What: thru-hike of the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT).
Where: Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
When: April 8-29, 2015 (22 days).
Distance: about 315 miles
Highlights: spring in the southern Appalachians, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, wildflowers, spring bird migration.
The Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA) is a very useful source of data, including lists of re-supply options and shuttle providers.
The BMTA sells the guidebook we used: Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hikers Guide by Ernest B. Engman. Although the book could use a good editor, it had the essential route and resupply options information. It is small, lightweight and has little extraneous text.
We used three 1:70,000 Trails Illustrated maps: Springer and Cohutta Mountains, Tellico and Ocoee Rivers, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are current, accurate, clearly show the BMT, and are more than adequate for navigational purposes.
Why we went
We selected this trail because we wanted to take a springtime hike in the southern Appalachians but didn’t want to deal with the commotion and crowds on the Appalachian Trail (AT). By hiking the BMT in April, we were able to experience the unfolding of spring in the Appalachians. When we started walking on April 8, the trees at 1800 feet had not yet started to leaf out, and when we finished the hike on April 29, 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. This trip also provided us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a variety of eastern woodland birds.
Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.
I had not spent much time in the eastern hardwood forests since I was in college and it was very satisfying to watch spring unfold there. 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 simple to relax and just enjoy the 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 multi-year drought 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) my scale is skewed, and the rain on our BMT hike (calm, warm, usually intermittent) seemed benign and appropriate to the lush green conditions.
Compared to our other recent eastern hike on Vermont’s Long Trail, 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. 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.
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 get started 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 available on other hiking venues. But to me, doing the BMT was well worth the time and I recommend it to others who want a change from our wide-open western spaces.
Notes for Potential Hikers
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 Smokey 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.
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. We completed the BMT a few days prior to our scheduled flight home, so we spent the time exploring the eastern portions of GSMNP.
Our CalTopo map shows our route, and, like many walks on long trails, we had a few variations from the “official” path. In one place, we took a described alternate to avoid a difficult high-water crossing at Slickrock Creek, which 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 uphill BMT as the river was very beautiful and quite different 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. Along the way, we found that the BMT was supposed to be routed off of FS 251, but the trail had not been cleared yet, so we stayed on the dirt Forest Service road instead.
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 with fine views.
Our CalTopo map shows the AT for reference purposes.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense. Use the stated distances as guidance; various sources of trail distances rarely agree.
The trail tread was in good condition, and there was little encroaching vegetation. Most of the trail appeared to be maintained on a regular basis. The route has a lot of up and down, but mostly on moderate grades. Total gain for our walk was around 60,000 feet.
With one exception, there were very few blow-downs. There was 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, our progress was slowed in this area. We understand that it had been this way for over a year and we don’t know the trail’s current status.
The trail crosses many streams. 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 vary and we understand that some of the fords can be impassible immediately following 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 no waymarks within the formal Wilderness areas. There are, however, trail signs at most junctions. In the GSMNP, the only way-marking is at junctions where there was always adequate signage.
There are not many places on the BMT with sweeping vistas; there are fewer than a dozen places along the trail with a clear view to a distant horizon. As the leaves were not yet fully 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 Station, 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. Standing Bear also offers shuttles to Ashville, NC. and has cabins for rent and a tiny shop. It is extremely popular with AT hikers.
While in the National Forests rough and established campsites 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 localized flat and level places 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. 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.
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 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 travel 4 to 8 road miles off route to towns for resupply or meals. We easily hitched into and out of 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 a fine deli.
There are many streams and numerous springs along the route and obtaining water was not a challenge. 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.
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 rains regularly, and we had our share of wet weather. It rained on about half the days, but was rarely heavy or prolonged enough to be uncomfortable. Most of the rain was intermittent and light, with long periods of no precipitation between showers. We had raging thunderstorms on two nights while we were snug in our tent.
In early April snow is possible at higher elevations. While we were in GSMNP, the road to Clingman’s Dome was temporarily closed due to snow and ice. However, if snow does fall in April, it is unlikely to be heavy or prolonged.
We think our timing was optimal for a spring trip, as we got to see the full unfolding of the leaves and we had terrific wildflower displays. Starting the BMT in late April or May would mean missing onset of spring. Hiking in summer would be hot and humid. 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. We encountered a few additional 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. Outside of GSMNP we shared campsites on only two nights.
Contrast this with the AT. During April it is not uncommon for fifty people a day to start walking north from Springer Mountain. We heard that some of the shelters in GSMNP had as many as forty tents set up around them, a social scene we preferred to avoid.
Birds and Other Critters
We recorded exactly 100 species of birds on this trip; northbound spring migrants were starting to move through the area and new species appeared as our trip progressed. Raptors were few in number and diversity, but there were many migrant songbirds. We saw a surprising number of the brilliantly colorful Scarlet Tanagers and many warblers. The 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 many 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 insects did not bother us during most of the trip.