Benton MacKaye Trail

Benton MacKaye Trail spring break hike

Over spring break I had a great adventure down in the Smokies in North Carolina hiking a section of the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Appalachian Trail. It is one that I’ll look back on as a solid foundation for some future trips. I went out into the woods in late winter in Smoky Mountain National Park (which boasts the highest mountains on the east coast and unseasonably cold weather) with a sub 3.5 pound pack. That’s it. Besides shoes, poles, socks, a shirt, and shorts, the 3.5 pounds on my back was all the gear I figured I needed to survive for four days. Loaded with 3 pounds of food and a liter of water, it brought the total up to 7.8 pounds.

Day 1, Benton MacKaye Trail

I drove down to the Smokies on Saturday, the first day of my much anticipated spring break. I had decided on the BMT/AT north loop just days earlier and had done the bulk of my research on the area in the last 72 hours. Arriving at Twentymile ranger station at a little after 10pm, I slept in the back of my car and woke up the next morning at 7am to get started hiking. I remember sitting in the back of my car, fearing the 38 degree temps outside, really working through my gear decisions one last time, somewhat freaking out, and totally second guessing myself. I looked at a slightly warmer but significantly heavier shirt in my car and thought, “Just this. If I carry just this, I’ll feel way more comfortable.” The reality was, I didn’t have a single piece of water resistant insulation. Anything warm in my pack was goose down and down turns into a heavy, soggy, floppy, pancake of wet feathers when exposed to even the slightest precipitation. I convinced myself I’d be alright though and put on my ridiculously thin 3 ounce Arc’teryx Phase SL shirt, ridiculously lightweight running shorts, and began hiking, shivering violently as I tried to warm up. It was cold. Really cold. And I felt like a total moron.

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I soon warmed up with the long winding creekside trail that led to the ridgeline where I met up with the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t hopping on it just yet though. I was going to hike down the backside of the mountain and meet up with the Benton MacKaye Trail which would run alongside Fontana Lake. When I looked down the other side though, all I saw were fallen leaves, mudslides and a faint glimmer of what may once have been called a trail. The map pointed me in that direction though so that’s where I went. The previous day’s rain had made the trail one of the gnarliest descents I’ve even hiked. With no switchbacks, I practically slid down the steep slope towards the valley. Once the grade flattened a bit, I saw another hiker coming up. After exchanging greetings, I wished him “Enjoy your hike!” not realizing the absurdity of the statement with the climb he had no doubt been struggling with for the last hour or so. He laughed a bit and kept trudging up the slick mud and leaf covered slope.

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Pretty soon I was on the Lakeshore Trail winding alongside Fontana Lake. Besides a few boats speeding by far off in the crystal glue-green water, I was entirely alone. The trail was smooth and wide and incredibly easy hiking. I tested out my lightweight pack by running most of this section. But the deep leaves concealing little ruts and stones made me nervous about rolling my ankle. Having sprained my ankle back in January, I’ve been extremely conservative with what technical trails I’m willing to run on. Eventually the trail returned to the mountains and I started climbing again. My legs felt good so I kept pushing but with only 12 hour days, I was running out of daylight. I realized I was going to have to do a fair bit of night hiking to hit my goal mileage. I have never liked solo night hiking. Honestly, the only thing I hate more is solo night kayaking, where you have an added dimension of worrying what’s underneath you.

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Just before sunset I saw another two hikers who in jeans and with no packs, looked extremely misplaced for how remote the area was. I quickly said hello and kept moving to try to make camp at some reasonable hour. Just a quarter mile later, the trail widened and then widened some more and eventually turned to pavement. I looked up and there was a road leading into a tunnel right in front of me. I had seen “tunnel” written on the map but I expected something like a little concrete cave bypassing a rockslide, not a massive tunnel seemingly built just for hikers.

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Without questioning it I began my walk on the “road to nowhere”, heading for the distant light on the other end. I thought I was fortunate to be able to run on this section but about a third of the way in, I couldn’t see a single thing besides the two distant blips of light at the end. I couldn’t see my feet, couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. So I pulled off my pack and fumbled around blindly looking for my headlamp. My imagination went wild and I thought I’d flick on my light find I had walked into some demonic hellish place with walls made of bones, or have some creepy beggar standing over me. With dripping sounds all around me, I imagined the saliva of some giant sharp toothed animal clinging to the ceiling. This absurd imagination is exactly the reason I don’t like hiking alone in the woods in the dark. But instead I flicked my headlamp on to find the not nearly as exciting, but still rather unfortunate tags of graffiti covered walls.

