A LOVELY TRIBUTE TO A VISIONARY: JOSH SHEETS HIKES THE BENTON MACKAYE TRAIL
Words and Photos by Josh “Soulslosher” Sheets @Josh_Sheets
Benton MacKaye Trail – Thru Hike, April 2023 - 300 miles of pristine Southern Appalachia wilderness
Imagine a trail that starts on Springer Mountain and winds its way through the Southern Appalachians. It is marked with white [diamond] blazes and traverses the states of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Am I talking about the Appalachian Trail (AT)? No! In an area where the AT steals the show, there is a far lesser known trail called the Benton MacKaye Trail, or BMT for short. Let’s take a stroll on the BMT and explore all the hidden goodness it has to offer along its nearly 300 miles!
For starters, it should be noted that the BMT pays homage to Benton MacKaye, the Father of the Appalachian Trail. Benton attended Harvard to study geology and after graduation, he went on to teach forestry at Harvard and worked with many local and federal agencies focusing on forestry and land conservation. In 1921, Benton wrote an article titled Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning where he laid out his idea for the Appalachian Trail.
When I was about to start my thru hike of the BMT, I felt as if I was coming home. I was about to walk the trail that pays homage to the man that advocated for the existence of the AT and, furthermore, I felt as if by hiking the BMT, I was somehow thanking Benton for my love of backpacking and everything that it has given to me over the last decade-plus. Okay, enough of that. . .
Departing Springer Mountain, the BMT crisscrosses the AT several times and so I had an opportunity to mingle with aspiring AT thru hikers. It was surprising to me that not many people, if any, knew of the BMT or even who Benton MacKaye was… and they were attempting an AT thru hike! After explaining, it didn’t seem like many cared or were intrigued… again, the AT steals the show. But! Therein lies the beauty of the BMT. If you crave a deserted trail, solitude, true wilderness experience, and “something different”, the BMT may be your ticket.
As you can see from the map, the BMT quickly swings West while the AT swings East all while gaining Northbound direction. I very much enjoyed traversing the Southeastern corner of Tennessee and experiencing the Cohutta and Big Frog Wilderness before dropping down to the Ocoee River. The Ocoee River is the site of the canoe slalom venue for the 1996 Summer Olympics that was held in Atlanta. It was in this area that I resupplied in Ducktown, TN which has a deep mining history and I stayed at The Company House B&B.
Leaving Ducktown, TN, the BMT ascends to the ridgeline boundary of North Carolina and Tennessee. This area of hiking was truly remote and, at times, the trail was not well marked with vegetation growing close to or in the trail. It was also in this area that the wildflowers were quite abundant. I saw various trilliums (toadshade, painted, Catesby, etc.), flame azaleas, lady slippers, wake robins, etc. Springtime had truly awakened and it was all mine for the viewing!
Next, the trail dips down to cross the Hiwassee River at Reliance, TN. Reliance sits in the valley along this beautiful Tennessee State Scenic River. I enjoyed popping into Webb Brothers, an establishment dating back to 1936 and was once also a Post Office. I had also sent myself a resupply box there. The store still retains the wares of when it was an actual post office. I enjoyed this quaint and sleepy stop… there were no bustling businesses serving up throngs of thru hikers; everything here is understated. It allowed my mind to drift back in time. It was lovely.
Working your way along the boundary of NC & TN, you descend to Tapoco, NC through the Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness. The uber fancy Tapoco Lodge was kind enough to hold my resupply package. If you hike the BMT, be sure to stop at their restaurant for some of the best pizza and beer on trail! In addition, this area was truly special because it sported a magnificent old-growth forest with trees 400 years old. And, to boot, this area packs in one of the best views one the entire trail – The Hangover. Feast your eyes…
The next section of trail was, perhaps, my most favorite. The BMT winds its way through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. However, while the AT stays up high on the highest ridgeline that makes up the boundary of NC & TN, the BMT stays mostly low and to the East. The BMT skirts Fontana Lake via the Lakeshore Trail and passes by some of the best historical examples of settlement in the Smokies, before it was a National Park, of course. For instance, the town of Proctor, where the Calhoun House is located, was a bustling lumber community of 1,000 residents at its peak. I passed by a few old Ford Model Ts, pieces of plates, glass bottles, stone chimneys and housing foundations. I also crossed many streams and drainages, some of which required fording. I relished being in the nation’s most visited National Park but seeing only a handful of people during this nearly 100-mile section of trail. Going Northbound, the BMT crescendos at its highest point of 5,842 feet on Mt. Sterling, complete with a fire lookout tower. After cresting Mt. Sterling, you descend rather quickly to the Northern Terminus of the BMT.
If my thru hike of the BMT has piqued your interest, please check out the Benton MacKaye Trail Association that has a ton of information on this lesser known trail. And, if thru hiking the BMT doesn’t quite quench your hiking thirst, you can hike the 500-mile AT/BMT loop! It is also my opinion that the BMT deserves more recognition that it receives. It is currently not a recognized as a National Scenic Trail nor is it recognized / designated as an “official” AT alternative route. I think the BMT is a sort of secret sauce that yearns to live up to its full potential. It has the potential to alleviate some of the thru hiker crowding on the AT but also showcase splendid Southern Appalachia beauty in a completely different way than that of a now seemingly common place AT stroll. But, perhaps, the BMT will remain relegated to the rough and tumble nature to which it so proudly clings. One has to wonder what Benton MacKaye would say. . .
Josh Sheets is a Social Worker and Adventurer. After completing the Appalachian Trail in 2011, he turned his focus to HIV social work. In subsequent years, he completed other trails including the Long Trail, Colorado Trail, Foothills Trail, Tahoe Rim, Laurel Highlands, Teton Crest, Wind River Range Traverses, and the Uinta Highline. He can be found and followed as “Soulslosher” on the social channels.