The AT Is Crowded. Why Not Start Your Thru-Hike on the Benton Mackaye Trail Instead?

It’s March, and the Appalachian Trail is teeming with humanity. Thousands attempt to hike the iconic footpath each year — and for better or worse, many of them start in March.

The timing makes sense. A March start date holds the promise of milder spring weather just around the corner, while allowing northbounders plenty of months to reach Maine before Katahdin trails temporarily close in October.

Also, it’s what everyone else is doing. On what may be America’s most social long-distance trail, many see the big crowds of fellow hikers as a blessing rather than a curse.

Yet overcrowding is a problem on the AT. The social scene might be awesome, but the overflowing shelters and privies, litter-strewn treadway, and trampled vegetation definitely is not.

But did you know that the AT isn’t the only long-distance trail that starts on Springer Mountain? The Benton Mackaye Trail (BMT) is a 290-mile hike that begins on Springer and ends just north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, only a two-mile hike from where the AT exits the park at Davenport Gap.


The two trails are similar in many ways. The biggest difference? The BMT is much, much quieter than the AT.

A crowd-shy AT hiker could, conceivably, start on the BMT  and then rejoin the AT just before or after the Smokies.

By doing so, they’d get to start in that ideal March weather window and miss the worst of the bubble. After all’s said and done, they could still have a continuous footpath from Springer to Katahdin. Surely I’m not the only person who thinks this is a good idea.

So why aren’t more people talking about it?

Is the BMT a Viable Alternate to the Southern AT?

Some 1500 miles west of the Appalachian Trail, another storied long-distance footpath meanders from Mexico to Canada through the Rocky Mountains, a thru-hike of up to 3,000 miles. The exact length is tough to pin down because the Continental Divide Trail is so riddled with alternate routes.

There is only one Appalachian Trail. But on the CDT, there are hundreds of recognized alternates to the “red line,” or main route.

The Anaconda Cutoff, a popular CDT alternate. Owen Eigenbrot photo

Hikers must choose which to take, braiding together an adventure of their own making. No two CDT hikes are identical. Itineraries can vary by as many as 600 miles depending on which alternates hikers choose. Yet all are considered legitimate thru-hikes.

But the AT is not the CDT, and the notion of taking alternates is not at all an accepted practice on the former. Deviating from the white blazes for even a short side quest is controversial.

Many hikers cherish the “purity” of their hikes — that is, walking every step of the Appalachian Trail in one continuous journey. A purist doesn’t skip miles or change directions. If a purist hitches to town from the south end of the parking lot, they start back hiking from the same spot to avoid missing any steps.


And pretty much any AT hiker — purist or no — would question the integrity of an “AT thru-hike” in which someone swapped the first 240 miles for the BMT.

Indeed, doing so would preclude a hiker from earning “2000-miler” recognition from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) unless they later made up those miles, according to ATC Communications Director Ann Simonelli.

The organization’s recommendations for reducing overcrowding remain the same. Hike southbound, flip-flop, or register your start date on

Why Not Both?

Long Creek Falls, near where the BMT and AT diverge some seven miles north of Springer. Sara Leibold photo

Sara Leibold, a former AT Shenandoah ridgerunner, AT thru-hiker, and BMT 300-miler, offers an alternative for hikers who would like to avoid the crowds but still hike every mile of the AT. “You could do the BMT instead of the AT, and then after your hike, go back and do that section when there’s a lot less people.” That plan would, of course, depend on your time and ability to go back.

Doing so would also minimize your FOMO. Choosing an alternate inevitably means you’ll miss out on some of the highlights of the path not taken. In this case, choosing the BMT over the AT would mean missing key AT milestones like Blood Mountain, Mountain Crossings, Cheoah Bald, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

On the other hand, the BMT hiker gets to experience treats that AT hikers miss out on, like the Swinging Bridge over the Toccoa River, the historic Calhoun House (and many other historic buildings), and no less than six secluded wilderness areas.

So why not get the best of both worlds, if your schedule allows it, and hike both? Bob Cowdrick, president of the Benton Mackaye Trail Association, points out that his organization recognizes 300-milers as well as 500-milers (those who complete the BMT as a loop hike with the southern AT). You can even complete a lollipop-shaped 1000-mile hike combining the AT, BMT, and Pinhoti Trail.

What Even Is the AT, Anyway?

While many hikers care about hiking the entirety of the white-blazed path, whether for official recognition or more personal reasons, perhaps there’s some wiggle room in our interpretation of what the AT even is.

“If you want to walk in Earl Shaffer’s footsteps, forget about it,” says Jim Fetig, a former AT ridgerunner and current president of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. “More than 90 percent of the trail is not on the official treadway.”

Almost every mile of the AT has been rerouted, sometimes more than once. Many miles have been added to the path, too — when Shaffer became the AT’s first thru-hiker in 1948, the trail was 2,050 miles long compared to 2,197 miles in 2024.

Today’s AT is as different from the trail Shaffer first hiked as any two CDT thru-hikes are from each other. Does that make Shaffer’s pioneering hike of the AT somehow less legitimate than a modern thru-hiker’s, or vice versa? Of course not.

I’ll grant that it’s maybe a little rich to do some franken-hike combining the AT with the BMT and then call yourself an AT thru-hiker. But still. I maintain the belief that some hikers are out there purely for the joy of taking a really long, uninterrupted walk in the woods and aren’t fussed about the exact trail they follow.

The Second-Time Hiker

Harv “Bachelor” Howard is now thru-hiking the AT for the second time, having first completed the trail in 2018. While he was previously aware of the BMT’s existence, it wasn’t until starting the AT this year and crossing the BMT numerous times that it piqued his interest.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the AT right now,” says Howard, speaking to me from Hiawassee, Georgia near the end of February. “The shelters are all full and there’s 15 tents pitched around them, and this is in February … I think the BMT would be a great alternative.”

