Here in the southeastern United States we are blessed with so many outstanding trails and trail systems. Some are just a few miles to a couple hundred miles long and others are a little over 1100 miles long. With trails and trail systems like the Art Loeb, Fiery Gizzard, Foothills, Sheltowee Trace, Cumberland, Florida, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Benton McKaye just to name a few. And you can’t forget the grand daddy of them all, the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus is in Georgia.
Me and my good friend Will “Red Beard” Wood from Zpacks had been planning to thru-hike the 286 mile long Benton McKaye Trail (BMT) for a few months now. And in the end, we settled on a late February/early March hike. We felt like that would be a great time of year to do the hike. So we decided to start on 2/28 and go North Bound (NOBO).
Back in December I picked each of us up a BMT guide book from a local outfitter and started planning my daily mileages and food drops.
Our initial plan was to do the 286 miles long hike in 18 days. We had also decided to do just 2 food drops, one in Reliance at Hiawassee Whitewater Co. aka Flip Flop Burgers and then at Fontana Village. We also planned to stay at each place.
But I also chose to drop two days worth of food at the bear bin at Smokemont Campground. I checked with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) Backcountry office if it was ok.. and it was. I also went on ahead and reserved our campsites in GSMNP. They don’t have a thru-hiker permit for the BMT like they do for the Appalachian Trail (AT). So you need to reserve your campsites in advance, but not more than 30 days out. That’s the earliest you can reserve them.
When selecting my gear, I wanted to try some things that I hadn’t tried before since it was just a 286 mile long hike. I also was using this hike as a “shakedown” hike for the 220 mile John Muir Trail (JMT) that I’ll be doing in July with my buddy Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog. I was also using this hike to prep for the 272 mile Long Trail in Vermont in June with my buddies Matt Favero and Will Wood from Zpacks.
I got my Zpacks “black on black” grid stop Arc Haul Backpack out. It’s a one of a kind pack that my buddy Will used for a year or so. It had about 300 to 500 miles on it when I got it. I stitched up a couple of rips in the back mesh pocket. I’ve since put 72 miles on it from our Florida Trail hike back in December. This was going to be a true real test for this pack though. How would it hold up, carry and would it keep my stuff dry.
I decided to NOT bring my umbrella on this trip and instead rely souly on my Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacketand Pants. It was going to be a big risk especially since they were forecasting heavy rain the first two days. I also chose NOT to bring a pack towel… Those decisions would come back to haunt me later..
Here is a run down of the gear I started out with for this hike.
What’s in my Zpacks Arc Haul Backpack?….
·Zpacks carbon fiber trekking poles
·Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket & Pants
·Zpacks Duplex Tent camo (2018)
·Zpacks titanium & CF tent Stakes
·Zpacks Vertice Tall Gaiters
·Zpacks 5°F Sleeping bag (2018)
·Zpacks Challenger Rain Mittens
·Zpacks Dry Bags & Stuff Sacks
·Zpacks DCF Multi-Pack (black)
·Thermarest Neo Air Sleeping Pad
·Sea To Summit Air Pillow
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Socks
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Hood
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Hand Muff
·Goosefeet Gear Down Jacket
·Black Rock Gear Skully Beanie
·Black Rock Gear Down Beanie
·Black Rock Gear Foldback Mittens
·Homemade synthetic mittens
·Patagonia Thermal Bottoms
·Outdoor Research PL 400 Gloves
·Vargo 450 ml titanium mug
·GoPro Hero 5 Session
·Anker 13,000 mAh battery pack
·Darn Tough 1/4 Socks
·Exfficio 9″ Give & Go Boxer Briefs
What I wore hiking…
·Zpacks Trucker Hat
·Columbia Silver Ridge Pants
·Columbia Silver Ridge Button Shirt
·Exfficio 9″ Give and Go Boxer Breifs
·Injinj Toe Sock Liners
·Darn Tough No Show Socks
·Brooks Caldera Trail Runners
·Patagonia Thermal Hoody
Since Will and I had decided to go NOBO. He met me at the trails northern terminus at Big Creek in GSMNP to drop his vehicle off. We loaded all the gear up in my truck and headed south to Springer Mt. But on our way we made a quick stop at Smokemont to drop my food box off and in Franklin to pick up some stove fuel Will was needing.
We finally made it to Springer around 4 PM where Will’s dad and brother was waiting on us. His dad was going to take my truck to his house instead of leaving it on top of the mountain unattended.
Will and I had talked it over and had decided to stay at the Springer Mt Shelter that night and get a fresh start the next morning. When we got to the shelter there were two AT thru-hikers there. So we spent the evening getting to know them and shared a few beers we packed in.
