Benton MacKaye Trail: Spring in the Southern Appalachians
We, Amy and James, thru-hiked the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) during the last three weeks of April. The BMT is about 300 miles in length and roughly parallels the southernmost portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT).
The BMT is named for Benton MacKaye (muk eye’), a forester in the 1920’s who was instrumental in creating the AT. His earliest route had the AT following the current BMT, but the AT was shifted during its development. The southern terminus of the BMT is located on Springer Mountain in Georgia, the same point as the southern terminus of the AT. The northern terminus of the BMT is at Big Creek Campground in the far northeastern corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). While the BMT follows a completely different route than the AT, it crosses the AT at Fontana Dam in North Carolina and terminates near Davenport Gap where the AT crosses Interstate 40.
We selected this trail because we wanted to do some springtime hiking in the southern Appalachians but didn’t want to deal with the commotion and crowds on the AT. By hiking the BMT in April, we were able to experience the unfolding of spring in the mountains. When we started walking on April 8, the trees at 1800 feet had not yet started to leaf out and by the time we left the mountains on May 2, most everything below 4500 feet was fully flushed. It was interesting and rewarding to travel back and forth between late winter and full spring just by changing altitude.
The BMT includes about 90 miles of trail within GSMNP. Most of the rest of the trail is within National Forests. There are a couple of very short stretches of road walking, but these roads are rural and have almost no traffic.
Below is a map of the BMT as we walked it. You can view the map and download a kml or gpx track from CalTopo.
This was our route, and, like many routes on long trails, there are a few variations from the “official” path. In one place, we took a described alternate to avoid a difficult high-water crossing of lower Slickrock Creek that was in flood following a couple of days of significant rain. Along the Hiwassee River, we elected to stay on a riverside road and trail instead of following the slightly inland BMT as the river was very beautiful and a quite different experience from the upland walking we had been doing. In 2014 the BMT routing was significantly changed near Tapoco, and now avoids several miles on a narrow road with a lot of fast traffic; we followed the new route. We also added a diversion to climb to the summit of Clingman’s Dome, at 6343, the highest point anywhere near the BMT. Clingman’s has an observation platform from which fine views are obtained. The kml file does not include diversions to towns for resupply or post BMT walking we did to fill up a couple of leftover days.
The vast majority of the BMT was in excellent walking condition. The route has a lot of up and down, but mostly on moderate grades. Total gain for our walk was around 60,000 feet. The tread was in good condition, even following several rainstorms. There was little encroaching undergrowth and most of the trail appears to be maintained on a regular basis.
With one exception, there were very few blow-downs to contend with. There is a section of about 8 to 10 miles centered on Round Mountain that was extensively covered with downed branches, both large and small. While there were few large trees blocking the trail, and the route was not difficult to follow, the walking was slower this area. We understand that it has been this way for at least over a year and we don’t know why it is this way.
There are a lot of streams and creeks along the route. Most of the larger crossings have bridges, but there are a few places where fording is required. None of the fords we made were difficult, but water levels do go up and down depending on the rain. We understand that on occasion, some of the fords can be impassible for periods of time following extensive and/or heavy rains.
Waymarking on the trail is mixed. In the non-wilderness sections of the National Forests, the trail is well marked with white diamonds. The quality and usefulness of these waymarks is quite good. On the other hand, there are zero waymarks within the formal Wilderness areas. There are trail signs at most junctions, so getting seriously lost would take an effort. In the GSMNP, there is no waymarking on the trails other than at junctions. At trail junctions there was always adequate signage, so again, getting lost is unlikely.
The BMT does not have many places to see out of the forest. In fact, there are less than a dozen locations along the trail with a clear view to a distant horizon. When the leaves were not yet flushed we were able to get filtered views through the bare branches; in summer it would be, like the AT, a “long green tunnel”.
We started our walk at Amicalola State Park in Georgia. This park is located at the base of Springer Mountain about 9 trail miles from the official start of both the BMT and the AT. There is a free hiker shelter near the entrance to the park. We had flown into Atlanta and were met by a pre-arranged shuttle at North Springs, located at the northern end of the MARTA line running from the airport. By taking the train, we avoided driving through almost all of metropolitan Atlanta.
