I love to hike in the early months of the year when the open winter landscape reigns. It seems as though I can see every single tree in the forest, each standing on a leafy carpet. Using trekking poles for stability, I walk with my neck craned, admiring the graceful, high branches and trunks — the canopy architecture of hardwoods: oak, tulip poplar, hickory, sourwood, walnut, sweetgum, and beech. The irregular, expressive lines of these native trees never fail to stimulate my eyes and mind in ways that man’s angular shapes and straight lines cannot.
It’s during this time of year that I’m drawn to the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) in northwest Georgia, a relatively unknown long trail that offers remote hiking on a footpath linking ridges to river bottoms from Georgia through Tennessee to North Carolina. Over the past half dozen years, I’ve walked most of the 82-mile portion of the BMT in Georgia and hope to complete remaining miles this year.
In early February, my partner and I hiked a seven-mile trail section that requires the crossing of small, clear streams that lead to the Jacks River, which flows through the heart of the Cohutta Wilderness. One of the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River with 37,000 acres, the Cohutta includes rugged trails and wildlife.
Not far from one stream, appropriately named Bear Branch, we passed a seriously clawed-up hemlock tree trunk, where a black bear was likely seeking ants, grubs and other high-protein insects. With chilly temperatures in the 40s, we admired fallen leaves cupping snow from a recent storm, needle ice rising from disturbed soil, jagged icicles, drooping and curling rhododendron leaves, and bright-green patches of moss.
A Less-Traveled Path
From Springer Mountain in north Georgia — the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT) — to Davenport Gap in the northeastern corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the BMT runs 288 miles. A third of the trail lies in federally designated wilderness areas, where vehicles and motorized tools are prohibited.
A visionary forester, planner, and conservationist named Benton MacKaye published an article in 1921 that inspired the creation of the AT: a place where he hoped people would be able to find recreation and relief from “the noise and strain of the industrial community.” In his grand vision to create a long-distance footpath from Maine to Georgia — a “skyline wilderness trail,” MacKaye considered an alternate route at the trail’s southern end.
This route struck a course from the upper, east end of the Smokies, moving parallel, but well south of the AT route. It exited the national park near the place where Fontana Dam and reservoir would later be built, then continued into the Cohutta Mountain chain in Tennessee and Georgia — part of the oldest known mountains in the world. Continuing east toward the Blue Ridge, this trail would link up with the AT’s terminus, according to MacKaye’s maps. Today, that terminus is located at Springer Mountain.
I spoke recently with George Owen, a retired Methodist minister, ardent hiker, and one of the six founding members of the Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA). An energetic 84-year-old who still leads long hikes and maintains trails, Owen told me the story of how the BMT came to be.
David Sherman — head of the Georgia Heritage Trust Program in the mid-1970s —discovered MacKaye’s early maps and plans and decided to resurrect the idea of a long wilderness trail on the alternate southern AT route. He wanted to create a remote path — with no shelters — that would attract hikers looking for an uncrowded experience in a wild environment. Considered the BMT’s founding father, Sherman enlisted the help of five other trail advocates. Together, they established the BMTA in 1980 to preserve, protect and maintain the emerging trail, which they called “a footpath for generations to follow.”
The Georgia portion of the BMT was constructed and completed by volunteers in the late 1980s; however, it took longer to secure approvals for the trail through the Smokies. A grand opening was held in 2005, when the entire project was finished. Today, about 95% of the trail is located on public lands managed by the US Forest Service or the National Park Service; only fifteen miles remain on private land or public roads.
More than forty years later, the BMTA is still, impressively an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization, working actively to protect and maintain the trail. Last year, volunteers logged almost 8,000 hours maintaining the trail, which included the removal of 300 tree blowdowns caused by a major storm.
A National Scenic Trail
Continuing their relentless advocacy for the Benton MacKaye Trail, the BMTA decided to seek Congressional approval for their beloved footpath to be designated the twelfth National Scenic Trail in the country — a campaign announced last fall. According to the National Park Service, these trails must extend for more than 100 miles and showcase spectacular natural areas and beauty.
Once approved, the scenic trail designation will release additional federal resources to help the BMTA complete the trail on the remaining, unprotected portions before development can encroach on these sections — and also boost local economies. The association hopes to achieve the designation by the end of this year.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Visit bmta.org to learn how you can support the National Scenic Trail designation. Read about the BMT section hikes and discover the trail. Join the BMTA.