I ran out the other end to a full parking lot with more hikers entering the tunnel. I ran down the road and then followed the BMT down to a gravel trail alongside a magnificently beautiful creek. More of a road than a trail, this deep valley section was frigid and lonely. I watched the sun set behind the mountains and the valley quickly grew dark. I kept my headlamp on the dimmest setting of a measly four lumens to maintain the battery. To keep my pack weight low I hadn’t brought spare batteries and instead was going to rely on my phone’s flashlight in case of emergency. With this little light, the deep blackness of water filled pot-holes up the road looked strikingly similar to a black bear’s coat in the night. But fortunately, the only wildlife I encountered were startled grouse and grumpy squirrels.

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I made it to camp a little after 9pm where two other hikers had set up their tarp for the night. The two very nice guys seemed concerned but thrilled about what how little gear I was carrying. I was exhausted though and after a brief conversation, headed off to find a site to camp. It was ridiculously cold alongside the creek so I traversed a short way up a ridge to try to somewhat avoid the cold air descending into the valley. I couldn’t find much flat ground so instead I found a wide tree with dirt built up on its uphill side. I set my sleeping pad along the uphill side, put on all my clothes, did some jumping jacks to warm up, ate some cookies, put my pack down beneath my feet to insulate my legs from the cold ground, wrapped myself up in my tarp to create a vapor barrier, and laid down for what I knew was going to be a long night. To my surprise I only woke up shivering twice and quickly fell back asleep.

Day 2, Benton MacKaye Trail

By morning I was far from rested from the fitful night but was tired of being cold so got up and began hiking. In the middle of the night, I had entertained the idea of returning to the car in the morning, exhausted and concerned for what the next night may hold, but for some reason the thought didn’t occur to me when I began hiking that morning. I just packed up my bag and kept walking north without hesitation. The two hikers had warned me the night before of a creek that I would need to ford three miles in. They had attempted it the day before and said it was too dangerous and turned back. They had intentions of bypassing it by heading up to Clingman’s dome and just hiking the AT north. I took note of that backup plan but fully intended on crossing the creek. Sure enough, three miles in I came to a flooded whitewater creek, just 20 feet wide but waist deep and flowing very, very quickly. My trekking poles had been stored because my frozen hands had been shoved into my jacket pockets but I had to pull out the poles to cross. The creek started out shallow but midway through dropped off onto a set of large slick stones. I had wrapped my sleeping bag up in a plastic bag to protect it from getting wet in case I fell in but panicked a bit knowing the consequences of a sopping pack. I made it across with only wet shoes and shorts and frozen legs and quickened my pace to warm back up.

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Alongside the Lakeshore trail the day before the temperatures had been hot and my legs and face and legs had sunburned. Today, despite being back in the woods, with no leaves to shield me from the sun, the story was no different. In the warm midday sun, I  was racing through my water at around a liter every few miles. Alongside the lake, there were always water sources everywhere; up on ridges, I kept running low and for several miles went without any water. This mild dehydration coupled with the heat and the wear of over fifty miles of backpacking in little over 24 hours was noticeably wearing on me. Despite feeling fine, I simply could not hold the pace I needed to in order to get the miles done. I was hiking a little over 2.5 miles per hour, a pace that I would need to hold for a full 17 hours if I wanted to match the distance I covered in 13 hours the day before. I knew I couldn’t do that so I had to accept a shorter day. Less than 30 miles in, the sun had set and I was alone again in the woods after dark. The trail descended into a valley where I told myself I would sleep if there were other people. I craved the safety of company but there was no one at the next several campsites. The trail turned back uphill and up on the beautiful windless ridge I decided it was time to crash. Having only covered 32 miles, I just hoped I’d be able to hike faster the next day and cover more miles to make up for it. I set up camp between a couple fallen trees, sheltered from the wind and up on the ridge to be above the cold descending drafts that had made the previous night so miserable. I slept through the night only awakened by a few deer passing by in the early morning.

Day 3 Benton MacKaye Trail Northern Terminus

I woke up before sunrise to begin hiking on the third day. While none of the night hiking on this trip had really shaken me too terribly, and had actually been quite enjoyable, I was reminded and amazed at the difference I feel toward hiking in the dark in the morning. It’s peaceful and awe-inspiring to watch the sunrise and the warmth come over you. It brings hope and happiness. Compared to the nights, covering forty miles is mindless brute work. But sleeping out in the woods is frightening, an uncertainty that requires the bulk of my gear and experience. To make it to morning semi-comfortably and safely was the challenge for my 3.5 pounds of gear.

