The Benton MacKaye Trail
The Benton MacKaye Trail is what I imagine the Appalachian Trail was like many decades agoa lesser-tamed path, steep in places, rough in spots, and still evolving. It is mostly well marked, less so in some localesa mixture of occasional road walks and single-track footpaths treading along ridgelines and streams. Many sections of the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) have permanently fixed routes, while other sections are still being rerouted. The Benton MacKaye Trail shares other parallels with the Appalachian Trail. For starters, the trail's namesake, Benton MacKaye, was the man who actually conceived the idea of an "Appalachian Trail." The Benton MacKaye Trail starts at the same place as the AT, Springer Mountain in Georgia and extends 290 miles. It heads north through the Chattahoochee National Forest, like the AT, and crosses its more famous cousin a few times early during the 93-mile journey to its current terminus at Davenport Gap.
Originally conceived in 1979, the Benton MacKaye (pronounced MAK-eye) Trail generally follows the western ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was the route for the Appalachian Trail as proposed by MacKaye. The BMT is a much-needed alternative to the overused Appalachian Trail for traversing North Georgia to the Smoky Mountains. The BMT has a much more remote sense to it than the AT. It is certainly less traveled. This is very evident where the AT and BMT intersect. The BMT is a narrow footpath, whereas the AT looks like a beaten down human highway in comparison.
The BMT isn't as easy to "use" as the AT. Often, the trail goes straight up and down the ridgeline, rather than gently switchbacking its way while changing elevations, which range from 1,500 feet to over 4,200 feet. There aren't conveniently located shelters; there aren't many marked side trails to water, supply points, or hostels. Campsites are much less frequent and not always obvious. The route can be overgrown. The diamond-shaped white blazes can be faint. However, on the plus side, these may be the very qualities you are looking for: a challenging route that takes effort to follow; a path where you must carry a lot of supplies, a trail with but one shelter and very few overcamped spotsin other words, a trail with solitude.
Overnight camping opportunities on the BMT are limited. You must plan ahead for places to overnight on the dry ridges that can be short on flat ground and water. When seeking camp, water may be near, but no flat ground. Or a nice flat spot will be far from water. Backpackers usually camp at gaps on ridges or near the occasional stream. One trail shelter has been built on the Sisson Easement.
Hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail is a year-round proposition. Be apprised that winter extends much later in the North Georgia Mountains than many unfamiliar with the Southern Appalachians assume. Late spring and early summer are ideal times to hike. The BMT can be overgrown, warm, and relatively buggy in late summer. Conditions improve in fall, though this is generally when mountain springs are at their lowest flow. Regardless of the time of year, the BMT is nearly deserted during the week. Weekends see more hikers, especially around Springer Mountain and the Cohutta Wilderness.
There are a few resupply points along the Benton MacKaye Trail, though only one, a restaurant, is very convenient. Thunder Rock Campground, at the trail's northern terminus, makes for a safe end point with good parking. Even without supply runs, backpackers can carry enough food and gear for the entire outing from Springer Mountain to the Ocoee River. After hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail from end-to-end, I recommend the BMT experience over the Appalachian Trail experience in Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication