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My Trail Story featuring Lara Handwerker

After meeting on the Appalachian Trail, Lara and her boyfriend Mike got married and decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail for their honeymoon. And they said they wouldn't have it any other way.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       03/14/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story
03/14/2019
A man giving his wife a piggy back ride next to the Continental Divide Trail terminus.
Photo by Lara Handwerker

When you hear the word “honeymoon,” you might imagine a tropical vacation, perhaps a cruise or another tranquil location with white, sandy beaches on which to relax and sip sangria. Or maybe the image that comes to mind is posh European jet setting, strolling through the streets of Paris or Munich, indulging in delicious food and soaking in the culture from countries that are not your own. Likely, abandoning your home and vehicle before setting off on a months-long journey with but one set of clothing, walking in a linear fashion from (before) sunup to (after) sundown, dealing with hunger, pain, and extreme temperatures on a daily basis, sharing just a 20 square foot space with your new spouse each night, and striding through rain, snow, lightning, and overflowing rivers until reaching a destination that was nearly 3,000 miles from where you started did not appear on that mental Pinterest board with “honeymoon” at the top.  

A hiker on a trail with big mountains in the distance.
Photo by Lara Handwerker
A view of mountains with a lake in the middle at the base.
Photo by Lara Handwerker

Nevertheless, that is exactly the celebration of marriage that my husband Mike and I chose to partake in during the summer of 2018. Having met for the first time and beginning our relationship while both thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015, we determined that another trip along the length of the U.S. would be the perfect way for us to begin our marriage as well. So in June 2018, we moved all of our belongings into storage, left our home in Richmond, Virginia, and started a thru-hike on the Continental Divide Trail. We had hiked the AT northbound and would have likely considered doing the same for our second long trail, but we didn’t complete our Masters degrees in Richmond until late May, so heading southbound on the CDT was our only option. Looking back, we could not have chosen a better direction for this incredibly unique trail and would not have had it any other way.  

We were eager to get started, and also unsure of how many miles we’d be able to complete each day since it had been three years since our last thru-hike, so we headed south from the Canadian border with a very early start date of June 15th. Montana had received about 150% of its regular snowpack that winter, so conditions were still very snowy and sketchy at times during our first week on the CDT in Glacier National Park. Like most other early-start SOBOs on the CDT, we had to start from the Chief Mountain Trailhead since the Highline Trail was far too dangerous (and closed) for us without serious winter hiking experience under our (hip)belts. Aside from that, the trail leading from Waterton Lakes to Goat Haunt was closed due to fire damage. We were a bit disappointed to not be able to hike right from Waterton, but it was still such a challenging, breathtaking, and rewarding section. Future SOBOs should truly not feel any regret whatsoever about having to take this route. We’ve never had an experience like that week before, traversing across steep snowfields with microspikes and ice axes, seeing the mountains covered in snow and lakes still frozen over, and having everywhere we went in the park entirely to ourselves—the solitude you can have in one of the most amazing places in the world via an early season thru is unparalleled.

A hiker stands on a trail with beautiful mountains in the background.
Photo by Lara Handwerker
A hiker on a snowy mountain hillside.
Photo by Lara Handwerker

It was certainly quite the start to our honeymoon—on just our second day out, it rained the entire day with temperatures in the 40s, making for a day of complete misery that culminated with us eating our dinner in the campsite privy. Not exactly the tranquil beach experience that I referenced earlier. But due to the extenuating circumstances the weather presented, we instantly had to practice our teamwork skills to stay safe and get the necessary work done—prepping dinner, getting our tent and sleep system set up without getting everything soaking wet, and securing the bear bag before settling in for the night. I look back on this day as one in particular that I’m not sure I could have gotten through on my own, but being able to work in sync with my new husband, being so uncomfortable without either of us getting short or arguing with the other—that’s an introduction to marriage that I feel so lucky to have had.  

As our honeymoon hike progressed, we continued to experience such a variety of rewarding adventures and unrelenting obstacles. The CDT is truly a rollercoaster of a trail, in terms of enjoyment and trail quality. Some days, you’re navigating swollen rivers, getting lost from confusing or nonexistent directions, and climbing over or around miles of blown down trees (see: the Bob Marshall Wilderness). Then the next, you’re strolling up rolling, grassy hills where the trail is perfectly clear, there are incredible views in every single direction, and you have perfect, flat ground on which to set up your tent and watch a wildfire of a sunset streak across the sky while wondering how you got so lucky (see: the Montana/Idaho border).

