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

The Facts

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.

My Concerns 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

– Thirteen

 

* SOBO LASH = Southbound Long Ass Section Hike in “hiker trash” lingo

Stats and facts are pulled from:

Home – Benton MacKaye Trail Association (bmta.org)

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 38

  • pearwood : Feb 15th

    Thirteen,
    Sounds good. I will definitely follow along.
    How did you come up with “thirteen”?
    Blessings,
    Steve

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 15th

      Best I can do given the circumstances, ya know?

      It was given to me on my hike in 2019. Thirteen as in ‘Friday the 13th’. I have quite a bit of bad luck on trail unfortunately, but its all in good fun (usually).

      Reply
      • Larry Harrison : Feb 17th

        What Backpack company do you blog for. Osprey? If so their backpacks are nice and overly priced. But I understand that good material and quality are expensive. Believe it or not Walmart has started selling nice backpack for the beginners into backpacking. I’ve owned alot of backpacks and prefer mountaineer backpacks bc they are more rugged and you don’t have to be gentle with them like you do with osprey. But enough of that. Good luck on your hike of the Benton this year and I’ll be looking forward to reading your hiking blogs.

        Reply
        • Emma Slaughter : Feb 17th

          This one, the Trek! Hahaha.
          I do work for REI though so I get amazing discounts on backpacking gear. I currently own an Osprey Kyte and will be taking the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest on this trip. But I agree, both are overpriced. What kind of mountaineering pack do you suggest? Not something I have thought of using but could be cool to look into!

          Reply
          • Raymond Upchurch : Mar 1st

            Emma-Carry roll pink survey ribbon- many uses; Magnesium Firestick($1.99HFreight-Learn to use!) Alum foil-Many uses…build fire on 6″square; RESCUE MIRROR !!! There are cheaper LOCATE SERVICES-BUY CREDITS !! Research…in Backpacker Mag…Godspeed

            Reply
      • Raymond Upchurch : Mar 1st

        Emma-here is a special book ’til you reach Carvers Gap& the S.Appalachian BALDs !! RoanMt: A Passage of Time…Janet Bauer…You will learn the Magical History of this area…Please read- It will make that section extra SPECIAL…been that way for me since 1970…Highest AT cabin…OverMountain Shelter…JaneBald…GRASST RIDGE !! Godspeed

        Reply
  • baby bear : Feb 15th

    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!

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 16th

      Yes! I recently moved to NY from SC and when down there did a small amount of the Foothills trail- it was beautiful! Thanks for the comment (:

      Reply
      • Jim : Feb 16th

        Enjoyed your blog and good luck. I’m in SC and have done some hikes in the area you’ll be seeing. Be prepared for the cold in March. You have the possibility of some 20 degree nights or lower in the mountains of TN and NC in March. The coldest I’ve ever been in my life was one weekend in March in the NC mtns around 4,000 ft. Of course it could also be 80.

        Reply
        • Emma Slaughter : Feb 16th

          Thanks I just took a look at weather reports down there after reading your comment. Seems like the weather has been CRAZY this year so I will definitely be bringing everything I’ve got just to stay warm. 80 sounds nice though- hoping for that

          Reply
  • Thomas Walsh : Feb 16th

    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.

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 16th

      I did print out the tally sheet! What were your thoughts on the LP? I havent spoken to too many people who have hiked it.

      Reply
  • Rodney Carter : Feb 16th

    Good luck! I am interested in this route. Keep us posted.

    Reply
    • Jesse Day : Feb 16th

      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.

      Reply
      • Emma Slaughter : Feb 16th

        Thank you! It looks like we’ll be out there around the same time, maybe we’ll run into eachother!

        Reply
  • Sean G. : Feb 16th

    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!

    Reply
  • Harlan Easley : Feb 16th

    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.

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 17th

      Something I haven’t thought about at all! Thanks for the tip!

      Reply
      • Raymond Upchurch : Mar 1st

        Emma…Timber rattles can be the size of 1st grade pencil or size of normal copperhead…Use trek pole to clear areas…trust your instincts…Survey ribbon marks backtrail& RESCUE Aid…Research Vapor Barrier Liner Concept @Andrew Skurka site-was in 1980 Patagonia Catalog

        Reply
  • Larry Harrison : Feb 17th

    I’ll be looking into the Benton trail bc it sounds interesting.

    Reply
  • Stacey Marie : Feb 17th

    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!

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 18th

      I have a coworker who is going to give me some lessons on how to do it. I looked at Garmin inreach and it is PRICEY. But after a few lessons with him and with Guthooks I should be okay!

