Each summer, laden with bulky backpacks and sporting trekking poles, hikers set off from Canada or Mexico on a 3,100-mile quest to walk the backbone of the Rocky Mountains. Their route: The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which joins the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails in the nation’s Triple Crown of thru-hiking.
Once thru-hikers reach Wyoming, where some 550 miles of the trail unfurl through Yellowstone National Park, the Wind River Range and the Red Desert, they typically spend three weeks to a month in the state. This includes many days on the trail, but hikers also stop in towns to refresh food supplies, check email, shower and grab hot meals.
To better knit the thru-hikers into Wyoming’s tourism ecosystem, a movement is afoot to designate three central Wyoming towns — Lander, South Pass City and Dubois — as CDT gateway communities.
Rawlins, Pinedale and Encampment/Riverside already hold the designation, which a national nonprofit approves.
The effort, led by the Wind River Visitors Council with help from three University of Wyoming students, has seen mixed reactions. While the City of Lander and Fremont County both embrace the notion, Dubois is more dubious.
The reactions underscore the state’s varied attitude toward tourism, as many meet outdoor recreation proposals with at least a little wariness. Still, many agencies, businesses and individuals have endorsed the effort, and advocates say the designation would bring major benefits for little work.
“The Continental Divide Trail is so close and the communities are already being used by travelers of the trail,” WRVC Executive Director Helen Wilson said. “So it just seems obvious to be recognized as official gateway communities.”
Bowen Reber, Seth Kamp and Cooper Reisbeck are seniors at UW, where they are earning degrees in Outdoor Recreation & Tourism Management. For their final semester, they must complete a capstone project.
When the university called the visitors council seeking ideas for a project the students could tackle, Wilson said, the task of securing CDT gateway status was already on its wish list.
The trail passes through South Pass City, and stays fairly close to Dubois and Lander as it traverses the nearby Winds. Designation is a worthwhile effort that will bolster the towns’ outdoor recreation economy, according to the students and visitors council.
“It’ll help us promote our [communities] and fine-tune our recreation infrastructure, and will give us access to new funding opportunities,” Reber said.
The WRVC has been coordinating the effort, with the students helping with the applications and presenting to government bodies. The group seeks two gateway designations: one that lumps Lander with South Pass City (the latter is not a formal municipality) and the other for Dubois. It submitted applications last week to the Continental Divide Trail Coalition — an organization that promotes, protects and advocates for the trail — with hope the communities will be designated before the students graduate in May.
A designation helps flag communities as friendly destinations with amenities for hikers. It also aims to engender trail support among locals, said Andrea Kurth, the CDTC’s gateway community program manager.
“The purpose of the gateway community program is to, first of all, get local folks more familiar with the Continental Divide Trail that is in their backyard and the CDTC’s work, and to get them involved in going out to experience the trail for themselves. Then ultimately, to become stewards of the trail,” Kurth said.
There is no geographic criterion for a gateway community. Rather, Kurth said, the process is largely driven by the community’s initiative.
“We look for the process to be really community driven and we look for broad stakeholder support,” she said. That includes government agencies, chambers of commerce and businesses.
A community must check certain boxes in its application. This includes the formation of an advisory committee as well as gathering letters of support. According to the CDTC, the designation must ultimately be approved by the town or county government of the community that is applying.
If designation is granted, a community gets a promotional boost from the coalition, which partners on creation of marketing materials. The CDTC also offers access to funding and networking opportunities, it says. A gateway community is on the hook to host at least one annual event tied to the trail — festivals and races, for example.
“The designation is really only the beginning of a mutually beneficial partnership with CDTC,” Kurth said. What follows is a relationship aimed at cultivating projects and ideas “that will help promote the location as an outdoor recreation destination.”
Welcome and wary
After the Wind River Outdoor Recreation Collaborative agreed to act as the advisory committee, Wilson and the students took their proposal through boardrooms of Fremont County municipalities. When they pitched it to the county commission on March 8, the response was positive.
Commissioner Travis Becker said he met trail users last year near South Pass. When he asked if they were stopping in Lander, he said, “all three of them, their next destination was Pinedale … they totally were skipping Lander because it wasn’t on that list.”
People plan their entire summers around thru-hikes, Becker said. “And there’s a potential for a good amount of money and commerce coming through that we’re not getting. So I applaud what you guys are doing.”
The commission signed a letter of support; the Lander City Council did, too. But when Wilson asked the Dubois Town Council March 23, there was skepticism in the room.
According to draft meeting minutes, one council member expressed concern about the potential of road or trail closures to vehicles. A business owner said CDT users don’t spend much money in town and have been known to loiter in shops and leave odors in hotel rooms. Others raised worries about the bustling town’s ability to handle even more summer visitors. Some spoke in favor of designation.
Dubois Mayor John Meyer told WyoFile the town doesn’t want to rush into committing to an initiative it doesn’t know enough about.
“I’m kind of cautious when people say ‘well, we need a letter from you and can you sign it today?’” Meyer said.
Dubois is already on the map, he said, and he feels thru-hikers find it sufficiently well without the designation.
“So why do we need to sign something that the main purpose which I’m hearing is to let people know that we’re here?” he asked. “I just don’t have a real solid answer, whether I’m for or against it, because I don’t have all the information.”
Wilson gathered further details to send to him; the Dubois council will revisit the request April 13.
One thing is certain: Dubois has a whole lot of tourist traffic, particularly in the summer, when proximity to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks puts it in the path of thousands of visitors. Tourists run the gamut from RVers to bicyclists, Meyer said, and tourism plays an “enormous” role in the town’s economy.
The designation has also garnered much support, with endorsement letters from Wyoming State Parks, the Shoshone National Forest Washakie Ranger District, the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois and Dubois Regional Initiative for a Vital Economy. Several private individuals, including residents of Atlantic City and Dubois, also submitted support letters.
Quantifying the impact
In her follow-up correspondence with Dubois, Wilson made a case for the benefits of CDT-friendly branding. Her argument touches on a question many in the outdoor recreation realm have pondered: What real-life impacts do outdoor activities have on gateway communities?
The CDTC released a study in March that attempts to put a dollar amount on thru-hikers’ impacts. The coalition surveyed 136 small business owners in 38 communities located along the trail, including outdoor clothing shops, bars, grocery stores and guides.
Of respondents in CDT gateway communities:
- 70% reported trail users spend money and have a positive impact on their revenue.
- 60% reported they’d seen an increase in trail users coming through town since designation.
- 54% saw an increase in awareness of the CDT among business owners and residents of their city or town.
Kurth said communities such as Anaconda, Montana are capitalizing by marketing themselves as welcoming destinations. “So they’re capturing CDT traveler dollars better than a community who shies away from attracting CDT thru-hikers,” she said. “So in a lot of our gateway communities, they’ve really seen their designation become a jumping off point for attracting new residents and attracting new kinds of businesses that come into town.”
And that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, she said, “because it’s creating a holistic community development around recreation, which in turn also attracts people who are going to live and stay long term and work in the communities.”
Based on estimates from shuttle reservations, Kurth said, there could be 700-800 hikers on the trail in 2022. The activity is surging in popularity, she said.
Reber stressed that thru-hikers are generally a respectful bunch with positive benefits for Wyoming.
Hiking the entire trail, “that is like quite a feat to get done,” he said. “You gotta have high-quality gear and you need food the whole way … They’re not just a bunch of hooligans walking through the woods.”