Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hike 2019

The Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) runs from Springer Mt Georgia to the Baxter Creek Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s nearly 290 miles of trail and some road sections.
In 2018 me and my friend Will “”Redbeard” Wood attempted to through hike the BMT, but after both of us became injured we made the decision to call it. We bailed out at the halfway point. It was the single toughest decision I’ve had to make in a long time. But I had been dealing with my injuries since day 1 and I struggled with every step.
But when I got off trail I vowed to return and do the trail in it’s entirety. That would mean redo over 146 miles again. But my goal wasn’t just to hike the trail, I wanted to thru-hike it. There’s something very fulfilling about thru-hiking a trail. Knowing you hiked every step in a single trip.
Plus I get the added benefit of walking off some of my “mental junk”. Stress and all the mental baggage we carry with us throughout life. Not releasing this or decompressing can lead up to unhealthy levels of “mental junk”. Long distance hiking allows me to cope with my PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) and allows me to get rid of my mental junk and function without becoming a monster at home.

Mapping & Planning

Last time I attempted to thru-hike the BMT I was using the green guide book. It was good, but at times hard to figure out which direction to go at certain trail intersections which aren’t marked very well.
So this time I not only used that guide book, but I also used the new BMT Guthook App. It was spot on and very easy to use. The data seemed to be very accurate and detailed. And honestly it was what I used on trail. I used the guide book as part of my planning phase. I would highly recommend both to be used in that manner.

Georgia Section

Southern Terminus of the Benton MacKaye Trail on Springer Mountain,

I began my thru-hike on a soggy Sunday morning. My good friend Dewey Slusher gave me a ride down to Springer so I wouldn’t have to leave my truck unattended there. We arrived and took a few photos and I was on my way.
The Georgia section in general was in great shape. There were very few blow downs and the trail was generally well marked, but it could use a little better blazing near intersections.

Toccoa River Suspension Bridge is located 15.1 miles from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, GA

Brawley Mountain Fire Tower locates 33.5 miles from the southern terminus.

Shallowford Rd iron bridge located 38 miles from the southern terminus.

Point of interest in near the Shallowford Rd Iron Bridge is the Iron Bridge Cafe. Located right across the road from the bridge, it offered fresh cooked meals with a southern flair along with snacks, ice cream and soft drinks. There’s also restrooms, water and electrical outlets at this location to use on your visit. Also as I was in the Cohutta Wildlife Management Area, I met another thru-hiker “U-Turn”. He thru-hiked the Pinhoti Trail and then proceeded NOBO on to the Smokies. But while I’m the Cohuttas, I was treated to some trail magic that a friend had left for me. Perfect timing too. I was pushing for miles and was mentally and physically spent.

Indian Rock Shelter is located 52.4 miles from the southern terminus. It is the only shelter in the Georgia section of the BMT.

Tennessee Section

Immediately crossing the Tennessee border you’re greeted with a steep climb with no switchbacks as you make your way up Big Frog Mountain. And to be honest, in my opinion I thought this was the toughest climb I did on the whole trail. But on the way down the mountain I was treated to some trail magic which came at a great time to lift my spirits.
Getting to Thunder Rock Campground makes it all worth it. It’s a great place to either camp or take a break and off load some trash. I spent 10 years on the Ocoee River teaching Swiftwater Rescue for the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads. It’s where we taught our level 1 class. In that class we taught law enforcement, firefighters, ems and rescue personnel how to effectively and safely perform rescues in fast moving waters like ones experienced is flooding conditions.
The Little Frog Wilderness is pretty awesome too. Once again knowing you are about to enter the community of Reliance. It’s a great place to send a resupply shipment to and to take a zero. I stayed at Hiwassee Whitewater Co otherwise known as Flip Flop Burgers. They have amazing food, great atmosphere to relax in as well as a bunk house and shower house. Owners Bryan and Michele really make their guest feel right at home.
As you continue your hike north you get to hike along the Hiwassee River. We also taught a level 2 Swiftwater Rescue class on the Hiwassee. And being on the river banks really brought back some great memories.

North Carolina Section

The North Carolina section seemed to be a little more remote. I really enjoyed the Citico Wilderness. It was very thick and rugged which reminded me of some of my favorite places in the Smokies. But North Carolina also had some places that were truly epic and a must see.
My campsite at Whigg Meadows was amazing! A grassy bald that offered up a beautiful sunset made for a great ending to my day. And the next morning I was treated to so trail magic at Mud Gap.
The Topaco Lodge is another must stop location. My buddy Sean Kamp met me and treated me to a pizza and beer at the lodge. It was absolutely amazing. The next day I pushed on to the Fontana Village Resort which was another great place to mail a resupply to.