      Reply
      • Raymond Upchurch : Mar 1st

        Emma…I strongly urge you to become PROFICIENT WITH MAP& COMPASS-DO NOT RELY ON ELECTRONICS-BUY the USGS QUAD for the area you are in…buy all necessary QUADS- BUY GOOD COMPASS& KEEP on NECK LANYARD along w/ FOLTS NECK [email protected] One must be PROFICIENT with ORIENTEERING…PERIOD…TIS SERIOUS FOLLY TO ATTEMPT OTHERWISE…1970 N.C.Outward Bound Graduate…22years Rock Climber…60years Backpacking

        Reply
        • Mac McNeil : Mar 15th

          Anyone who relies on electronics to navigate is short-sighted. Compass, Grid maps, knowledgable guide(s). As a SAR K9 handler, found people lost within miles of road who simply failed to follow simple LPI basics or failed to carry necessary emergency supplies. Ignorance kills.

          Outward Bound (NH/VT) 1972, Connecticut River Source-To-Sound 1974, Long Trail 1975, AT Feb 2, 1979 (Senior Class trip from Springer to Harpers Ferry, then graduated HS and returned to HF to finish. Completed NBTH on September 18th, 1979, entered military in November.
          Section hiked PCT 1981-83 (On leave)

          Reply
  • Russ1663 : Feb 19th

    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?

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 19th

      I have always been a tent camper. I don’t like heights and couldn’t sleep off of the ground, even if it is only just a few feet!

      Reply
      • Raymond Upchurch : Mar 1st

        Emma- Please give Tarp&BivySack Camping a try…the Kelty Noah 16×16 @$85 is a Steal imo…OR Alpine Bivy is an option…One can see out& escape easily if needed…Quick set up& strike…if raining, you stuff tarp in sack last…more versatile setup imo…Ciao

        Reply
        • Emma Slaughter : Mar 1st

          Thanks for your comments! I have been interested in a bivy for a long time actually but havent made the move yet. I camp mostly on the east coast and I just figured that in the often really wet conditions I’d rather have some room than be so tightly fit in a bivy sack. However on some trails I intend on doing out west I’ll likely invest in one! Love how light weight they are.

          Reply
  • Drew Boswell : Feb 20th

    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.

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 20th

      Thanks for the tip, Ill definitely be investing in that guide book! I wasn’t planning on arranging shuttles into town but walk reasonably fast so was hoping it wouldn’t be an issue. We’ll see! Did you stop at Fontana Dam and Hiawassee then?

      Reply
      • Drew Boswell : Mar 1st

        Sorry for the long delay in answering. Yes, we took our first NERO day at the Hike Inn near Fontana Dam. If you haven’t made up your mind, I’d highly recommend the Hike Inn. They picked us up at the visitor’s center, washed our clothes, shuttled us into town for supper and resupply that evening, and shuttled us back to the trail the next morning. They’re a great source of information as well and will offer advice if asked. Keep in mind that we were SOBO, so the Hike Inn was our first night off the trail after traversing the Smokies, so the shower and bed was very much needed.

        We took our second NERO day at Tellico Plains, which required a shuttle to get there as it’s a long way from the trail. You might be able to hitch it, however, since you’ll cross right over (I think) Highway 68. We didn’t resupply in Reliance, so I can’t offer any advice about that, but we did walk through it. Check out Evan’s Backpacking on YouTube for his BMT thru hike videos which contain some good info.

        Our third NERO day was with friends in Blairsville. You could walk or hitch on 515 as it’s a busy highway with lots of traffic into Blue Ridge where there are lots of options.

        Reply
        • Emma Slaughter : Mar 2nd

          I am also hiking SOBO so making my first stop at Fontana Dam sounds like a great plan. Ill check out the Hike Inn for sure. Thanks for the resupply pointers, its always good to know there will be decent town stops along the way! And I haveny watched any BMT videos so Ill take a look at him! Thanks again!

          Reply
  • Devlin Foster : Feb 22nd

    Have you heard off the NY Long Path? From GW bridge to Albany up through the Catskills.

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : Feb 23rd

      Yes actually thats the one I was referring to having done last summer! Great trail for anyone living in NYC!

      Reply
  • Nickel : Mar 9th

    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.

    Reply
  • Hiker Paradise : May 16th

    “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.

    Reply
    • Emma Slaughter : May 16th

      I’m actually Jewish and very religious, thank you. I am a “dirty- mouth hiker” and proud of it! Hike on, Hiker Paradise.

      Reply

What Do You Think?