We finished at Standing Bear Farm just north of Davenport Gap, where another pre-arranged shuttle took us to the Knoxville, TN airport. The also offer shuttles to Ashville, NC.
We carried a book titled Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hikers Guide by Ernest B. Engman as out primary guidebook. It is easily obtained from the Benton MacKaye Trail. Although the book could use a good editor, it had essentially all the information a hiker needs about the route and resupply options. It is small and lightweight and has little extraneous text. The 2014-2015 edition is the most up-to-date as of this writing.
We used three Trails Illustrated maps published by National Geographic: Springer and Cohutta Mountains, Tellico and Ocoee Rivers, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although these maps are at a 1:70,000 scale, they are current and accurate, clearly show the BMT, and are more than adequate for navigational purposes.
As is usual, we also carried downloaded topographic and geographic data in our iPhone using the app Gaia GPS.
The BMT website is also a very useful source of data. It includes lists of re-supply options and a list of shuttle providers.
In the National Forests, campsites, both established and rough are not difficult to find. There are many pre-established sites marked by fire rings or other signs of use. The forests are usually open enough that finding a place to put a tent was not restricted by heavy undergrowth. However, slopes are often steep and you will usually be walking along a ridge top, so localized flat and level places may can be infrequent. The trail does pass through some stretches where the surrounding lands are private and camping is not allowed; the guidebook provides detailed information about these places. There are four public shelters along the BMT: Springer Mountain GA, Indian Rock, GA, near Fontana Dam, NC, and Laurel Gap in GSMNP.
Within the GSMNP, you must camp at formal sites. On the AT, these are shelters; on the BMT, with one exception, these are tent sites only. The sites have clever cable systems installed to hang packs to deter bears. They do not have privies. Water is usually available near the sites. We found many of the NPS sites to be poorly located and without flat and level places to pitch a tent. Why they were constructed this way is a complete mystery.
There are only two resupply options directly on the BMT. These are the Webb store in Reliance, TN and the Fontana Resort in NC. In both cases, grocery selections are extremely limited. However, both locations accept and will hold pre-shipped food parcels without charge. There are a few places along or very near the trail where meals can be purchased. Otherwise, the hiker must leave the trail and travel 4 to 8 road miles off route to towns for resupply or meals. We easily hitched into Blue Ridge and Bryson City. There are several grocery stores including a Wal-Mart in Blue Ridge. The Ingals market in Bryson City was excellent with a good grocery selection and fine deli.
Obtaining water on the BMT was not an issue. There are many streams and numerous springs along the route. The guidebook describes many, but not all of these. We treated the water except at springs.
A permit from the NPS is required to transit GSMNP. It is extremely easy to obtain on-line.
You can do this at any time prior to your arrival at the park. In theory, you must list the exact campsite you will use on any particular date. In a phone conversation with a park ranger, it seems things are a bit looser than that. What is most important is that you have a valid permit for any day you are in the park, but if you get to a campsite on a date earlier or later than planned, the world will not end. Keep in mind that many of the sites are small with limited spaces for tents. If other users with permits are there when you show up without a valid permit, it is unclear what happens. We did not encounter any park rangers on the trails.
You can obtain an on-line permit just prior to entering the park by using a public computer found in the main building at the Fontana Resort. It has a printer for printing the permits and the use of both is free.
One of the reasons the eastern forests are so lush is that it does rain there. We had our share of wet weather and it is just to be expected. It rained maybe half the days of our trip, but rarely in a way that caused discomfort. Most of the rain was intermittent and light, with long periods of no precipitation between showers. The heaviest rain was during two nights, when thunderstorms raged, but we were snug in our tent.
If you start in the early spring, as we did, it is possible that there may be snowfall at higher elevations. In fact, while we were in GSMNP, the road to Clingman’s Dome was temporarily closed by the park service because of snow and ice. If snow does fall, it is unlikely to be heavy or last long.
