Now that we’re home from the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), I’ve had some time to think about what useful information I could impart on others regarding this trail.
Here are my final thoughts:
I think the BMT is an excellent choice as an alternate for the first ~300 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), especially for folks with prior backpacking experience as well as folks looking for a little more solitude at the beginning or end their thru-hike.
The BMT easily intersects the AT at the beginning (Springer Mountain), in the middle (Fontana Dam), and at the end Davenport Gap, so you can pick and choose your route. I really think more long distance hikers should consider using this trail instead of the AT because of how crowded that section of the AT is during thru-hiker season.
The BMT is definitely a bit more difficult than the AT, but I think it was more of what we would have been looking for at the beginning of our AT hike. There are practically no thru-hikers (we met only one), and not even many section/day hikers in many of the areas, depending on the season. I think we would have enjoyed the solitude of this trail instead of the abundantly crowded beginning of the AT during thru-hiker season.
The BMT was better marked and somewhat better maintained that I expected, but in all honesty, expectations were quite low. In some sections it’s well enough marked that you don’t need a map, but you definitely will in some of the less well maintained sections.
Given the blackberry bushes and green briers along with other weeds, I wouldn’t recommend this trail in season (late spring through early fall). There are enough sections that would be completely overgrown to make the hiking less than enjoyable during the normal hiking season, and probably quite a bit harder to follow as well. I recommend either early spring, late fall or a winter thru-hike– which lines up well with AT thru-hiker seasons in that area.
The easiest sections were northern GA (basically the first 100 miles of trail), and the Smoky Mountains (basically the last 100 miles of trail). In both of these sections, you can up your mileage and even do some night hiking if you’re so inclined. In the middle 100 miles, the trail was overgrown, narrow, harder to follow, significantly harder in terms of steepness, and I would not recommend trying to night hike, unless you enjoy wandering around lost in the woods at night.
Water was not an issue. The longest stretch without water was maybe 10 miles at most (Topoco Lodge to Fontana Dam), but more commonly 5-7 miles at most, and often times you’re crossing many streams in a valley for half the day. There are at least 3 stream fords, all in the Smokies, but there may be more if there has been any significant rain.
Camping spots are not all over the place like on the AT, sometimes you have to be a bit more creative about finding a spot. A map is somewhat handy for this to find where there are gaps, or somewhat flat spots to aim for. There are two shelters on the trail, one in Cherry Log, GA, and one in the Smokies (Laurel Gap Shelter).
The BMT is quite remote, and resupply options can be limited in the off season. Depending on how many resupply points you plan on, I would definitely send a box to yourself at the Reliance Fly and Tackle and Fontana Dam Village (the front desk, not the post office). These spots are easy walking distance off the trail, and are roughly well spaced if you only need to resupply every ~100 miles. If you need more resupply points, you can hitchhike into Blue Ridge (50 miles in) for a full resupply, send a box to Coker Creek Welcome Center (3 mile walk off trail- hitchhiking is not an option), send a box to Topoco Lodge (on trail), or hitchhike into Cherokee for a full resupply.
We finished the trail in 20 days, averaging about 15 miles a day. I think this is a fairly cushy pace for someone who is used to long distance hiking– it definitely could be done faster. We did meet someone going less than 10 miles a day, so there are enough resupply points to make a slower pace feasible too.
In terms of weather, we got really lucky. No snow, no freezing rain, only two small storms, and they both happened when we were already in our tent for the night. There is at least one section where I would be worried to be stuck there with snow or ice, and that’s the trail between Topoco Lodge and the Hangover in Joyce Kilmer. I think if there was snow, we would have gotten completely lost. I’m sure there are other sections that would also be sketchy, but this one stands out in my mind.
My favorite sections of the BMT included Big Frog Wilderness, walking along the Hiwassee River, Joyce Kilmer, and the section of the Smoky Mountains where the trail moves away from Fontana Lake.
Please let us know if you have any questions about the BMT, and we’ll be happy to try to answer!