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Benton MacKaye Trail


Named for the creator of the Appalachian Trail, this lesser-known alternative route through the Southern Appalachians links scenery that's just as wild.

Also in North Carolina, United States of AmericaTennessee, United States of America

Hiking Difficult

453 km
13 km
14 km
1 day +
Low Point
225 m
High Point
1.8 km
Benton MacKaye Trail Map

Benton MacKaye was the man who envisioned a great trail through the Appalachian Range. He published a book with his ideas in 1921, and hiking clubs of the time quickly adopted his goal. The Appalachian Trail was enthusiastically established during the following decades. MacKaye never imparted his own name on the trail he inspired, but later trail creators thought it proper to honor his legacy with a new trail in the Appalachians.


Opened in 2005, the Benton MacKaye Trail covers nearly 300 miles in the Southern Appalachians of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. It begins and ends along the AT, but traces a path of its own, touring parts of this immense range unseen by those who only hike the AT. A much newer and lesser-known trail, the BMT is more rugged than the AT and feels more remote for much of its length. It is less crowded, less maintained, and has fewer camping shelters.

In the initial miles through Georgia, the trail weaves up and down many wooded ridgelines and through the small towns tucked between them. It passes some waterfalls, crosses the Toccoa River on a suspension bridge, and reaches a lookout tower atop Brawley Mountain. The grip of civilization feels at first hard to escape, as the trail crosses some major highways and skirts around neighborhoods, but all that soon fades as the trail turns north toward Tennessee and enters a designated Wilderness area, with nothing but woods and trail for miles.

Tennessee begins with a grueling climb up 4,200-foot Big Frog Mountain, followed by a descent even steeper and deeper, which ends at the Ocoee River. Its rapids were the stage for the whitewater events of the 1996 Olympics. The trail crosses this world-class whitewater on a bridge, then twists over more ridges and valleys to find the Hiawassee, another whitewater river and the small town of Reliance, TN on its banks. After following the river upstream for a few miles, the trail climbs into the Unicoi Mountains, on the border with North Carolina.

The trail straddles the state line, dipping in and out of valleys where each climb seems tougher than the one before. The average elevation of the trail rises steadily as the mountains grow taller. The trail meets the Cherohala Skyway, a scenic mountain road, and parallels it for a short distance. The noise of automobiles and motorcycles lingers for a bit, but soon disappears as the trail dips again into the deep forest of a Wilderness area.

North of the road, the trail stays mostly on top of a lofty ridge, where fir trees sweeten the air and mountain vistas appear through gaps in the canopy. Then, a long descent through shady valleys leads to Cheoah Lake on the Little Tennessee River. The walk beside the water is brief before the trail climbs again onto a mountain south of the river, traverses its woody ridgeline, then descends steeply into Fontana Village and Fontana Lake just beyond.

The trail crosses the dam at Fontana then winds through many small stream drainages and coves above the shoreline, making its way eastward along the miles of this long mountain reservoir. This section is within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where special permits are required for camping.

The tallest mountains along the state line tower just to the north as the trail traces their southern flanks in North Carolina. Dark hemlock groves over rushing streams block the view of slopes that rise above, but the depth of this landscape is still tangible beneath the tall canopy. The topography becomes even more apparent, however, when the trail leaves the gentle gradient of Noland Creek’s valley to climb to the Noland Divide.

This begins the strenuous final section of trail, which steeply ascends and descends a series of mountains, gaining then losing two to three thousand feet each time. The last of these summits is the highpoint of the entire trail, Mount Sterling, at 5,843 feet above sea level. From the top, the trail makes its final plunge down the north ridges of Sterling to Big Creek.

Sources: http://bmtguide.com/ http://www.bmta.org/ http://www.bmta.org/pdfs/BMT-OverviewMap.pdf https://www.postholer.com/google-map/Benton-MacKaye-Trail/14



Hiking trails where obstacles such as rocks or roots are prevalent. Some obstacles can require care to step over or around. At times, the trail can be worn and eroded. The grade of the trail is generally quite steep, and can often lead to strenuous hiking.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.


3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

between March and November


  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Similar routes nearby

Guidebooks in this area