Day 1 Big Creek: Mile 0.0
We had been debating where exactly we wanted to start our Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT)- Appalachian Trail (AT) Loop hike. While it seems most hikers travel northbound, or NOBO, and the guide (and signage as we would come to find out) is predominantly oriented in that direction, it logistically made more sense for us to head southbound, or SOBO, and start off in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Smokies.
The Smokies, like many National Parks, have a backcountry camping permit system which means we had to reserve specific campsites on specific dates. The reservations can be made online or over the phone and are really a pretty simple process, though it can feel overwhelming when added to the to-do list of a long hike.
AT hikers are able to obtain a “thru-hiker” permit allowing them to camp at any designated site they pass in the park, the caveat being that if it’s full and someone with a reservation shows up demanding a space they’re expected to move along. When I was making our reservation, the operator at the backcountry office mentioned that they recommended a Benton MacKaye pass similar to the AT one, but that the idea was shot down by their manager. I for one, think it would be a helpful thing, especially as folks seek out the BMT as an alternative start for their AT thru-hikes.
Our initial plan was to hike to the top of Mount Sterling and camp at the Mount Sterling Campsite, campsite 38, however J-Dub pointed out that this plan didn’t take into account how stormy the Smokies can be, especially in the summer, so we revised and spent the first night at Big Creek Campground, a campground for tenting only which you can drive right up. The spot has large tenting pads and lovely access to the eponymous Big Creek. The reservation cost $17.50 for a tent pad for one night, that fit both of our tents comfortably, and a picnic table.
Our parents helped us out by driving us up from the Charlotte area early Friday morning. It was really fun riding up with them and reminiscent of some of the road trips we’d take out to the American West when I was young. We got an early start to stay ahead of traffic in and around the park.
Our first stop was to drop off a food cache for ourselves at the bear box behind the Smokemont Campground ranger station. The BMT guide mentions that many thru-hikers use this as a resupply, and since we were planning seven days out in the Smokies it made sense for us to do the same. We planned to carry two(ish) days worth of food and pick up the other five(ish) at Smokemont. I say “ish” because our permit had us hitting Smokemont around midday, so we needed breakfast and lunch in our carry, but would be picking up dinner.
After dropping off the package at the Smokemont bear box we drove up New Found Gap Road, US 441, a scenic drive through the heart of the Smokies, stopping at a few pull offs along the way to enjoy the trip and do the touristy thing. While we could have backtracked and reached Big Creek via I-40, we thought it’d be fun to see the park and J-Dub did the driving so that our parents could sit back and do some sight-seeing.
New Found Gap Road let us out right into Gatlinburg, the tourist trap of the Smokies. It was a trip driving through it, and we all had to fight the temptation to rent dune-buggies, but we soon found ourselves on Tennessee 32, a windy mountain road that riders compare to the Tail of the Dragon. TN 32 lead us up a back way Big Creek and kept our folks within striking distance of I-40 for the trip back.
Dropped off around noon we had plenty of time to set up, get comfy, and eat some hummus and chips our parents left with us. Car camping at it's finest! With time to kill, we decided to hike up to Midnight Hole Falls, a popular day hike spot leadign to a lovely waterfall and swimming hole. It was pretty crowded so we just checked it out briefly and headed back.
The day hike left us thirsty so we drank much of what we brought, leaving enough water for the morning, but leaving us none to make coffee with. We could have grabbed water from the Creek, but it was a fairly large body of water, so wanted to be cautious of that. The campsite also had a wash sink, but seemingly no potable water as most folks mainly carried from their cars to their tents. I confirmed with our neighbors, a family out camping, that there, in fact, was no potable water and when they confirmed, they also offered us some for morning coffee. They were leaving early the next morning and insisted we take them up on it. This would prove to be the first of many incidents of Trail Magic along the BMT for us.
Day 2 Laurel Gap Shelter: Mile 11.9
Up early (and with coffee!) we set off up the steep ascent of Mt. Sterling. The mountain is the largest of the BMT, so we were prepped to tackle a monster. It ascends to a height of 5,842 feet over 6.2 miles of hiking.
What we weren’t as prepared for is how the humidity would absolutely wreck us. We were swimming in our clothes within the first couple miles of the morning. The ascent is switchbacked, a favorite technique of southeast trail maintainers. A switchback means that rather than a direct ascent, the trail winds slowly around the mountains. Imagine doing a stair master in a gym without air conditioning on the lowest possible setting, but one that’s still high enough to feel it, for about three hours and you’ll come close to replicating our experience. We knew starting in the Smokies would be logistically easier though physically tougher, but PHEW Mt. Sterling was a beast.
Once up Mt. Sterling we paused to re-fill water and snack by the tower and campsite. The water was a steep down, but a nice piped, spring source that was flowing well for us in early July. The summit was all clouded in, so there were no views off the tower or around us. We pressed on and headed down towards our stop for the night. Laurel Gap Shelter.
