Country miles: Federal designation sought for Benton MacKaye Trail
This year marked both the 16th birthday of the Benton MacKaye Trail and the 100th anniversary of its namesake’s flagship idea. Proponents of the trail want Congress to honor these milestones by designating the Benton MacKaye Trail as the nation’s 12th National Scenic Trail .
Part of the National Parks System, National Scenic Trails are continuous non-motorized routes of 100 miles or more that “showcase our country’s spectacular natural resources and beauty,” while offering “outstanding recreation opportunity,” according to the National Park Service website. On Sept. 9, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association announced its push to add the Benton MacKaye Trail to a list that includes the Appalachian Trail, the Florida Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Natchez Trace Trail, among others.
“I think Benton MacKaye would have been pleased with the trail today,” said BMTA President Ken Cissna. “The striking vistas, rushing waterfalls, the iconic Swinging Bridge and the pleasantly secluded forest pathways that wind through six wilderness areas as well as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which is managed as wilderness) make the Benton MacKaye Trail a perfect candidate for designation as a National Scenic Trail.”
In 1921, MacKaye famously put forth the treatise that launched efforts to build the Appalachian Trail , a 2,193-mile route stretching from Georgia to Maine. The concept for the Benton MacKaye Trail was born much later, in 1975 — incidentally, the same year MacKaye died — when conservationist Dave Sherman wondered about the possibility of creating a more wilderness-oriented alternative to the A.T. as crowding on the trail increased.
The Benton MacKaye Trail follows a route that MacKaye had originally sketched out as a spur route to the A.T., sharing the A.T.’s genesis at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and intersecting it multiple times before ending at Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 288-mile trail includes 82 miles in Georgia and 206 miles zigzagging the Tennessee-North Carolina border, of which 93 miles are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A third of the trail’s mileage is located in federally designated wilderness.
“He (Sherman) really was influenced quite a bit by Benton MacKaye,” said BMTA Vice President Joy Forehand. “He admired him. From that standpoint, we’re kind of a sister trail to the A.T. We’re a very unique trail in that we go through quite a bit of wilderness, and the trail hopefully will stay wilderness.”
Popular hiking destinations along the trail include The Hangover, Fontana Dam, Lakeshore Trail, Lookout Rock, the tunnel on the Road to Nowhere and the Mount Sterling Fire Tower. The route includes a variety of waterfalls, historic sites such as the remains of Doc Rogers’ house in Tennessee and “absolutely exquisite” spring wildflowers, said Forehand.
The Road to Nowhere near Bryson City is part of the Benton MacKaye Trail’s route. Holly Kays photo
Sherman founded the BMTA in 1980. By 1987, 93 trail miles had been completed, with the grand opening for the entire trail held in 2005. Today, about 95% of the route is on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service, with 15 miles remaining on private land or as short road walks.
Compared to other long trails, that’s a small number of uncompleted miles, said Forehand, but addressing those gaps is extremely important.
The Benton MacKaye Trail’s route was inspired by MacKaye’s original sketch for a proposed Appalachian Trail route. Appalachian Trail Conservancy photo
“Developers are snapping up most any property that comes on the market,” reads an excerpt from the BMTA’s July 2021 newsletter. “What once was a secluded, forested plot of land becomes a subdivision or a strip mall. Trail organizations must ‘be prepared’ to act as soon as land needed for the trail corridor hits the market. Even before a property is for sale, trail organizations need to take the initiative to open negotiations with and/or make offers to near by property owners whose land would be a valuable addition for the trail corridor.”
Forehand hopes that a National Scenic Trails designation would bring with it federal resources to help close those gaps sooner rather than later — though volunteers will continue to be key to the organization’s strength. In fiscal year 2020, the BMTA logged nearly 7,000 volunteer hours for trail maintenance. The organization has 729 members.
In its quest for federal designation, the BMTA is busy seeking support from hiking groups and congressional representatives in the trail’s path, as well as from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.
A spokesperson for Rep. Madison Cawthorn , R-Hendersonville, said that Cawthorn’s office is currently reviewing the request.
“Our office is evaluating this initiative and will work with all necessary stakeholders to facilitate a timely review of this designation effort,” said a statement from Cawthorn’s office.
An act of Congress is required to add the Benton MacKaye Trail or any other piece of land to the National Park Service. It’s difficult to put a timeline on such a feat, though Forehand said the BMTA hopes to achieve the designation by the end of 2022.
“So far the reaction has been fabulous,” said Forehand. “Everybody’s been saying, ‘Good luck. We’re behind you. So we’re up and running to say the least.”