Benton MacKaye Trail – Overview

Snapshot

  • Length: 288 miles
  • High Point: Mt. Sterling (5,843′)
  • Low Point: Hiawassee River (765′)
  • Northern Terminus: Davenport Gap, TN
  • Southern Terminus: Springer Mountain, GA
  • Best Time to Hike: Spring and Fall
  • Weather/Temps: Can have big weather and temp swings depending on the time of year
  • Permits: Great Smoky National Park
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Strenuous
  • Shelter: AT Style Shelters (very few) and mostly camping
  • Water: Plenty
  • Foot Traffic: Light

The Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) is approximately 288 miles long, traveling 82 miles through Georgia and 206 miles through Tennessee and North Carolina. Ninety-three miles traverse The Great Smokey Mountain National Park, which was a highlight for me.

In 2021 I hiked from the southern terminus of the BMT at Springer Mountain, where the BMT shares its start with the Appalachian Trail (AT), to Fontana Dam in Tennesee. Unfortunately, I had to leave the trail at this point due to time constraints but returned to the northern terminus at Big Creek, where I hiked south to Fontana Dam to complete the BMT.

I chose to start the trail on March 12th, and a friend of mine hiked the first few days with me until we hitched into Blairsville, Georgia and she left the trail.

I continued my hike and ended the first half of the hike at Fontana Dam, where I stayed at The Hike Inn. The two closest airports were in Asheville, NC, and Knoxville, TN. I flew out of Knoxville since it was a more accessible airport to reach and navigate.

In July, I returned to the trail. I flew into Atlanta, and my Dad gave me a ride to the northern terminus of the BMT at Big Creek Trailhead. From here, I hiked south to Fontana Dam.

The Benton MacKaye Trail Association has a good website and good resources for hikers.

Weather

The BMT is in the southeast, so it is a relatively wet trail during at least three of its season. The BMT does experience extreme weather, especially at higher elevations. You can get Spring snow storms, ferocious thunderstorms, and below-freezing temperatures in the winter.

During the March portion of my hike, temperatures ranged from the upper 30’s to the mid-’70s. I had beautiful spring weather and brutal southern lightning storms with tornadoes and flooding. I ended up sitting out a couple of days as I waited on tornadoes to pass through and creeks to become passable.

You can check out one of my scary creek swims over on my Instagram feed. Some thru-hikers heading in the other direction took the video and sent it to me.

In July/August, when I completed the rest of the hike, I experienced temperatures ranging from the low-60’s to the upper-80’s. Unfortunately, it also rained almost every day I was in the Smokeys. There were some pretty severe storms, but most bad weather started after noon and was over before the next morning.

Terrain/Difficulty

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

The BMT is similar in difficulty to the Appalachian Trail. The trail travels along ridges and frequently drops down along creeks and drainages before climbing steeply back up and over high ridges and summits.

There are some steep climbs, but nothing technically tricky. The most challenging part of the hike for me was the creeks. The more significant creeks and rivers have bridges, but many of the smaller streams do not.

These smaller creeks can become impassable during severe thunderstorms and when steady rain occurs over consecutive days. You can usually wait for the water to lower over 24 hours after a large storm or heavy rain, but make sure you bring enough food to lay up for a day or two.

Social

For many hikers, the trail community is important. The BMT has an active trail organization, but not what I would call “engaged” from a social media perspective. This is compared to other trail’s social platforms, i.e., FB.

I hiked in Spring and Summer, and other than sections of the Smokeys, this was a lightly traveled trail.

All of the trail towns where I resupplied and businesses along the trail were very friendly and accommodating. I enjoyed the people I met on and off the Benton MacKaye Trail.