This post is part of a short series of posts describing my weekend backpacking the first three sections of the Benton MacKaye Trail on March 21st-23rd:
Backpacking Benton MacKaye Trail Prologue
Backpacking Benton MacKaye Trail Section 1
Backpacking Benton MacKaye Trail Section 2
Backpacking Benton MacKaye Trail Section 3
Backpacking Benton MacKaye Trail Epilogue
I realized that some folks might have tuned in here to actually read about the individual sections of the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT). If that’s you, you might want to skip story time to the appropriate section below.
Thursday night I did a final gear check after unpacking/repacking my bag to remove my radio gear. I didn’t want to be “that guy” and forget anything, so I laid out the next day’s clothes and miscellaneous gear (not packed in the bag) next to the bed. I left my bag, hiking poles and boots by the door.
My Friday morning began at 4:30am, but I remained in bed until nearly 5:00am. Jason was picking me up at my place at 5:15am. Amazingly, I was ready by the time he pulled into the driveway. Jason was the only person in the bunch that I knew — everyone else in this cast of characters I’d be meeting for the first time this morning.
I loaded my gear in the back of the pickup and we headed over to Ross’s house to pick him up. Ross was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this early in the morning and we were soon under way to pick up Bryan… as soon as we figured out where that was to be. Bryan wasn’t waiting on us where they formerly discussed meeting up, but in Bryan’s defense they had agreed to “figure it out in the morning.”
Bryan wasn’t answering his phone so we made the short drive to his place in hopes of catching him at his house. His truck was in the driveway but no lights were on in the house and he wasn’t answering his phone. Jason and Ross exited the truck and commenced to ringing the doorbell and knocking on the front door. The only creature stirring at Bryan’s place was their scruffy cat. Ross decided we weren’t going to leave without Bryan and went around to the back of the house. I was still seated in the truck parked in the cul-de-sac out front when I heard Ross banging on the house yelling Bryan’s name. I opted to stay in the truck; I figured I was least likely to get shot if I stayed there.
Bryan eventually emerged and we shared a couple laughs about how we all were nearly tragic victims of a suspected home invasion. Even more gear went in the back… and the truck wouldn’t start. Applying a hammer to the starter motor finally got us under way to the final meeting at a local gas station.
Waiting at the gas station were four other guys that I’d be hiking with. Another Brian, Brandon, Greg and Trent. A 9th guy, Mitch, intended to join us but had to cancel last-minute since his wife was feeling ill. He showed up to see us off and let a couple guys borrow some gear. Before shoving off for our final destination, we had to collect Ross who had busied himself in conversation with a homeless guy (on a scooter?) who apparently travels the country squatting on anyone’s property along the way. Another pit stop at Chick-Fil-A (and a tap of the hammer) and we were FINALLY en route to the trail.
The plan was to hike the first three sections of the BMT, which would take us from Springer Mountain to Skeenah Gap Road. We left Brandon’s truck at Skeenah Gap, where the trail crosses the road. Two guys joined us in the cab and two more found room somewhere among the 8 packs in the bed of Jason’s truck. We proceeded from Skeenah Gap to Springer Mountain where the guys riding in back probably believed that Jason found every pothole along the way.
Benton MacKaye Trail, Section 1: Springer Mountain to Three Forks
The BMT starts on Springer Mountain, where the Appalachian Trail begins and crosses the AT once before continuing to Three Forks (which you pass along the road on your way to Springer Mountain). It’s approximately 6 miles in length, according to the BMT Section Mileages.
I didn’t record when we arrived to the parking area on Springer Mountain, but there was a lot of activity for early on a Friday morning. At least a dozen vehicles were already in the parking lot with some hikers loading up to hit the trail and other hikers coming off the trail and packing up. We took the obligatory trail head photo.
It was a sunny Friday morning but the air temperature was still very chilly, so I opted to keep my fleece jacket on knowing full-well I’d probably be sweating and stripping it off before we were halfway to the top of Springer. Sure enough, I was stuffing it in my pack most of the way up. And no sooner than we had arrived to the top, where it was quite breezy, I was already regretting the decision to put it out of reach. (Putting on and taking off jackets would become a common activity during this trip.)
Several of the guys took photos at the top but I was feeling anxious to get under way and didn’t even think to take the obligatory “selfie” on top of the mountain. I did take a few photos of a couple plaques up top and chatted with a guy that looked like he was about to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail (he was). He was making a few notes in a well-worn spiral notebook and I wished him well and left him to his tasks. (In retrospect, I should have asked for his name so I could possibly track his travels along the way — oh well.)
The BMT begins a short ways down from the top of Springer Mountain (it’s on the right side of the trail, if you’re headed from the summit back to the parking lot). Before we made our turn onto the BMT, we passed an ATC Ridgerunner as she was headed to the summit. (Some of us would see her again further down the trail.) As I recall, this section of the trail was mostly downhill (not hard on the knees, though) and everyone began to spread out as they found their trail legs and moved at their own pace. An easily overlooked sign on the trail pointed to a “view” to the right of the trail that I chose to explore. Less than 100 feet off the trail was the first fantastic view — an excellent place to enjoy a snack while taking in the surrounding ridgelines.