Leaving later in the season means you will miss the advent of spring and hot and humid weather will be likely. A trip in the autumn when the leaves are turning would likely be glorious.
We met a total of six other people thru-hiking the BMT during the three weeks we were on route. We also encountered a few other people out on day hikes, overnights, hunting, or on trail runs, but in reality, we had the trail to ourselves the vast majority of the time. We shared campsites in GSMNP on three occasions; this is probably common because specific campsites are mandated by the NPS. We shared campsites on two nights with another BMT thru hiker while not in the park.
Contrast this with the AT. During April it is not uncommon for fifty people a day to start walking NOBO. We heard that some of the shelters in GSMNP had as many as forty tents set up around them. While many of the hikers who start the AT are both physically and mentally prepared for their long journey, the early stretches of the trail have a lot of people who may have been better off doing something else. These wanna-bees contribute to a social scene we preferred to avoid.
Birds and other Critters
Previous readers of our posts have learned that we usually have a section on birds. We recorded exactly 100 species on this trip. Northbound spring migration was starting to move through the area while we were there and new species could be picked out as the days went by. Raptors were few in number and diversity, but there were lots of migrant passerines. We saw a surprising number of the brilliantly colorful Scarlet Tanagers and many warblers. Bird of the trip was the modest little Ovenbird, who was quite vocal and present in large numbers, making it an easy bird to observe. Our only life bird on this trip was an unexpected roadside Henslow’s Sparrow.
There were warnings about bears, and we saw scat but we never saw a bear nor spoke to anyone who had. We did see a lot of squirrels and one Bobcat. We also saw about ten snakes, including an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, possibly a couple of Copperheads and a large Black Snake slowly devouring a squirrel it had caught.
On a couple occasions we had annoying swarms of flies, but on most of the trip we were not bothered by insects.
I enjoyed this route. The walking was generally easy and low stress. The trail was mostly in good condition. We had no adversity other than some rainy weather, which is just part of the deal. Although there was usually not a lot to look at other than the forest, watching spring unfold in an eastern forest is magical. The trees leaf out, the understory fills with new growth and wonderful floral displays, and the birds are singing. The BMT in spring nicely bookended our transit of Vermont’s Long Trail at the height of the autumn foliage season.
I enjoyed the solitude we experienced for most of the trip. Unlike the nearby AT, we had the trail mostly to ourselves. There was bit of variety walking along a couple of rivers that added to the experience. Would I want to spend months doing the entire AT? No; there is far more diversity in the world of hiking. But to me, doing this trail was worth the time and can recommend it to others who want a change from our wide-open western spaces.
I share Jim’s assessment. I had not spent time in the hardwood forests of the eastern U.S. since I was in college. It was very satisfying to watch spring unfold in the forests. The flowers on the forest floor were often in full display, blooming dogwoods were abundant, and the songbirds were a delight. The walking was easy, there were no hassles or challenges, and it was easy to relax and just enjoy walking. Three weeks was just right – long enough to get into the rhythm but not so long as to start craving views or scenic diversity.
The beautiful lush greenery and abundant water was in stark contrast to the record-breaking dry conditions at home. We had a fair amount of rain in the first ten days, but after walking for a month in Scotland (windy, cold, relentless rain) the rain on our trip (calm, warm, usually intermittent) my scale is skewed, and the rain on our BMT hike seemed benign and appropriate to the lush green conditions.
Compared to our other recent eastern hike (autumn VT Long Trail in 2013), this was a much easier walk in terms of quality of the trail tread. This was a nice complement to that hike - one spring and one autumn; one northern Appalachians and one southern Appalachians.
I'm a fairly social person, and I very much enjoyed visiting with occasional hikers - one or two at a time. I would not have enjoyed the very different social event that is the AT; just not my cup of tea. We referred to the crowd on the nearby AT as The Great Booted Millipede. For more social people who like larger groups, or are using the hiking time to meet new people and make lots of new friends, the AT might be a better choice.