the experience exponentially. If we were in the mind set of having to follow the original route, we would look back on that same section and be frustrated instead of awe inspired. It was beautiful.