The Benton MacKaye Trail: An Alternative to the AT in 2021
June 15th, 2019.
I stood atop Mount Katahdin staring down a trail that winds through one of the oldest mountain chains in the world at 1.2 byo. I had big dreams of one day tracing it all the way down to Georgia.
With very little experience backpacking and hardly any real preparation, I embarked on a journey that took two months just to reach the halfway point. As a military spouse with a schedule that works around my husband, I had planned on coming back on trail in 2020 to finish this massive undertaking that I had begun.
As we all know, 2020 was full of surprises. Covid- 19 crushed dreams for the many of us who planned on embarking on this life changing challenge. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to hike the Long Path in NY/ NJ that summer. But the trail left me longing for my simple days in the Appalachians. While walking the Long Path I found myself daydreaming of another trail, and the plan to hike Northbound on the Appalachian Trail in 2021 took shape.
A Change of Plans…
Fast forward to today, 12 days before I was planning on making the 17 hour drive from my apartment in NYC to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Sadly, plans change, as we have all come to know so well. My landlord has dropped what felt like a nuclear explosion on my husband and I, she will not be renewing our lease. So what now? What next? Thousands of dollars saved for a hike that has haunted my memories for nearly two years now. The sad reality is: I can’t leave yet.
My heart lies in the mountains, not the concrete jungle of one of the world’s most populous cities. So what else to do but adapt and overcome? The plan has changed (AGAIN), but only slightly. The new plan is to leave late summer in the Southbound bubble from the Delaware Water Gap and make my way to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Finally finishing the Appalachian Trail. This will allow me time to get my funds back in order. I always claimed to be a Southbounder at heart anyway! Doing things the hardest way possible is the only way I know how!
But August is still 6 months away and the wait is soul crushing. So I have found a shorter, more cost efficient trail to hold me over until I get back on the good ol’ AT- The Benton MacKaye Trail. On March 20th, I will be embarking on the 287.6 mile long trek over the course of two-three weeks. This is much more affordable short term and will alleviate some of that hiking itch I have been dying to scratch. Luckily for me, I blog for this amazing backpacking company (maybe you’ve heard of them?(; ) who will be allowing me to blog not only my Southbound LASH* but also my BMT thru-hike! Prepping for the AT on a shorter long distance trail = the ultimate shakedown hike!
I will be leaving in a time when Covid-19 is still largely a concern and the ATC is advising against thru-hiking and staying in crowded shelters. The Benton Mackaye is known as the sister trail to the Appalachian Trail, so for many of you considering postponing your thru-hikes for a safer season – maybe this shorter and quieter trail could be the answer for you too!
So it goes…
The Benton MacKaye Trail: Part 1
Southern Terminus: Springer Mountain, Georgia
Northern Terminus: Big Creek Park, North Carolina — Yes, I am sticking to my roots and hiking Southbound!
Trail Length: 287.6 miles
Total Ascent: 54,682′
Total Descent: -56,808′
Highest Point: 5,843 feet at Mt. Sterling in GSMNP
Lowest Point: 765 feet at the Hiawassee River in Reliance, Tennessee
Blazes: White Diamond 5″ x 7″
- The BMT is rated a “strenuous” trail as it crosses the high peaks that run parallel to the Appalachian Trail.
- 81.8 miles of the trail are in Georgia and 205.8 miles crisscross across the Tennessee and North Carolina border.
- 93 miles of the trail traverse through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park making it the longest continuous trail in the Smokies.
- A permit is required for camping in the GSMNP.
- In addition to the GSMNP the Benton MacKaye Trail also treks through
- Rich Mountain Wilderness
- Cohutta Wilderness
- Chattahoochee- Oconee National Forest
- Cherokee National Forest
- Big Frog Wilderness
- Little Frog Mountain Wilderness
- Upper Bald River Wilderness
- Citico Creek Wilderness
- Joyce Kilmer- Slickrock Wilderness
- One can either become a recognized 300 or 500 miler along this trail. 500 milers must hike the BMT- AT figure eight shaped loop where the AT and the BMT cross paths. This can be done in sections or as a thru- hike, the BMTA doesn’t differentiate between section or thru- hikers! You hiked 300+ miles god damn it!