The trail down was a fairly wide trail shared with horses and pack animals that narrows out at certain points. It wasn’t too tough of terrain, though working toward an 11.9 mile first day, felt a bit tough after that climb up Mt. Sterling.
Laurel Gap is one of the few shelters on this trail and one of the few shelters outside of the AT in the Smokies. COVID restrictions allowed for tenting outside shelter, though typically reservation holders are expected to stay in the shelter.
We opted to tent as we usually get better sleep in tents without any bug or mouse interference and found a spot nearby to pitch. The water was, once again, a steep down to a pipe fed by a stream which was clear and strong for us in early July, and incredibly welcome after a tough day in high-humidity. We made a few trips down. J-Dub and I also brought some hammocks to lounge in and cool down our body heat and I was able to set up my hammock quite easily around the shelter as well.
Day 3 Enloe Creek: Mile 21.8
Walking up early after a stormy night we made quick work of the descent to Straight Fork Road.
The ascent up to the Hyatt Ridge Trail really beat us up, in part because our bodies were still recovering from that massive first day climb. However, this is climb also goes about 2000 feet over three miles, so it’s certainly no joke!
We carried ourselves up and down to the lovely Enloe Creek campsite. It was a fairly small site, room for four or five tents max and not much in way of hammocks, but it’s right beside the large and rolling Enloe Creek.
We got in fairly early and rested and watered up again deciding that our current backcountry permit itinerary might be difficult to maintain in the humidity we made plans to change it and Smokemont and perhaps even stay there if the campground had room. Given that it was July in the Smokies we weren’t sure we’d be able to secure a tent pad, but the Smokies backcountry reservations allow for a change so we were at least confident about that.
Day 4 Smokemont Campground: Mile 30.6
Enloe Creek had a burshy, steep climb out of it’s gorge. There was also a point at which we were supposed to ford, but the water level was fairly low so we were able to rock hop our way across.
Reaching the junction with the Hughes Ridge Trail, it was all fairly smooth sailing down into Smokemont itself. The BMT veers around the campground, but hikers can reach it via the Bradley Fork Trail and have those miles still counted toward a thru-hike which is what J-Dub and I opted for. We entered Smokemont in the back by the RV parking and even just two and a half days in, the lure of the glamp was strong. With festival style rain tarps and grills, the grass definitely looked pretty green.
We made short work of the campground to the bear box and got our resupply. J-dub asked the ranger in the station if there were any walk-in reservations left and she informed him that indeed there was one, and that she’d be willing to hold it for us for a bit while we made up our minds.
With a stop secured-ish, we next decided how we would alter our backcountry permit. The reason we chose Smokemont as our location is because the ranger station has a landline attached to it with direct access to the backcountry office.
We sat down with the guide and picked out our spots. We wanted to break up some of the harder days a bit while also ensuring we camped in gaps, or the low points between mountains, to avoid the brunt of any passing night time storms which frequent the park over the summer.
The phone was convenient, however the reception wasn’t, exactly, ideal. The first conversation between myself and the backcountry office went:
“Hello! Are you calling for Smokemont?”
“Ah, I can always tell because of the phone.”
And ended shortly there with my having to call back because of static.
The second call got through however and J-Dub and I were able to change our plans to camp a bit more safely in the summer and give our trail legs time to kick in. With our plans reset, we paid the $25.00 fee for the tent pad at Smokemont and set up our spot.
Actually, first, we had to clean it up.
A previous tenant had dumped a whole thing of diced onion on their way out! I won’t get too high on my soap box here, but trashing a National Park Campsite is disrespectful, dangerous, and disgusting. We borrowed a shovel from the ranger station and set to work getting rid of the food litter.
After that we pitched our tents, hung our hammocks, and proceeded to lounge. We had hiked about 8.8 miles to get into Smokemont. Since we’re early birds it felt like we were just passing the day away, but actually the rest was well deserved.
The guide mentioned a camp store about 0.5 miles away from Smokemont. In reading, I had read “ice cream” much like a desert wanderer having a mirage. In fact the guide said, and the store sells, "ice" for campers along with firewood. However they also sell some single dose medicines and hygiene products which could be useful for thru-hikers resupplying. The store is part of the Smokemont Stables and the “visitor waiting” area has a vending machine with candy, jerky, and crackers and a soda machine which dispenses change in the form of golden dollars. The vending machine is older and a bit temperamental, only accepting dollar bills, however the staff at the camp store were kind enough to break bills and exchange the golden dollars with us.
Back at the campground we took stock of our resupply as our neighbors Tom and Carolyn pulled in. They had a really cool, classy camper van set up and used their tent pad as shelter for their bikes and equipment. They were an older couple from Long Island on a summer adventure, they had recently been to Shenandoah before coming down to the Smokies. Tom showed us some Elk and Bear photos they managed to get on their hikes and Carolyn asked us about thru-hiking as she’s always been interested in an AT hike.
