Benton MacKaye Trail, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina

Photograph by Wesley Overvold
Photograph by Wesley Overvold

Best For: Long-distance hikers who want to experience the way the founder of the Appalachian Trail wanted that hike to be

Distance: 300 miles

It may at first seem ironic that the newest (and by many accounts best) long-distance hiking trail in the South is named after a Harvard-educated, government worker from New England. But Benton MacKaye, a co-founder of The Wilderness Society, was also the man who came up with the idea for one of the South’s biggest outdoor legacies—the Appalachian Trail. The new Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), which officially opened in 2005, recaptures the vision MacKaye had for the AT. It’s a lonely, steep, sometimes nebulous route that starts along with the AT at Georgia’s Springer Mountain and ends back on the AT after crossing Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rambling through eight Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas along the way and celebrating MacKaye’s desire to preserve ecosystems without human tampering. There’s neither a social scene nor crowds as on the AT, just high Appalachian wilderness and a few like-minded souls out to explore it.

There’s more here too for creative hikers. Since the BMT starts and ends at the Appalachian Trail and crosses it just before it enters Great Smoky Mountains National Park, forming a massive, bottom-heavy figure eight, it allows for hikers to make a variety of loops. The southern loop (combining BMT and AT) is 364 miles and the upper loop covers 158 miles in the park. Tracing the entire figure eight racks up over 500 miles. It’s also possible to intersect with other long-distance trails for options such as the Georgia Loop (a steep, rugged 55-mile hike that follows the BMT), the Duncan Ridge Trail, and the AT.

When to Go: Beat the heat by hiking in spring and fall.

Shortcut: A 20-mile backpack from Beech Gap on the Cherohala Skyway to the Slickrock Trailhead on U.S. 129, including the Citico Creek and Slickrock/Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Areas in North Carolina and Tennessee, takes in old-growth forest and steep trails.

Insider Tip: Pack a fly rod. There’s fishing for a wide range of native and introduced species along the trail, including rainbow, brook, and brown trout as well as largemouth, smallmouth, and redeye bass.