- Recognition as an end- to- end BMT hiker is through an honor system similar to the AT. This means that no proof is needed upon completion to be awarded the certificate and patch.
- The Benton MacKaye Trail is much more remote than the Appalachian Trail and has maintained its original intentions of creating a wilderness space untouched by man. This means that there are only two shelters and few road crossings.
- In looking up this trail, I have read that there are many places where the blazes are few and far between and seen strong recommendations (warnings?) to bring a map and compass as well as Guthooks. Navigating with a map is not something I have any experience in.
- It’s unfamiliar territory. I grew up living along the AT and had a good deal of experience hiking it in short day hikes before I actually began backpacking it. The Benton MacKaye Trail has next to no blog posts, articles, or books written about it so I am going in with very little, if any, idea of what to expect.
March 20th, 2021.
I am the worst kind of planner (the non-existent kind) so with only the knowledge that my feet can take me as far as I need them to and a full pack I will soon be up and at it on this short, but daunting trail. Here’s to spur of the moment decisions, experiencing new things, and hoping for the best but managing the worst. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be blogging from the Tar Heel State.
* SOBO LASH = Southbound Long Ass Section Hike in “hiker trash” lingo
Stats and facts are pulled from:
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I live in North Carolina and I’m very curious to see how this goes. I am planning on doing the Foothills Trail in May and we’ll definitely research this one. Have a great hike!
I hope you filled out the end to end tally sheet for the LP. I also hiked it in 2020. The website has a downloadable sheet you send in for credit. And a cool patch.
Good luck! I am interested in this route. Keep us posted.
Hi, I am planning on hiking through Cohutta the first weekend of April. Living in Chattanooga I plan to section hike the Benton Mackaye as much as possible for 2021. I look forward to hearing more about the other sections of the trail. Good Luck.
Good for you!. I’m up in Canada and have done many Rocky and Cascade hikes. Carbs and watch the knees! Camp at 6 or 8? Curious on lighting now down there…. Thanks and Stay safe and stay well!
Just keep an eye out for rattlesnakes in the overgrown parts of the trail. Still early in the year and likely cold at elevation so doubtful you will see any. But on a warm sunny day just be aware.
I’ll be looking into the Benton trail bc it sounds interesting.
Given your lack of experience with a map and compas do you plan on taking a PLD ? Getting lost isn’t fun. Getting hurt and lost is dire. Hike safe!
Good luck, enjoy the back country scenery. I truly hope the winter weather clears before you go out. Will be watching for your blog. Tent or hammock?
The BMT is a wonderful trail and you’ll have a lot of fun and a lot of hard slogs on your way to completing it. A friend and I thru-hiked it SOBO in October 2020. Based on that experience I’d highly recommend Guthooks AND Sgt. Rock’s Trail Guide. They complement each other well very well. My friend and I had Guthooks, Sgt. Rock’s Guide, plus a separate GPS app and the BMT data book and we STILL got off trail several times, mostly through dumb decisions, admittedly. Resupply spots are generally a bit farther apart than on the AT, but quite manageable, especially if you can arrange a shuttle into towns ahead of time.
My other suggestion, if you haven’t done so already, is to join as a member of the BMTA. We met several volunteers on our hike. Those folks work their butts off to keep the trail in good shape, so the yearly membership dues are well worth paying for that reason alone. Have fun.
Have you heard off the NY Long Path? From GW bridge to Albany up through the Catskills.
I’m starting the BMT on April 1st. Doing the big figure 8, BMT to davenport gap then back to Springer on the AT. Maybe see ya out there.
“You hiked 300+ miles god damn it!” This type of language doesn’t suit you. Do you want to be seen as dirty-mouth hiker who doesn’t care to offend others? Do you want respectable people to read your writing? Then don’t take the Lord’s name as a swear phrase.