Many words have been used to describe Benton MacKaye. He was a planner, a forester, and a pioneer. Perhaps the best term to define him is dreamer.
After graduating from Harvard in 1905, MacKaye began a career in forestry. His work included consulting and research for the U.S. Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Just months after his wife's suicide in 1921, he published an article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects entitled "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning." The ideas presented in this article became his dream, and they would be his driving force for the next 14 years.
MacKaye's vision for the Appalachian Trail included using shorter spur trails to enhance access to the trail. As with some features of his plan, spur trails were not immediately implemented. World War II and the economy were setbacks to seeing them become realized.
Then in 1975, the same year as MacKaye's death, an administrator in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources named Dave Sherman conceived an idea to create such a spur trail. It would honor MacKaye's vision by extending from the AT's southern terminus on Springer Mountain.
Sherman's idea was to create a sister trail of the AT, which would follow high ridges along the Tennessee-North Carolina border and in the Cohutta Mountains of northwest Georgia. The Benton MacKaye Trail Association was formed in 1980, but it took another 25 years to complete the trail.
Since then, several improvements have been made to the trail. One of them was a major reroute in 2014 to eliminate the need to walk on a dangerous highway.
Today, the Benton MacKaye Trail runs 287 miles. After leaving Springer Mountain just north of the AT's terminus, it crosses the AT a couple more times before heading north, then west, and then north again to the Georgia-Tennessee state line. After reaching the Hiawassee River, the trail turns east, where it meets the Tennessee-North Caroline state line.
After crossing Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Creek Wilderness, the trail meets up with the AT again near Fontana Dam. The dam provides access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Inside the park, the BMT splits from the AT again. It then follows a series of the park's trails to Big Creek on the east side of the park near Davenport Gap.
Benton MacKaye was not known as a good manager. He had a falling out with Myron Avery over the construction of the Appalachian Trail and rarely remained long in any job. Still, his vision for long-distance hiking trails is noteworthy, and the BMT is a fitting tribute to his pioneering work.
My thru-hike of this trail in late 2020 was a rewarding experience. The scenery was beautiful, and the trail was often challenging. The hike was made more enjoyable because I was joined by three friends who had hiked with me on previous long hikes.
Yeah, sing with me, sing for the year
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tear
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away
Dream until your dreams come true