We spent some time chatting and they passed on some snacks which, we really needed having spent most of our time meticulously planning meals we underestimated how snacky the humidity and heat would make us feel. Later that night, Tom asked us if we’d like some pasta which, of course, we absolutely did. He brought over two heaping bowls of penne joking, “I used to be a waiter in New York, if you’d like some coffee or dessert just let me know.”
The pasta was delicious! We didn’t see their full set up, but whatever kitchen set-up they have in that van, they have it going on!
They wouldn’t accept any money for all their kindness, so J-Dub traded some 2012 BMT guides he was carrying. While the route has changed, J-Dub was carrying them because of the bits of history and local lore they had. Tom took them, and we hope it inspires them to get out on the trail a bit! For a couple interested in thru-hiking they certainly became trail angels for us.
Day 5 Pole Road Campsite: Mile 43.4
Bellies full of penne, we started the ascent up Newtown Bald, a roughly 3000 foot climb from Smokemont to the Mingus Creek Trail intersection over the course of 4.9 miles. While not as intense as our opening day Mt. Sterling ascent, it was definitely still a doozy.
We took a short water and snack break at the Newton Bald campground, a spot on our original itinerary, which was a bit fogged in for us, but on a clear day I can imagine has quite a nice view. here the trail runs along the Mountain to Sea Trail, a 1175 mile thru-hike running across North Carolina from Clingman's Dome in the Smokies to Jockey's Ridge State Park in the OuterBanks.
Stopping to rest at the Sunkota Ridge junction we met a trio out hiking the Mountain to Sea Trail. Two of the three were finishing up the last 19 miles of their thru-hike after being unable to ford Deep Creek in the spring. The third was, "just along for this part!" We talked with them for a bit and learned a good deal about the trail, including a trail angel system who make the trail both more accessible and affordable by helping hikers out and providing spots to camp or sleep so that they don't have to pay for hotels/motels along the way.
We followed the trail down, with a few sharp ups along the way, to campsite 55 Pole Road Campsite beside Deep Creek. The site was pretty nice, though a closely shared horse space. There were a few flat spots for good tenting and some trees for hammock hangs.
We had a ranger leading, what we believe were, junior rangers on a camping expedition join us toward the late afternoon. She seemed to have enough on her hands with the youth expedition and, while friendly, left us alone, camping on the other side of the site.
Day 6 Mill Creek Campsite: Mile 51.9
Another steep, humid up from our campsite to the Noland Divide Trail intersection. The Smokies were unrelenting for a start, but we were beginning to feel our trail legs today. This one went up 1890 feet over three miles and even in the morning was a tough climb.
Once at the top, we headed down and soon started our fords.
Because it's summer the water levels were pretty low and the only fords that were still true fords were the two Noland Creek crossings, one a bit higher than ankle deep, the other at shin, almost knee, level. The trail follows Noland Creek and crosses over some log footbridges for the next few miles into Mill Creek Campsite #64
We got in as a family came horseback riding down. While we had seen horseshoe prints and horse poop along a lot of trail in the Smokies we had yet to see any riders or pack trains so this was our first siting! They were from Bryson City and tipped us to a nice swimming hole by the bridge at the campsite. They also let us know we were only four miles from the "road to nowhere" which would be a big destination for us tomorrow.
We set up a tarp to wait out an afternoon storm under once the riders headed back to the road. This was a helpful little trick for us and something we plan to do throughout the rest of the trail. Since there are few formal shelters on the BMT we brought tarps to be able to make our own shelters for the pop-up thunderstorms that frequent southern afternoons.
I went to explore the campground a bit and snap a photo of the backcountry stables since I realized we hadn't gotten a shot of one yet. On my way back, I came across a big timber rattler sunning itself and digesting, or I assume digesting, given the large bump it.
I gave it a wide berth and didn't think much of it since it was on the far end of the site.
The rest of the day we spent hanging out in our hammocks, recovering, hydrating and doing some general foot care.
Come dinner time we moved down to one of the lower campsite picnic tables to eat away from our sleeping spot. It was late enough that we figured no one was coming and it was the spot right by trail so pretty undesirable anyway. I stepped away to pee and when I came back I heard a hearty rattle that stopped me in tracks. My old friend the timber rattler was on the other side of the fire pit sitting logs, only a few feet from me, but even closer to J-Dub who wouldn't have been able to see him over the logs.
We carefully moved our operation to another picnic table and watched our new friend with caution and curiosity. It was a rare opportunity: observing a wild rattler and it's behaviors, but we also didn't know the radius of the creature and if it moved from the stables down to here, we didn’t want our campsite to be next.