Originally written for RootsRated
Even if you’ve never heard of the Benton MacKaye Trail, you may know its creator, Benton MacKaye, the father of the Appalachian Trail. In his grand vision to create a long-distance footpath from Georgia to Maine, he was also inspired to create a network of shorter hiking trails that branch off from the AT. When MacKaye passed away in 1975, David Sherman, an administrator of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, revised MacKaye’s concept and thus, the Benton MacKaye Trail was born in 1980.
The Benton MacKaye Trail starts 0.2 miles down the start of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, and stretches 300-miles through remote forests of North Carolina and Tennessee all the way to Davenport Gap at the northeastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Benton MacKaye trail offers a much different hiking experience than its better-known cousin.
“The Appalachian Trail is a well-worn rut in the dirt,” says Bob Ruby, the current president of the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. “The Benton MacKaye Trail is less traveled, and you can be hiking on last fall’s leaves. Overall the two trails are of comparable difficulty. ”
Due to its remoteness, the Benton MacKaye Trail often needs maintenance, and the heartbeat of this effort comes from the Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA). The all-volunteer, nonprofit group consisting of 51 active trail maintainers in 2015, who generously gave time and talent to work on the trail for a combined total of 4,674 hours—more than 40 hours of work each.
Looking to hike on Georgia’s section of the Benton MacKaye Trail? RootsRated got the scoop on the trail from the BMTA, along with the help of their printed guidebooks. Here are some of the best sections of the trail that you can explore in just a day.
Bryson Gap to GA Highway 60 (6.3 miles): The highlight of Georgia, and perhaps the Benton MacKaye Trail as a whole, is the Toccoa Swinging Bridge, a 260-foot suspension bridge that crosses the Toccoa River. The bridge is said to be the longest in the state of Georgia. The bridge is 2.8 miles from Bryson Gap.
Stanley Creek Road to Weaver Creek Road (6.1 miles): Fall Branch Falls makes this portion of the trail well-traveled. Just 0.2 miles after the trailhead, hikers can take the short side trail to the platform overlook of Fall Branch Falls. This section also summits Rocky Mountain at 3,350 feet. Scoggins Knob at 5.8 miles offers views to the north of Lake Blue Ridge.
Big Frog Mountain to FS 221 (6.5 miles): The following section is actually in Tennessee but is just past the Georgia/Tennessee border, where the trail crosses at Double Springs Gap. This section of the trail goes through a remote part of the Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia and the Big Frog Wilderness in Tennessee. These two wilderness areas combined are the largest on Forest Service lands in the eastern United States. Part of the Big Frog Wilderness, Big Frog Mountain (4,224 feet) is one of the highest points on Georgia’s Benton MacKaye Trail. After the peak of Big Frog Mountain, hikers descend through a quarter-mile of rhododendron known as the “Green Tunnel” on the west side of the mountain. About one mile in after the summit, the Chimney Top rocky outcrop offers beautiful views east.
Old Dial Road to Stanley Creek Road (5.2 miles): As you hike northbound on the trail, it climbs steadily uphill to follow a ridgeline before dropping to the Toccoa River at 1.3 miles. It parallels the river and crosses the historic Shallowford Bridge.
Highway 60 to Skeenah Gap (6.3 miles): This section and the next (Skeenah Gap to Wilscot Road/Highway 60) are the more remote parts in Georgia. One of the steepest climbs is from Little Skeenah Creek to the summit of Wallalah Mountain on a series of switchbacks for 0.8 miles. The trail also intersects with the Duncan Ridge Trail at mile 3.9, so those wishing to tack on another one of Georgia’s difficult long distance trails can detour here.
- While the Benton MacKaye Trail is comparable in difficulty to many trails in North Georgia and the Smoky Mountains, it is far more remote. It helps to have a map and guidebook for the trail. Hikers shouldn’t be totally dependent on blazes and should know how to use a compass.
- Put your phone in a waterproof container or bag and make sure it’s turned off or on airplane mode.
- Chances are good that your phone isn’t going to work in most areas. Leave good instructions with someone where you are going and when you plan on coming back. If you really want to be safe, invest in a Spot.
- Pay attention to the weather and make sure you plan for the worst. Take a rain shell and an insulating layer even in the summer in case you get surprised by a storm or cool weather in the high country.
- Summertime provides new opportunities for encounters with wildlife and insects. Plan accordingly by preparing a good first aid kit and brushing up on your injury treatment skills.
- If you’re going to be hiking in an overgrown area, either invest in some insect repellant clothing or treat your gear and clothing with permetherine and take some good deet insect repellant for exposed skin. This will help keep the ticks and chiggers at bay.
- Watch your step and make sure you are able to identify the main types of venomous snakes in the area. It’s unlikely that you’re actually going to be bitten, but it will make you feel better to know that you’ll be able to handle a situation if it arises.
- Carry a small hand tool to trim branches that might be down or in the way. The cumulative maintenance makes a big difference over time. It will also make you feel good knowing that you’ve made the trail nicer for future hikers.
Detailed trail maps of the Benton MacKaye Trail are available to purchase from the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. Special thanks to authors of the Trail Guides, Elizabeth Carter, Ernest Engman, Kim Hainge and Richard Harris.
Featured image provided by Alexa Lampasona