Smokies Section

Entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was like going home. It was entering familiar territory. An area I knew like the back of my hand. Also knowing I was going to be hiking on Lakeshore Trail meant that my elevation change was going to be minor compared to what it had been. It was a great opportunity to put in some big miles without killing myself or my feet. After just 1.5 days I was in Bryon City taking a zero and spending sometime with my friends and sponsors Bryson City Outdoors. Definitely a great place to resupply at and replace any gear that might become damaged along your thru-hike.

Also while in Bryson City I spent some time at Horace Kephart‘s grave. It’s because of his efforts and others like him that we have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The land was protected and set aside for generations to come.
Other locations to checkout while in Bryson City is the Smoky Mountain Scenic Railroad, Anthony’s Pizza, Everett’s and the Relax Inn.

Once back on trail I kicked it into high gear and finished the Smokies in 2.25 days. I stayed at Smokemont Campground and at campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling. The old fire tower gave me a 360 degree view and provided the perfect viewing point for the sunset the last evening and sunrise the last morning on trail.

With only 6 miles to finish my 289.7 mile thru-hike. I woke up early and proceeded down Baxter Creek Trail. While make my descent I ran into a couple of the Smokies Park Rangers Will and Nick. They were out checking trail conditions and picking up trash some irresponsible hikers had left behind. I certainly appreciate the Rangers and all they do for the park.
once at the bottom my friend Dana Parish met me with coffee and doughnuts!!!! She really loves me and understands what a bearded thru-hiker wants after a long hike…… FOOD!!!

But as much as I was excited to be done, I wasn’t quite finished……. Yes I finished my thru-hike of the Benton MacKaye Trail, but I had one more thing to do…..
A couple of days after I finished my thru-hike, I came back to the trailhead and picked up my friend Chris Smith aka U-Turn. The thru-hiker I met in Georgia. I gave hime a ride to Knoxville where he was able to rent a car and go back home to Florida. I really enjoyed my time with him and glad I was able to help him out the same way as Kristen and Clint from Vegas was able to help me out last year.

Final Thoughts

After completing my thru-hike of the BMT. I wanted to share my thoughts on this trail. Let you know what I liked and didn’t like about the trail. So here goes…….
Overall, I absolutely love this trail. It was tough and challenging, but then again I was doing low to mid twenties most days. I chose to go north bound simply because with me living about 1.5 hours from the northern terminus, it was sort of like I was hiking home. But this also created a few small issues for me. Number 1, the BMT has very few switchbacks. Therefore the trail usually goes straight up and then straight down the mountains. A lot of these are very steep which gave me very sore ankles. My feet, ankles, knees and achilles were extremely tender and sore the first few days.
I also was not too keen on the road walks, but sometimes that’s a necessary evil. Only problem spot I ran into was when I got on Boardtown Rd after the Indian Rock shelter in Georgia. I had a few dogs that were a bit aggressive…… as in a pit bull was literally nudging me with his muzzle on my calves to keep me moving down the road. Of course I didn’t give him any attention and just kept walking……
But I also liked the fact that I live roughly 1.5 to 2 hours from the entire trail. This allowed me to come home a couple of times to take zeros since I was moving so fast and was ahead of schedule.
If I could offer up any suggestions to make this trip any better. I would recommend more blazing at intersections. Some intersections were a little confusing and if it wasn’t for my Guthook App I probably would’ve made a wrong turn. So either more blazing or better signs at intersections (kind of the way the Smokies are).
Last but not least, I really appreciated the communication between me and the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. Anytime I ran into issues or seen areas on the trail that needed immediate attention. They were responsive and got it taken care of. Receiving this kind of response showed me the dedication they have to keeping the trail maintained and free of obstacles so hikers could have the best possible experience while hiking the trail. They also did follow ups insuring me those problems were being taken care of. Honestly that impressed me a lot. And made me proud to be a member of the BMT Association. You can become a member too. Here’s how.
You can also stay connected with the BMT Association through their social media.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Benton-MacKaye-Trail-Association-125189563051/
Instagram: https://instagram.com/bentonmackayetrail?utm_source=ig_profile_share&igshid=146m4ewynm59f
Twitter: https://twitter.com/BentonTrail

Video Series

The video series for this thru-hike will be released later in April 2019. A link will be placed here to my YouTube channel when those are ready.

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