By Reggie Jay • Guest writer
As the Benton MacKaye Trail turns 30 this year, a dedicated group of volunteers who toiled over the creation of the 288-mile footpath through the remote southern reaches of the Southern Appalachians are savoring the milestone.
The Benton MacKaye Trail Association, a group of trail lovers who know all about hard work and more work, have spent the past three decades “leaving a footpath for generations to follow.”
One of the charter members, George Owen, recalled the stops and starts along the way and the hard-fought negotiations with the forest service to allow the new trail to be built.
Owen says his involvement with the BMT has been “the biggest thing in my life besides my family.”
“It’s been my goal to keep the trail going and accessible for families,” Owen said. “It kept me totally occupied and brought me longtime friends. I’m 72-years-old and still leading hikes.”
The BMTA held the long-awaited ribbon cutting ceremony on the completion of its 288 mile trail on Mud Gap off the Cherohala Skyway on July 16, 2005.
The work continues, however, as volunteers now focus their efforts trail maintenance.
Simply reaching parts of the trail pose a challenge, like the portion that traverses the shore of Lake Fontana in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It’s 36 miles of trail, uninterrupted by road crossings,” said Dick Evans of Graham County, who has been a maintainer along the stretch. Evans.
Trail volunteers must first take a boat across the lake and then hike in to the backcountry campsites to remove any trash and generally spruce up the campsites. They also check to make sure the bear cables are functioning and clean ashes from the fire pits.
So why would someone want to spend their free time working this hard?
According to longtime member, Darcy Douglas, it wasn’t just a chance to “create primitive trails in the southeast.”
“It was the people that drew me in,” Douglas said “A group of dedicated, hard-working individuals with a common purpose can accomplish a great deal, and it is rewarding to be a part of such a group of people. The human element is what has made it work, and what has made such lasting friendships.”
Reggie Jay is a member of the Benton MacKaye Trail Association who lives in Trenton, Ga.
What is the Benton MacKaye Trail?
A 288-footpath from Spring Mountain in Georgia to the Smokies is named in honor of Benton MacKaye, the visionary and creator of the Appalachian Trail and a Harvard-educated conservationist.
By the time MacKaye passed away in 1975, the 2,174-mile-long Georgia-Maine creation had become a haven for those seeking time in the wilderness. But all those footprints on the AT took a toll on the trail.
In the late 1970’s, a group of Georgia hikers got together and decided to pursue an alternative southern route to alleviate the traffic on the AT and provide a more primitive trail.
While the AT travels along the eastern ridges of the Appalachians and lies mostly in Western North Carolina, MacKaye envisioned a southern route that instead lay to the west, passing from Georgia into Tennessee, then skirting the stateline along the edge of Cherokee and Graham counties before reaching the Smokies.
That route is the basis of the trail that bears his name.