Day 1 / Feb. 28, 2018
Mile 0 (Georgia Monsoon)
When I woke up and heard the rain hitting the metal roof of the Springer Mountain shelter, I knew then it was going to be a wet day. I just didn’t realize how bad that was actually going to be. We only had 14.8 miles to do that day, but it was going to be done in heavy rain and it didn’t let up. Lunch and breaks were out of the question. There wasn’t a dry place to be found. I had also rolled my left ankle about 4 different times through out the day. By the final 2 hours of hiking that day, I was getting leg cramps bad. I had only drank 60 ozs of water. I hadn’t used any of my Skratch Labs hydration supplements yet….. Which I know would have completely prevented that. I contributed the leg cramps to me being on a new medication for my Type 2 Diabetes that I was diagnosed with just the day before I got on the trail. But after 6 hours of hiking in the heaviest rain imaginable, we finally made to to our campsite which was at the Toccoa Bridge.
We were both soaked to the bone. Our rain suits had wetted out, which I was very surprised. But mine did have a lot of miles on it. It had worked perfectly in the many rains storms in the Smokies I was in during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. But what I didn’t realize is that after a while, you need to reapply the DWR coating on the fabric….. I’ll not make that mistake twice.
We set up our tents as quickly as we could, being mindful not to set up too close to the river. With all the rain we had gotten, we were certain it would be rising out of its banks by morning.
With all cloths and gear piled up in the corner, I crawled into my dry slepping bag and went to sleep without eating. I was both physically and mentally exhausted.
I woke up during the night to the sound of heavy rain hitting the DCF material of my tent. I was thirsty and wanted to get a drink of water, but I realized I had drunk all of my water earlier. So I grabbed my Vargo Outdoors Titanium mug and a couple of YeeHaw Brewing cans that I had brought with me and sat them under the corner on my tent to collect the rain water. I collected enough to fill up 80 ozs of water which I drank half of it. Then went back to sleep.
Day 2 / Mar. 01
Mile 14.8 (The Nero)
That morning we woke to a very saturated forest and a very sore ankle. The river we had camped next to had risen 2′ overnight. And where our tents were set up was now a pond, but the rain had temporarily stopped. The air was very moist. The condensation on the inside of our tents was bad. Everything inside the tent was wet from the day before or very damp from the condensation.
The weather forecast for the next few days was going to be sunny and cold. But we still had more rain to come today. So we decided to hike to the next road crossing and hitch into either Blue Ridge or Blairsville, get a motel room and start drying all of our gear. I was slow getting going due to my ankle, But finally got up to speed…. somewhat..
We packed up and headed out. The road was still 3.7 miles from us so we hiked with a determination to beat the rain, but as we got to road, the rain started up again. We quickly set our tents up to temporarily get out of the rain till it died down enough so we could try to hitch into town.
About 30 minutes later a nice man and woman stopped and picked us up and took us to Blairsville. It felt so good knowing we were about to be able to get all dried off soon. They dropped Will and my beardedself off at the Best Western Hotel where we split the cost of the room. With the thru-hiker discount the room only cost $68. With the cost split, it was only $34 each person. That’s just a hair more than what you would pay at a hostel.
Once there I immediately began to try to line us up a ride back to the trail. So I announced it on my social media. Later that night one of my Instagram followers Kris Stancil responded and said he would be glad to take us back to the trail…… That was an answered prayer.
While in town we went and had us a burger and a couple of beers at Copeland’s. The burger was absolutely delicious. I also had a couple of Yuenglings with my meal. Beer always goes great with a great burger. I also went to the grocery store to pick up a few Zip Lock baggies as extra insurance for some of my gear. I also got online and ordered another umbrella from Zpacks and had them ship it to our first resupply location in Reliance. I chose to just order another one vs having my beautiful bride mail mine to me.
Day 3 / Mar. 02
Mile 18.5 (Back To The Trail)
Will and my beardedself woke up with breakfast on our minds, so we got dressed and headed over to the Country Cafe’ for some home cooked breakfast. It was a cute little mom and pop restaurant. The food was delicious and it was great being able to have a cup of coffee too.
Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to get all of our gear packed up. We had it scattered all over the room drying it out. Kris was set to pick us up at 11:30 so we wanted to make sure we would be ready to go when he got there.
Like clock work, Kris showed up and picked us up. He offered to take us out to lunch, but we were still stuffed from the late breakfast we ate. We deeply appreciate Kris’s generosity and his willingness to help a couple of hikers out. It was really great getting to know him a little. Kris saved the day.
Once back on trail, we were glad it was sunny and cooler. It was a long day but we finally made it to Tipton Mt where we set up camp for the night. We had barely missed the sunset, but we could still see some beautiful colors in the clear sky above. But it was just dark enough that we needed our head lamps to set our tents up. It felt good to be back on the trail again…… and dry.
Day 4 / Mar. 03
Mile 31.2 (Toast & Jammz)
We woke up to a very frosty world. The temps had dropped to the mid 20s during the night, but we had miles to do and a restaurant along the way that had some warm food waiting on us. So we got packed up and got on trail pretty quick. A hiker will always be motivated by food…
We made it down to the Shallowford Rd which started our first road walk of this hike. After crossing the Shallowford iron bridge, the Iron Bridge Store & Cafe’ was right across the road. We couldn’t resist the urge to drop our packs at the door and go in and order a good warm meal. I had 2 bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, a salad with grilled chicken and coffee. I’m surprised I didnt order a milk. For whatever reason I always crave milk when I’m on the trail.
