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
Benton MacKaye Trail, Section 2: Three Forks to Highway 60
The BMT continues at Three Forks across a couple mountains and along the ridgeline before descending to the swinging bridge over the Toccoa River. From there, it’s a tough slog uphill before descending to where the trail crosses Highway 60. It’s approximately 12.4 miles in length, according to the BMT Section Mileages.
Around 4:30am I had to get up and water the bushes. While climbing back into my hammock, I realized someone else was up and shining their flashlight around the campsite. My hammock was just on the outside of the camp, in the shadows, but I couldn’t figure out where this person with the flashlight was. In my sleepy stupor, it took me a long moment to realize the light around camp was the moonlight shining through the opening in the canopy above. It was so much light, in fact, that you could have easily made your way around any obstacles in camp without your headlamp.
I woke again later in the morning when I heard someone else stirring around the fire and stuck an arm out of my sleeping bag to snap a selfie before briefly going back to sleep. It wasn’t bitterly cold but cold none-the-less and I wasn’t about to stir before most of the group was awake and packing.
As we each finished our morning routines and packed up, we hit the trail to hike at our own pace until meeting up for lunch. Jason’s idea was that whomever was in the lead would stop at 1pm and wait for everyone else to catch up. What he should have done was just tell Brian to stop wherever he was on the trail at 12pm so we could all catch up and eat lunch at 1pm.
The climb out of Three Forks to the “helicopter pad” aka “The Bald” was a real drag. It started out easy enough but once you started the climb, it was all uphill all the way and then some. I eventually put enough distance between myself and the group behind me that I could no longer hear them talking. I caught up to Brandon and Trent, who were resting at the top. By the time I made it to the top of the helicopter pad, I was feeling pretty good and only stopped long enough to shoot a video and snap a quick photo.
Just off the bald and into the woods and the trail became very easy to follow. It appeared that someone had drug something through the woods or raked through the leaves. I thought a large company of soldiers might have run down this length of trail because the leaves were practically disturbed the entire way from here to nearly Bryson Gap.
As I descended from The Bald through the woods I frequently heard gunshots and the occasional shout on the other side of the ridge. I began to envision coming across the Rangers in the middle of an exercise while on the trail and wonder how awkward (or not) that might be for the both of us. I continued to observe that the trail had obviously been disturbed and it looked like several individuals had been dragging something through the woods. I felt both guilty that I chose not to serve my country in the armed forced AND relieved that I wasn’t participating in whatever ruthless Army exercise this was. Clearly it sucked, if markings along the trail were any indication.
As I ascended from No Name Gap up the next mountain, the shouts and gunfire continued sporadically just ahead of me. It seemed the closer I got to wherever I thought the action was, the farther away it was. I knew he way sound carries between the ridges and valleys makes it hard to determine the distance in-between but for the next half-hour or so I kept my ears open and eyes peeled for any activity in the woods.
<again with the stupid video rotating problem>
Shortly after No Name Gap, the switchbacks began, which are preferable to a steep climb directly up the face of a mountain, but take you twice as long to get there. Occasionally I would hear a noise in the woods and pause to scan around, hoping my keen eyes would spot a hidden soldier in the woods so I could take pride in calling him out. I never had such an opportunity.
I eventually reached the top and walked the ridge line with excellent views through the naked trees to either side. I thought this might be a great place for cellular coverage, so I turned on my phone for the first time of the weekend. I sent a text to Sarah to let her know that I was feeling great and having fun. After I was able to stretch out on the ridge line, I was feeling like I finally had my hiking legs under me and was no longer winded. I focused on picking up my pace in hopes of catching up to Brian, who was the only individual ahead of me on the trail at this point.
I came across a group of Boy Scouts (from Kennesaw) who were taking a rest in the middle of the trail. Disappointed they weren’t the Rangers I was expecting (I could hear them LONG before I could see them), I stopped to chat for few minutes and ask them about the weather and the trail ahead. One of the dads had just looked up the weather and gave me the not-so-nice report for Sunday (70% chance rain). They were headed the same direction I was, so couldn’t give me any information about the trail. They had camped at Three Forks the night before (explaining the screams the night before) and were headed only as far as the Toccoa River. Many of these boys had 40+ pounds on their back. The Leader remarked that a lot of hard lessons were being learned on this trip. I decided to keep my commentary about Walmart tents and unnecessary camping gadgets to myself — they were learning more from carrying all that stuff than I could teach them by opening my mouth.
I gave a description of Brian and asked how far ahead of me he was on the trail. A couple boys made that “pppfffttt” sound of air passing between tight lips and one said he “passed them forever ago.” They did say the faster-half of the troop was ahead of them on the trail. I wished them luck and continued hiking quickly along the ridge while enjoying the views. Before I began the descent off that ridgeline, I passed the other group of Scouts also resting. They pretty much had the same remark about Brian’s Super Man hiking speed. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see him for a while.
As I descended off the ridge line I saw a clearing in the trail ahead with Brian propped up against a sheet of Reflectix draped over a log. He was busily dipping almonds into a jar of peanut butter when I dropped my pack and took a seat on the next log over. He had only been there a few minutes before I showed up and we had the campground to ourselves before others started trickling in. I took a short walk down to the spring to plunge my face into the water and cool off before starting in on lunch.
Everyone eventually caught up and we ate lunch together as each of us enumerated our ailments. I painted some Body Glide on a few hotspots, painted Second Skin to one blister and mole skin to another. Bryan practically bandaged his entire foot. I think Trent took a nap. Ross removed his shirt for some unknown reason. Brandon, Brian and Jason all fixed themselves coffee, Jason with extra Kerrygold butter and coconut oil. I don’t remember what Greg was doing.