An overcrowded tentsite on the AT in 2016. Clarity photo

Having completed the AT once before, purity seems less important to him than the quality of the experience. “I’m a second-time hiker. Do I need to hike the exact same miles this time, or would it be fun to mix it up and figure out how to utilize both trails?” Howard is too far north to jump on the BMT at this point, but if he were to do it over, he would consider the alternate.

Leibold agrees. “Having done both, yeah, it makes sense that you’d want to do the BMT. But so many people that set out to do this AT hike, they still want to have the purity of it … to hike every step of the AT.”

As for the beginners, Leibold says it depends. “There’s different personalities on the trail. The ones that would like to avoid people, and then the people that want that social interaction right at the beginning so they establish a trail family … They are nervous about the hike, and so they want to latch on to other people.”

The BMT as a Shakedown Hike

Crowded AT vista in Georgia in 2016. Jim Fetig photo

Whether or not AT thru-hikers adopt the BMT, the shorter trail could still play a role in reducing overcrowding on the longer one. Cowdrick says the BMT is an ideal AT shakedown. It’s shorter, but it covers similar terrain to what prospective thru-hikers would face when starting the AT.

“Have you already hiked the PCT, the CDT, and now you’re coming to the AT to get that Triple Crown? Then the AT is the right place for you,” Cowdrick says. But for the novice who’s still learning the ropes? The BMT would be perfect.

And getting hikers better prepared for the rigors of a long trail is definitely a good thing. The biggest trouble with the AT’s infamous crowds is that many hikers are grossly underprepared and unfamiliar with basic hiking etiquette and Leave No Trace principles.

But Also, Spring Breakers

Fetig says that it doesn’t really matter, from an overcrowding perspective, whether it’s AT thru-hikers or weekend warriors being diverted off the AT and onto the BMT. In fact, about half of the hikers on-trail in March and early April aren’t thru-hikers at all. During his time ridgerunning in Georgia, Fetig encountered four “spring breakers” for every five thru-hikers in the early miles of the AT.

Backpacks in a crowded Smokies AT shelter in 2016. Clarity photo

Thru-hiking prime time coincides with spring break at most US universities and K-12 schools. Students, educational staff, and their families flock to the trail for vacation in March and April, just as thru-hikers are setting off.

Georgia draws many spring breakers due to its warmer weather and the allure of the AT brand. Some want the novelty of hiking among the thru-hikers; others are former thru-hikers themselves and come for nostalgia’s sake.

The BMT could be an ideal solution for day and section hikers seeking more solitude. Yet even for this demographic, the allure of the white blazes remains powerful.

The Benton Mackaye Trail? What’s That?

Convincing prospective AT hikers to switch to the BMT is a tough sell, whether they’re heading out for one day or six months. Yet the biggest obstacle may simply be a lack of education and awareness.

“I’ve known people who have gone back and hiked the Benton Mackaye Trail , and they found it to be a perfecty lovely walk,” says Fetig. “And you can get to hostels, and you can get shuttled, and you can get the resupply and do all the things that you need to do when you’re thru-hiker. The problem is … the number of people who really don’t do very much homework and just kind of show up.”

If more people knew about the BMT, they might find it appealing. Although it roughly parallels the AT and passes through many similar environments, it is undoubtedly more of a wilderness experience.

Cowdrick says the BMT was designed with solitude in mind. Unlike the AT, where you can sleep inside a shelter virtually every night (assuming there’s room, of course), the BMT has only two shelters. That was an intentional choice on the part of trail builders, as shelters have a way of attracting crowds.

READ NEXT – Is the Appalachian Trail’s Iconic Shelter System Obsolete?

Moreover, a full third of the trail passes through wilderness areas. The BMT’s white-diamond blazes aren’t permitted in wilderness areas, so hikers must navigate stretches of trail that are wholly unmarked. For east coast hikers who crave a more solitary, reflective experience, this will likely appeal.

Challenges and Rewards

The BMT has its challenges. Leibold says she found the trail less maintained and less trafficked overall than the AT. “The AT is like a highway,” she tells me. “Whereas the BMT, there were parts where … the vegetation was so thick it was almost like bushwhacking.” (Leibold stresses that these stretches were always short and she never felt in danger of getting lost.)

Yet she undoubtedly prefers the BMT’s route through the Smokies to the AT’s high ridgewalk through the park. “A lot less people, a lot more water,” is how she sums it up.

“I just felt like (the BMT) had more of a historical cultural component to it than on the ridge.” On the BMT, you’ll pass old mill towns, the historic Calhoun House, and the remnants of old railroad tracks and bridges — reminders of daily life in the Smokies before the region became a national park.

Cowdrick agrees. The trail has a lot to offer, he says, and the vistas rival anything you’ll see on the AT.

Closing Thoughts

So, for all of this rambling, what have we learned? Is the BMT a viable alternate start to the AT? It depends what you want out of your hike.

If you’re looking for a “pure” AT thru-hike, the BMT is probably not a great option for you. If you just want to take a walk in the woods —  of any length — and would prefer a more secluded experience, then it definitely is. The BMT is about 50 miles longer than the equivalent section of the AT. But that just means you’ll enjoy a few more days of trail goodness.

If you’re a thru-hiker, don’t worry about making friends on the AT later on. Trail families form and disintegrate all the time on the AT. By the time you reintegrate into thru-hikerly society north of Davenport Gap, you’ll still have nearly 2,000 miles to make friends on your way to Katahdin.

Above all, keep your personal priorities in mind. The old “hike your own hike” cliché remains true; there is no right or wrong answer here, only what feels right for you.

Featured image: Sara Leibold photo

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