Friday, March 16, 2012

Sister to the Appalachian Trail - the Benton MacKaye Trail, Part 1

Looking for solitude and a wilderness experience? Try this!

Hi folks,

My name is Ernest Engman, though my "trail name" is SGT Rock. I write the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) Thru-Hikers Guide and I’ve been working on the BMT or hiking it since 2005. Blissful has asked me to write a little about the BMT.  

Author and family

First thing – when you say MacKaye, it should rhyme with sky. I said it wrong myself for years.


A little look back in history: When Benton MacKaye first came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail (AT), his sketch included feeder trails that would bring people from around the region into the main artery of the AT. The trail was completed in 1937 and for many years, it made use of already established local trails to provide the network of feeder trails.

 In 1979, a group of GATC members recognized that the AT was starting to see higher traffic and an alternative needed to be created for hikers seeking more solitude in their trail experience – if only they could see what would become of the trail! The number of thru-hikers completing the Appalachian Trail in 1979 was 129; by 1999 the number was nearly 4 times as many. It is estimated that nearly 3,000 hikers attempt a thru-hike every year, and that doesn’t include day hikers or section hikers. To this end they formed the Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA) to construct a path that would give AT hikers an alternate way to travel from Springer Mountain and meet back up again with the AT. A link was sketched out. In 1980, construction started. The first part of the Benton MacKaye Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the Ocoee River in Tennessee was finished fairly quickly. But due to changes in red tape, the remainder of the trail was not completed until 2005. Most of that was by adopting existing trails into the system. Now finished it is nearly 300 miles long, so to make the term easy to remember from year to year, someone who finishes the BMT is considered a 300 miler.

Wilder experience, more solitude

The BMT was designed to intentionally be an alternative to the Appalachian Trail and to also be different. Because of that, the BMT has different maintenance standards of width of trail maintained and an intentional avoidance of extra trail structures. For instance there are only two shelters on the entire length of the trail. One is in Georgia, near the town of Cherry Log, where the BMT crosses private land for 8.6 miles. In order for BMT hikers to have some place to camp in this long stretch of road walks and private land, a shelter was built. The other shelter is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and was built by the CCC in the 1930’s. It is one of the more remote structures in the park.
The trail also skirts one wilderness area, passes through five others, and ends in GSMNP which is managed as a wilderness area. Many of these areas are unblazed due to their wilderness management. Signs are kept to a minimum, and some water crossings that would have bridges on other trails are left as fords.


The end result is a wilder, more remote feeling than on the AT, and less hikers overall. I’ve experienced it, and other hikers have told me that one can go for days and never see another human being while walking the BMT. 


I’m often asked is the BMT as easy to navigate as the AT? The answer is, absolutely not. That said, it is also not hard as long as you bring the right stuff. The trail in some sections is blazed and is plain and easy to follow as a hiker could wish. But in wilderness areas the BMTA is not allowed to blaze and signs are placed on existing sign posts only. A hiker that does not carry maps will certainly have a hard time navigating their way along the entire length of the BMT (maps 777 and 781 put out by National Geographic and a map of the Smokies). A compass is also helpful. I also recommend that anyone attempting the BMT carry some sort of guidebook that will show the other trail names that the section of the BMT might be using. The BMTA has divided the BMT into three general sections: Georgia, Tennessee/North Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The club produces a data book that covers the mileages for all three sections, and have section guidebooks for two of the three sections: Georgia and Tennessee/North Carolina. They should have the third guidebook finished in 2012 to complete the set.

In addition to those, I write a guidebook that has all the information one would need for long distance hiking on the BMT including town data for re-supply and other essential  functions. It is laid out in a format similar to The AT Guide by David “Awol” Miller. My guide is available here.

(Go to Part 2 on this unique trail by Sgt Rock)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hiked the BMT in May of 2017 with three other people. We started by going through the Tunnel to Nowhere, doing the bypass loop back to the road then heading eastward ending at the Smokemont Baptist Church where we had parked. It rained off and on the first day then was sunny the second day. The third, fourth and fifth days saw torrential rains and thunderstorms. That being said, we had a blast! Two of us are seasoned hikers of the AT and are well aware of the amount of rain the Smokies receives in the spring. The only blaises we saw the whole hike was at the trail intersections. We only had one area where we had a question as to where the trail went but one minute on the wrong trail told us we were on the wrong ended after 100 yards. We did get to visit the old family cemetery just off the trail. Fortunately we passed it during our one good day! Wonderful campsites close to water sources made the sites better than a lot of the lean-to shelters on the AT where the water sources require a good hike up or down some mountainside...though it would have been nice to have shelters for a break from the rains! We did see a few people on the trail but faaaar less than if we had been on the AT and we never had neighbors at the campsites. All in all the trail is rugged with a lot of stream fording to do. We seasoned hikers will be returning later to hike from the tunnel westward while the two newbies have sworn off hiking for life!