Just as before, we all packed up and eventually left Bryson Gap. The trail follows and old logging road (which continues down hill) before the trail turns right and continues up the next ridge. I could have sworn I saw someone continue down the hill along the road and miss the turn to the trail. Before racing ahead to catch up with those that left, I made sure Bryan and Ross (who hadn’t packed up yet) knew exactly where the trail left the road. I quickly moved up the trail and used my whistle to get everyone’s attention so I could make sure we were all where we needed to be (we were). I’m not sure who or what I saw headed the wrong direction. I may have been one of the Boy Scouts who had finally caught up with us by this time. Who knows? With my fears assuaged, I continued the eventual descent to the Toccoa River.
The swinging bridge area was obviously a popular destination where there was plenty of shallow (and cold!) water at this wide point in the river with established camping areas on either side. A parking area nearby explained why so many people were present on this section of the trail. The Boy Scouts we had passed earlier would be spending the night here and I had heard the younger scouts (or those that didn’t want to spend a night on the trail) would be preparing dinner for them once they arrived. A few of us joked about inviting ourselves to a Coke and hot dog, but we didn’t. I dunked my head in the river, which felt great but resulted in briefly seeing stars for a moment. (Probably stood up too quickly.) I topped off my water and snacked a bit for the climb out of the gorge.
I listened to Greg tell me about some river-front mountain property they own and plan on retiring to in the future. As I watched the cold water run by I thought how relaxing that would be and made a mental note of being more intentional about looking for (and saving for!) our own special mountain getaway.
The STEEP decent to the river was really hard on the knees and wore me out in such a way that I didn’t notice how tired I was until we started our climb out. At this point in the evening I was running on fumes and uncertain I’d be able to make it to Highway 60. As the climb wore on I fell to the rear and lost track of who exactly was in front or behind me. Breaks became more frequent and I became too exhausted to enjoy the excellent views along this stretch of the trail. I did stop to take a few photos and video — but mostly as an excuse to catch my breath. I was traveling without a description of the trail or a map, so at one point I was uncertain how far along I really was. I had cell service here so I posted a photo to Facebook in case it was the last anyone had seen of me before I keeled over.
EVENTUALLY I began to see civilization: houses within close sight of the trail and thought I couldn’t be that far from Highway 60. As I left the trail on approach to Highway 60, I turned around to take a photo of the sign just as Greg had caught up with me. I was SHOCKED to see that the hardest part of the hike (my perception, not reality) was only a three mile stretch. But it was the last three miles of this 12 mile section.
Greg and I crossed the highway and wondered where everyone was. I was thinking this was where we’d all meet up, but it was just Greg and I until Brandon came back down the trail. He said he went ahead looking for Brian and Jason (who were in the lead) and the campground that was supposedly 0.3mi ahead, but didn’t see them or this mythical campground. One of us (Brandon?) recalled there was a campground along Highway 60 where we could stay but we still didn’t know how far ahead Brian and Jason were.
I turned on my phone in hopes of being able to determine where said campsite was but neither map app on my phone could figure out where I was. Just then I received a text message from Jason asking where we were. I told him we were still at Highway 60 and thinking about taking a trek to find this supposed campground. I asked a family packing up in the parking area if they knew where the campground was and the gentlemen gave me directions. The guide we had said 0.3mi away but we all agreed it was at least 0.5mi away. All of us (excluding Brian and Jason) decided we would try our luck at the campground, since there wasn’t any suitable camping where we were.
We hiked North along Highway 60 until we arrived at the Skeenah Creek Campground… which didn’t appear to be open. I sent a text message to Jason telling him the campground was closed. Trent kept calling the number on the sign until he reached someone. Eventually he got in touch with someone and told them we were desperate (truth!) and asked if we could stay at the campground and they put us in touch with a family member on property. They agreed to allow the 8 of us to camp there for the night for $50! Problem was, 7 of us had hammocks and trees were few and far-between (literally).
It was suggested we could hang our hammocks in the pavilion. I had reservations about the logistics of that proposition, but we made it work. The pavilion had three walls (one side was open) but the rafters were exposed allowing us to hang our hammocks… if you weren’t afraid of falling onto a concrete slab. Greg, Jason, Ross and I hung our hammocks inside. Bryan slept on the only couch that was there. Brian slept on the swinging lawn furniture. Brandon pitched his tent just outside and Trent opted to hang his hammock out in the lawn between two of the few trees close enough together to allow it.
That night we all enjoyed a hot shower and hot meals on picnic benches. Ross made a valiant (but failed) attempt to burn the place down when his alcohol stove suddenly started leaking like a sieve and he unsuccessfully tried to remove it from the table. One of Jason’s stuff sacks fell victim to the flames and I carefully doused the fuel on the floor with a bottle of water before anything else caught fire. It could have been worse than it was but Greg was supervising our dangerous shenanigans.
I was relaxed, actually smelled nice and easily settled into my hammock for a good night’s rest… until my sleeping pad sprung a leak. Around 4 in the morning I awoke thinking it had suddenly become significantly more colder and had issues sleeping the next few hours until we had agreed to wake. It wasn’t until after I had starting packing up that I realized my sleeping pad had gone flat some time during the night thereby giving up what precious little insulation there was between my sleeping bag and the hammock.
Oh; Remember that clearly blazed trail I noticed on The Bald and Wildcat Ridge? We concluded that was from wild pigs foraging along the trail. At least we know there’s bacon in these woods should we be forced to survive out here…
[The tail-end of this section is absent any media simply due to my lack of energy and enthusiasm for digging the phone out of my pocket to take any pictures or video.]