<I’d insert a video but can’t figure out how to rotate it. boo.>
I rejoined the trail just ahead of our crew bringing up the rear and we took our first rest where the BMT crosses FS 42 (on the way up to Springer Mountain). At this point the trail was all downhill and we began the short climb up to where the BMT crosses the AT.
It was along this section of trail (just before the trails cross each other) that I discovered a section of ground littered with 5.56 brass (blanks) and broken links where someone opened up with a SAW (M249 maybe?) I had heard that the Army trains up here and I suppose this was as much a proof of anything that’s true. I collected a handful of spent brass and links and put it in my pack pocket thinking it’d give me something to fiddle with when we finally made camp.
While I was standing in the middle of the trail collecting a few pieces of brass, I didn’t notice the ATC Ridgerunner (from before) had quietly snuck up on me. Before continuing up the hill I turned and looked over my shoulder and was surprised to see her standing there watching what I was doing and patiently waiting on me. I stepped aside and allowed her to pass me and we continued up the trail and chatted for a while before I caught up to the other two guys ahead of me and we all allowed her to continue on her fast pace along the trail. I couldn’t figure out how she caught up to us until I realized that the BMT and AT actually cross twice allowing her to criss-cross the trails in this area. (That would be the last time we saw her.)
We held up and took a lunch break in the middle of the trail where run-off from a nearby spring trickled by. I’m not normally one to park my butt in the middle of the trail, but we hadn’t passed anyone else on BMT yet and I didn’t expect we’d see anyone but the group we started with. I broke out my Jetboil and heated up a freeze-dried meal of something-or-another as everyone caught up. The sun broke through the trees and warmed you wherever you could find it, but it was still chilly enough that nearly all of us put on something with long sleeves while we rested.
There were a few moderate climbs during this stretch, which I only found difficult due to the lack of traction because of pine needles and fallen leaves — but it wasn’t too bad as long as I was picky about foot placement. The remaining trip down the ridge into Three Forks was mostly uneventful. I believe it was along this stretch that we heard (and saw) a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flying about even (in elevation) with us between the ridges. I grinned at the thought of possibly getting the drop on some Rangers and they trained along the trail. The rest of the hike down the mountain was uneventful until we crossed the river (at Three Forks) and began back up the mountain with the river (and waterfalls) to our left. At this point I was feeling great but knew we were getting close to camp for the afternoon so I was ready to be rid of my pack for several hours. A few of the guys stopped to investigate the first waterfall (from below), but I decided it was too much trouble to climb through the rhododendron to see it, so I put my pack back on and Bryan and I continued up the trail where we found a jacket hanging in a tree. I couldn’t figure out why someone would leave a perfectly nice jacket hanging from a tree but after looking down the slope and across the river (at the top of the falls), I realized that was our sign to join the rest of our group here, where we made camp.
7 of the 8 of us were equipped with hammocks and I was concerned there might not be enough room around camp to fit us all in, but whomever was in the lead picked a fantastic campsite (one of the best I’ve ever seen along any trail) that had more than enough room. Most opted to string up their hammocks close to the water right before it went over the falls, but past experience told me that would be the coldest place to spend the night. (Been there, done that.) I took a moment to consider tree placement and which direction the breeze was blowing through the camp before determining how and where I was going to setup. I wasn’t certain how much warmer (if at all), I would be away from the water but I only had a sleeping pad for insulation, so I needed all the help I could get.
I believe it was Jason that immediately began working on a fire which quickly became the focal point of camp as we ate dinner and engaged in conversation. It’s entertaining to investigate other backpackers meal choices. Brian stuck with the trail basics: nuts, peanut butter, candy or granola bars. Others (such as myself) chose freeze-dried meals and used gas-burning stoves and cookware to prepare our meals. Trent brought raw food and seared his steak on a spit held over the fire. My personal favorite was Jason’s tub of Kerrygold butter and coconut oil for his coffee. I couldn’t decide if I was more impressed he packed that weight or he puts that many calories in his coffee. I wished Duck Hunter were present to regale us with stories about why tuna fish sandwiches are the superior choice to cooking on the trail.
Even plant-nerds are full of useful (and life-saving?) information: don’t use rhododendron branches as a spit for your fire. Apparently they contain neuro-toxins that aren’t so nice for your body. The reaction on Trent’s face seemed to say, “damn it.” He ate the steak anyway. 🙂
As conversation around the fire quieted down and each of us eventually peeled ourselves away from the warmth of the fire to our cold sleeping bags, I was reminded of one of my backpacking pet peeves: noisy neighbors. No matter how far I venture into the woods (and we weren’t that far from the nearest trailhead), there is always some hoodlum somewhere that can’t keep themselves from screaming like a banshee. Unless you engage in this behavior on a regular basis at home, why do it in the woods? Let me enjoy my temporary reprieve from the urbanites without bringing all that unnecessary noise with you.
Before turning in for the night, I was looking up at the clear sky contemplating how cold it would be that night when I saw a meteor streak across the canopy opening above our campground. What a great way to end our first night on the trail.