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I had wanted to get to a shelter the previous night but having done some quick calculations indicating I wouldn’t have gotten there till 1am, I was happy with my decision to stop hiking. Early in the day, I made it to that shelter to see people still sleeping and some packing up. The trails were incredibly well maintained at this point, obviously a sign of the popularity of the area, and soon I began my descent down into Davenport Gap where I would resupply at Standing Bear Farm Hostel. I felt fantastic, completely opposite how I did the day before. Whether because of a good night’s sleep, or the dose of ibuprofen, or the rest from low mileage the day before, I am not exactly certain what caused my 180 degree turnaround. I had fully realized not only the blatant stubbornness of the human body but also the resilience to recover and keep going but. The day before, no matter what I did, I could not surpass 2.5 miles per hour. I was crawling all day. But now I was running at 4mph comfortably. I was completely giddy and reached the terminus of the BMT by early afternoon. I ran up to Standing Bear Farm Hostel a few miles away and picked up some more food for my return trip on the AT.

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Northern terminus of the BMT. I used to be completely disinterested in wearing headphones in the woods but I’ve started really enjoying listening to books out there. Hike your own hike!

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Standing Bear Farm Hostel was an incredible littler hiker oasis. After not seeing many people for the last two days, it was nice to catch up with some thru-hikers who were resting and resupplying at the trailside hostel. I bought two Cokes, a Yoohoo, and two danishes to eat while I packed up and several candy bars, peanut butter crackers, and other snacks for the trip back.

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After an hour of relaxing and letting my feet dry out I headed back out on the trail. With a full belly and jacked up on caffeine I was rocking and rolling on the steep ascent on the AT. I passed several shelters with thru-hikers partying it up and pressed on to try to get another few miles in after the sun set. The temperature drops 3.5 degrees per thousand feet and before I knew it, I was up at just below 6000 feet and hiking faster and faster to keep warm. The ridge line narrowed to just a few meters, the stars came out, and for a time it was an incredibly beautiful hike with the lights of the towns in the valley. But in the distance I could see a glimmer of a cloud rolling in and soon I was hiking in gusty winds in a thick cloud. Keeping track of the trail became tough and with sheer drops on either side, the consequences of deviating just a short way left or right were severe. The wind began shaking the dew from the trees and before long, not knowing if I was still on the AT or not, I decided to set up camp. I crawled on all fours into the thick branches of a small pine grove on the ridge and crammed myself underneath their boughs. With hardly enough room to move and certainly not enough to set up my tarp I draped it overtop of me and laid down. Huddled up trying to stay warm I ate a Butterfinger and a Snickers and called my parents to check in. My mom was worried about me hiking so late so I reassured her that I was okay and informed her of my location. She was still worried so I sent her the picture below in case she thought there was any hint of normalcy left in me, and also just to show her that I wasn’t worried at all and was actually having a pretty good time.

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With a cold night ahead of me, I tried to get some sleep. The night before I had found that I could pull my quilt over my head and turn it into a pseudo-mummy bag which helped keep me a little warmer. But with temperatures dropping to the high twenties, my fifty-degree quilt was well out of its functional range. Still, I was amazed at what the Enlightened Equipment quilt kept me warm to. Most other bags I’ve tried hardly match up to their rating. But with a vapor barrier and a light jacket, the mere 8.7 ounce quilt kept me sleeping most of the night over twenty degrees below its rating.

Day 4, Appalachian Trail

The next morning, after a night that probably would have historically sent me racing home, I began hiking a little after sunrise. It’s amazing to think that getting stuck, wet and cold on one of the highest mountains on the east coast can go from being a horrifically trying event to simply another night on the trail. And it honestly makes me very excited for the possibilities for the future of minimalist backpacking.

For the entire morning I was passing thru-hikers on their pilgrimage north and in the early afternoon I came across a massive flood of day hikers at a rock formation called Charles Bunion. When I made it to the only road crossing in the Smokies in midday, I still had over 40 miles to go to get back to my car, a distance that would have put me finishing the next morning. Unfortunately I was running short on time and I had vowed to get back to studying by Thursday of spring break. I sat down off to the side and started a conversation with a park volunteer. I asked him what he thought of the chances of hitching to Fontana Dam from where we were.

