Benton Mackaye Trail – Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Day 1-5)

The first five days on the BMT have been tremendous; I can say without hesitation that it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had on the trail.

On April 9, my brother-in-law, Doug and I were dropped off at the Big Creek Campground in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) by my wife and girls. The BMT follows already established trails within the park, additionally there are BMT arrows at the signs.

The first trail along Baxter Creek was tough. For 6 miles it pushes up to Mt. Sterling. At the crest, the fire tower was encased in fog, snow and ice littering the ground. Shivering we pushed on to Laurel Gap Shelter. Before this trip, I had told Doug that I thought we might not see another person the entire time. Much to my surprise there was a group of high school students already there. They were friendly and despite our fruitless efforts to make a fire with wet wood, we slept well.

Day 2 was a nice series of downhill hikes (with two uphill portions at Hyatt and Enloe) to Chasteen Creek. In the afternoon we were descending to campsite 50 when we saw a discarded pack on the trail. It was huge, at least 75 lbs. of weight. We scanned around to see if anyone was lost and didn’t see a soul. We kept hiking, and a 1/2 mile down we saw a man in military fatigues coming up the mountain. He had a 9mm strapped to his leg. I asked if that pack was his. He grunted in confirmation. I asked if he was ok or needed help. He muttered that he had underestimated the elevation and didn’t stop.

We made camp at 50 and were joined by a poker dealer from Harrah’s Casino named Lewis. He regaled is with stories of his life including hiking the PCT by the fire.

Day 3 was tough. It started with a push up Newton Bald. The first 2 days I felt out of shape (which I definitely was). I started to find my legs on the ascent of Newton. Periodically, I would stop to take in the surrounding scenery, the glorious Smoky’s. At the top of Newton we met a cool northbounder on the BMT, Lost & Found. We quizzed him about the trail while we ate lunch.

The descent to Deep Creek was fun, as we made good time. After Deep Creek, we had a decision, stop at 15 miles or push 4 more to our designated campsite. I wanted to stay, Doug wanted to push on. I acquiesced. Without a doubt, whoever said that Pole Creek Road Trail is 3.2 miles is a bold faced liar. Not only is it closer to 5, there must have been 7-8 tough creek crossings. We muscled through them and descended to the Bald Creek Campsite. Now, this campsite is desolate. It takes at least 9 miles to hike into it. One would expect it to be uninhabited. We found two weekend hikers there, as well as another BMT southbounder, Josh. As soon as we set up our tents we hit it off, he’s super chill and super nice. We hit it off so much, we asked if he wanted to hike with us the next day. Josh had been hiking alone for 5-6 days, so he welcomed the company.

Day 4 was all about the creek crossings. Many times people with warn you of a creek crossing, you’ll get there and it’s just a rock jump. That’s not the case with the Noland Creek ford. In reality there are two crossings. I’m not joking that after a strong rain, these two creeks would not be passable. We made it across the frigid water without incident and were grateful.

As a moral obligation to thru hiking, Doug and I took it upon ourselves to give Josh a trail name. Josh is skinny and Josh carries a huge 70 liter pack with everything under the sun. It felt only natural to dub him Sherpa. He took to it with a laugh and now his proper name has been shed.

We hiked together for 20 miles on this day. Talking laughing and trekking down from Noland Creek, through the tunnel to nowhere and along the Lakeshore Trail. We made it late in the day to campsite 76. We were tired, ate dinner and got in our tents for the night. About an hour after laying down, I got up to use the bathroom and a huge wild pig was coming in to our camp. I bellowed out for it to get on out of here, and it scurried back.

For Day 5 Doug and I had a decision to make, hike 24 miles to Fontana Dam and burgers or stay another night in the Smoky’s. We chose to get up at 4:30 and make town. Sherpa decided to hike with us, but was honest that he may slack off and not make it. He did stick with us for 10 miles, but just shy of Hazel Creek, he stopped and we pushed on. The Lakeshore Trail is not the most picturesque path, but it down have some good views of Fontana Lake. Definitely the highlight of the day was seeing a group of 6-7 sows with a boar. They were massive. When they heard us they shot up the mountain with incredible speed.

The final push was exhilarating, my legs were finally starting to get back in shape, my weight has dropped to a more athletic form and I felt grand. At around 4:15 we got to the parking lot and a nice guy named Drew gave us a lift to town.

I had called to Fontana Village, where our packages were and they didn’t have any rooms. But, when I went I the receptionist said they had an admin building. For $56 we got a room with two queen beds and a communal bathroom and shower. “It doesn’t have a TV though” she warned. “I think this will work out perfectly” I replied with a smile. So far we have loved it here: burgers, showers, laundry, a breakfast buffet.

For those thinking about this hike, it is tremendous.

Total mileage on BMT 90.5 miles.

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