As bad as we hated to, we got back on the road and headed north. The power poles had blazes on them so we knew we were headed in the right direction. After about a 3 mile road walk, we were back on the trail.
We were excited to reach camp because our friends Eric and Jessica aka Toast and Jammz were going to meet up and camp with us. So we hiked as fast as we could. I was still banged up from the first day. I rolled my ankle on some wet rocks on the first day and my ankle had been very sore ever since. In fact, it was steadily getting worse. But I simply was trying to go slow and steady so I wouldn’t damage it any worse. My average speed was just over 2 mph.
Later I finally made it to camp where Toast greeted me with a nice cold beer and Jammz had a big hug for me. Jammz is pregnant and the baby aka Jelly Belly is due in around 5 weeks. That night we sat around the fire telling stories, laughing, making future hiking plans and simply enjoying each other’s company. This is what great hiking trips are made of.
Before we knew it, it was time for bed. It had been a long day. After we all made our way to our tents for the night, I laid in mine as I was editing photos and working on this blog post. My eyes would get heavy and I’d close them for a few minutes. As I did so, a bright light was shining in my face. I thought either someone wanted something or a ranger was checking on us. I opened my eyes and seen it was neither. It was a meteor shooting through the sky then breaking into many pieces. The whole forest was lit up. A few seconds later I heard a few loud booms from the meteor as it entered the atmosphere.
Now that was cool!!!!!!
Day 5 / Mar 04
Mile 47 (Trail Magic)
That morning when everyone woke up I asked them if they had seen or heard the meteor, but they all said no. So with excitement, I told them about what I had seen.
What made that so much cooler is when Toast and Jammz came and hiked with me in the Smokies last fall during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. We camped in the front yard of Ben King, one of the owners of Bryson City Outdoors. There was a major meteor shower that night so we all stayed up to watch it. As we were All sitting there watching the meteor shower. All of a sudden we seen a bright flash in the sky. It was like a camera flash. Then it flashed again, then dimmed. It pulsed bright and dimmed once again. Then it began to move in a short circular pattern, all while pulsing bright to dim. Then began to move to the side then angled off and faded out. We all just sat there and looked at each other afterwards not saying a word for a moment, knowing we all just seen something that none of us could explain.
Back to our thru-hike.. We all got packed up and headed out to the car. Toast drove us into Blue Ridge and we grabbed a bite at The Fry Shop. It was delicious! It’s located in the downtown area of Blue Ridge where all the shops and restaurants are. Afterwards we walked around checking out the shops and went to the grocery story to grab a few items we were needing for the trail. Toast and Jammz also treated us to some trail magic. They bought us a few beers and gave us a ride to the trail head so we wouldn’t have to do all of the road walk. (We ended up skipping an 8 mile section, taking us around Cherry Log and Blue Ridge. It wasn’t all road walk as we once believed. I am actually planning to come back in the fall and redo all of the BMT). Toast, Will and my beardedself shared a couple of beers before we got back on trail. We said our goodbyes and entered the woods once again. I’m very thankful for friends like Toast and Jammz. They are good people and I can’t wait till Jelly Belly gets here.
Once back on trail, both Will and my beardedself weren’t feeling this whole hiking thing. So we made it 5 miles and set up camp at Hatley Gap which had a excellent campsite. We enjoyed a good campfire (which I was able to start with my new firestarter that my friends Scott and Beth White got me for my birthday) and great conversation till it was time for bed.
Day 6 / Mar. 05
Mile 61 (Easier Day)
We had a few tough climbs that morning, but nothing too difficult. Once on top of the ridge we pretty much just cruised along. There’s nothing better than a good ridge walk. I was still nursing my foot, but it felt like it was slowly getting better as the day went along. My goal was to just be easy with it and make it last through this hike.
We made it to the intersection where the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail connects with the BMT. It’s really very remote and just seemed odd to have a major trailhead there. No thrills, views or epic finish point……. But it was pretty awesome to see the terminus. I plan to thru hike it in the next few years.
I really enjoyed the South Fork Trail. It has the same feel as the Smokies. The Cohutta Wilderness is a pretty rugged and remote section of forest. Definitely a beautiful area. The intersection with Jacks River Trail was a little confusing. It took us a minute or two and a little back tracking, but we finally figured it out. After a long day of hiking, we made it to Spanish Gap and the Hemp Top Trail intersection.
I noticed that I would get a second wind at the end of the day to where I would want to push for more mileage. Which my speed was slow and steady due to my ankle injury from the first day and I took less breaks. By the end of the day I still had enough energy to keep pushing for more. Will was really the opposite of me. He was much faster and took longer breaks (waiting on me), but by the end of the day he was ready to camp.
Tomorrow morning we’ll be back in Tennessee.