A woman hiking on a hill side with large mountains in the background.
Photo by Lara Handwerker
A lake with mountains around it.
Photo by Lara Handwerker

One of the grand things about the CDT is the variety of landscapes and ecosystems through which you travel. I’m sure most others who have hiked this path would agree that it encompasses some of the most jaw-dropping scenery you could find anywhere: Glacier National Park, the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the section between Leadore, Idaho, and Lima, Montana, that in my opinion, is about the most underrated stretch of the entire trail. Yellowstone, the Tetons—if you can find a way to do them, DO THEM—and oh my breathtaking goodness, the Wind River Range. Rocky Mountain National Park, the shared experience with Colorado Trail hikers through the Collegiates, and obviously the grandeur (and imminent threat of winter) of the San Juans. The bright yellow Aspens of northern New Mexico, the freezing water and towering canyons of the Gila River, and even down to the vibrancy of the desert and the unique sense of life and beauty only found in the Bootheel. There is truly nothing else I’ve found quite like the diversity that this trail offers, and it will forever be a glimmer of awe and wonder as I dream about this part of my past. 

That’s not to say we didn’t have our fair share of discomfort and injury—for me, it was almost a different injury for each section. Glacier and the Bob was a pulled Achilles, Wyoming was the shin splints from hell, and Colorado was constant nausea from altitude; New Mexico was where my body finally held up and I felt like a strong, worthy thru-hiker at last. Looking back, it’s a real shame and source of regret for me (though not something that I could have truly changed) that my various injuries prevented me from enjoying some of the most beautiful places in America quite as much as they deserved.  I think that’s part of the balance beam that every thru-hiker walks: when you’re pushing your body this much, you’re not giving it a break from exhaustion and any injuries incurred, but you’re making this huge journey and accomplishing the feat of thousands of miles in just a few months. To me, that defines a conflict we experience on the long trails between two different types of enjoyment: that of lingering, of breathing deeply, of soaking it all in, and that of cramming as much as you can into one long path, of feeling how far you can push your body, of learning what your limits are and blowing right past them. And somehow, the act of thru-hiking embraces both sides of this conflict and embodies it all in one glorious package. 

A hiker walking in a river with trees, bushes, and mountains on both sides.
Photo by Lara Handwerker
A hiker standing with a snow-covered mountain in the distance.
Photo by Lara Handwerker

In the end, my husband and I got to travel through five states, visit countless parks, forests, and wilderness areas, share trail space with endless unique wildlife (bears! moose! badgers!), spend 24 hours a day 7 days a week (minus, you know, bathroom breaks) together for FOUR straight months, and accomplish this huge, gargantuan feat together that most people don’t even dream of in their lifetimes (disclaimer: the ability to even begin this journey was largely a product of our shared privilege, and I recognize that many people would not have the opportunity for a massive undertaking like this even if they wanted to), all in the first half-year of marriage. I can say with certainty that this unique approach to a honeymoon did nothing but make us stronger as a couple, allow us to share 3,000 hours of teamwork, deep conversation, and belly laughs, and give us a lifetime of incredible memories to look back on for the rest of our days. And truly, what tropical vacation could have brought us that? 

A small lake in the middle of a rocky mountain area.
Photo by Lara Handwerker
A view of mountains and trees with snow everywhere.
Photo by Lara Handwerker

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Continental Divide Trail

Considered by many to be the most remote and challenging of the Triple Crown trails, the Continental Divide Trail is a 3100 mile (4980 km) adventure from Mexico to Canada, traveling through five western states. It passes through many ecosystems, 25 National Forests, 21 Wilderness Areas, 3 National Parks, and 1 National Monument.

3100 miles       $39.99 full guide
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Colorado, Continental Divide Trail
Photo by David Getchel
A trail leads through a grassy meadow to distant blue lakes and tall mountains.
Colorado, Continental Divide Trail
Photo by David Getchel
Get our hiking guide for this area!

Continental Divide Trail

Considered by many to be the most remote and challenging of the Triple Crown trails, the Continental Divide Trail is a 3100 mile (4980 km) adventure from Mexico to Canada, traveling through five western states. It passes through many ecosystems, 25 National Forests, 21 Wilderness Areas, 3 National Parks, and 1 National Monument.

3100 miles
$39.99 full guide
Explore the Trail
About the Author
A woman wearing a baseball cap and American flag tank top stands in front of a beautiful view.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.