“Uhh, I’d say pure luck,” he responded without much confidence in my pursuit.

A map at a kiosk nearby showed just how absurd the hitch would be. With several different roads, it would probably take all night just to return to my car. The man I had been talking to offered me a ride down to the visitor center in the valley where he figured they may be able to call for a shuttle. On the twenty minute drive I learned he was a former ranger in the park who along with a friend had helped develop the miles of the BMT within the Smokies. It was fascinating talking to him and definitely one of the highlights of the trip. I’ve always enjoyed meeting total strangers out on the trail and catching a glimpse of their lives only to never see them again. In the privacy of the city, we hardly even acknowledge strangers. But free from our four walls it seems everyone is a friend.

End of the trip

At the visitor center the rangers helped me find a shuttle service with a Bryson City, NC native, Steve Claxton, and his wife Becky. The wonderful couple drove me back to my car at Twentymile ranger station where I was relieved to see it again. Going off on any adventure and leaving my car is always a little stressful with the concern of vandalism. But instead of vandalism I arrived back to a dead car battery. Having already waived bye to Steve, I was left in the parking lot with very little options. There was no ranger present and no other hikers. Being at the backside of the park, the road receives very little traffic each day. With no cell phone service I tried the emergency phone on the ranger station porch only to find it didn’t wire me to another ranger station and went directly to 911. I apologized and walked out to the road to see if I could get better service. Fortunately, after maybe an hour and a half, a truck came winding along the switchbacks. When hitching I normally calmly stick my thumb out to not seem like a crazy person. But in this case I was waving frantically to get them to stop. The nice couple fortunately had jumper cables and were happy to help. After a quick ride back to my car in the backseat with their very excited dogs licking the salt from my face, we were soon hooking my car up back at the ranger station. I was absolutely ecstatic when my engine revved and I knew I’d be getting out of here shortly. I wanted to hug them because I was so happy but spared them my disturbing stench.

I drove to a nearby Arby’s that I had seen on the way in and ate a family size portion of food and then got a hotel room for the night. It was the first time I had undressed in four days and frankly the first time I had done any bit of care for myself. I was surprised to find some rashes on my legs had become desensitized, raw, and had broken open and were now looking infected. I had done a better job taking care of my feet and only had one very small blister. Overall though, I was healthy and happy and pretty stoked that the trip, despite being short, had been an overwhelming success, and was a good sign for future minimalist backpacking adventures.

I wondered on my drive home if I would have made any alterations to my gear. There was only one alteration, and I actually made it before I left so in reality everything worked great. I added a few ibuprofen to my pack and they helped tremendously. As much as I am embarrassed to admit I took pain medication to allow me to bury myself even further into the ground, I can’t deny that they helped. I won’t say that it isn’t possible to semi-comfortably do forty-mile days without some form of pain relief. Other than that, every piece of gear in my pack served a purpose and there was nothing that I wish I had brought or left at home.

As far as lessons learned however, I certainly can benefit from some alterations to my habits. First and foremost, I need to wake up on time. As hard as this is, it drastically alters the day. If I’m hiking by 7, the day goes infinitely better than if I don’t get moving even just one hour later. Having those hiking hours before dawn is just so much better than having to stumble into camp after dark. And no matter how fresh I seem to be during the day, after the sun sets, I seem to have a fixed mileage that I can cover in the dark before I start fading.

A habit I unfortunately abandoned on this trip due to cold nighttime temperatures and limited daylight was personal care. Normally after twenty miles or so I take a solid midday break, take my shoes off, let my feet soak in a cold creek, go for a quick swim or at least splash some water over my head and face. I take my pack and shirt off and dry out in the sun. But each day on this trip I took my shoes off only briefly if at all, and my pack stayed on the entire day. I had developed a small rash on my back I suppose from being sweaty back there most of the day and then slipping into a vapor barrier each night. While I imagine developing callouses will make a longer hike much easier, those first few days I’ll definitely need to be more careful about my hygiene.

I’m very excited for the doors a trip like this opens up. Being about to carry just a few pounds really enables me to travel some awesome distances and go on some adventures that previously weren’t possible.

Some swollen feet
Some swollen feet at the end of the trip
Grayson Cobb

Grayson Cobb

I am a long distance backpacker, triathlete, adventurer, climber, kayaker, and lowly medical student currently living in Norfolk, VA attending Eastern Virginia Medical School and getting out for adventures on weekends.
Grayson Cobb

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