Backpacking Benton MacKaye Trail Section 3

March 30, 2014 — Leave a comment

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 3: Highway 60 to Skeenah Gap Road

The BMT continues at Highway 60 across Wallalah, Licklog and Rhodes mountains.  It’s approximately 3.5 miles in length, according to the BMT Section Mileages.

Sunday morning began with the typical smells and sounds associated with hikers fed on a steady diet of camp food.  Bryan wisely decided if he were ever to walk normally again, he would sit this part of the hike out.  I believe Trent decided to sleep in.  That left: Brandon, Brian, Greg, Jason, Ross and myself.

The plan was to begin early in the morning, on trail at dawn and hopefully finish this excursion before the rain set in.  Only, it started raining the moment we set foot on the road pointed toward the trail and didn’t let up until we were somewhere on the other side of Wallalah Mountain.  I apologize for the lack of photos, but my phone went into my bag at this point and didn’t see the light of day until I stepped off the trail.

I don’t normally injure myself on the trail, but when I do, I make it memorable.  We weren’t even ten minutes on the trail and my head had an intimate encounter with a tree that had fallen across the trail but was suspended about 6 feet in the air.  I was watching my footing as I was climbing a set of steps, and with my jacket hood obstructing my view, I stood right into it.  I immediately crumpled but instead of falling to my knees I got hung up on my hiking poles.  I remained hunched over for a few minutes while the stars stopped swimming circles around my head.

The week before I had a been taking it easy and seeing the chiropractor to relieve this kink in my neck.  The pain from all that and more immediately returned and I doubted my resolve to complete this hike.  Jason was worried I might have suffered a concussion and while I didn’t think I had, I definitely agreed with the suffering part.

Since we had left a couple guys back at the campground, most of us unloaded any non-essentials from our packs and were traveling light — but this pretty much sucked the wind out of my sails and I would struggle to get through the remaining few miles of this trip.  Memories of tearing a hamstring while hiking during a 16 hour torrential downpour on the Foothills Trail in 2010 suddenly seemed like a real possibility here and I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other not to complete the hike so much as to not sideline myself from any future activities this Spring/Summer.

I remember very little from this section of trail other than the terrain didn’t suck nearly as much as I read it would, despite my throbbing head, stiff neck and shoulders.  The trail was clearly all uphill all the time and just when you thought you’d arrived to the next mountain, you were really just standing on an itty-bitty saddle somewhere in-between.

Before we even crested Wallalah Mountain, the weather really moved in; and by weather I mean the COLD.  The bitter cold joined the rain to make this hike not the most miserable I’ve ever been on the trail, but a close second.  At this point everyone was wearing everything they had and although I didn’t have a thermometer, I’m pretty sure we easily dipped 10 degrees, if not more.  The mountain(s) were encased in fog and visibility was limited to less than 100 feet.  I couldn’t see any vistas through the trees much less the guy ahead of me on the trail.

Depending on which side of the ridge you were hiking, the temperature swung from cold to shivering.  As long as I was hiking at a good pace, I was warm enough to open my jacket (or remove it completely).  If I stopped for any more than a couple minutes or I was on the cold side of the mountain, then I had it zipped up to my chin.  Somewhere on the back side of Licklog Mountain, I was uncomfortable enough that I decided I was going to remove my jacket completely for the remainder of the hike. At the time I commented to Brandon that I’d probably regret doing this.  Naturally, we found ourselves on the other side of the mountain and I immediately regretted removing that layer but I was too stubborn to put it back on.

Just before Rhodes Mountain, where the BMT and Duncan Ridge Trail diverge, Brian, Greg, Jason and Ross had waited on Brandon and I who were lagging behind with our respective injuries.  They looked like they were going to stay and rest for a while but I was only wearing one layer at this point so I decided to continue down the trail the remaining 1.1 miles to Skeenah Gap road to keep warm.

The fog eventually dissipated as I descended down the other side of the mountain and it was a quiet trip save for the water that dripped from the trees.  The wet leaves and pine straw on the trail was treacherous but allowed for me to hike quietly in hopes of spotting any wildlife.  I didn’t see any wildlife, or much of anything else, but the trail transitioned several times between being clear and able to see for some distance (sans fog) or crowded with brush and undergrowth choking any views.

After descending through several steep sections the trail finally opened up to what appeared to be an old logging road for the rest of the hike down to Skeenah Gap Road.  I expected the crew to be hot on my trail as I wasn’t moving that quickly but I never saw or heard them since I left the group to continue down the mountain.  At this point my visibility opened up and I was able to see a good distance into the woods and down the side of the mountain alongside the old road.  Occasionally I could hear a car along Skeenah Gap Road and I knew this trip was quickly coming to an end.

I spotted Brandon’s truck through the trees and my pace quickened just a moment with the excitement of closing out another weekend adventure.  I dropped the tailgate on the truck and took a seat while I munched on the remaining handful of trail mix and took a couple sips of water from my Camelbak.  I had only rested a few minutes (and contemplating putting my fleece back on) when I heard the rest of the group coming down the trail.  Honestly, I didn’t hear the group — I just heard Ross.  But they were only five minutes (or so) behind me on the trail.

A few fist-bumps later and we were loading up our packs in the truck and climbing in for the drive to Springer Mountain.  I don’t remember much of this drive other than some casual conversation with Greg and wishing Brandon had found more potholes along the way because Jason was riding in back.  It was kind of a blur, really, because I spent more time trying to pick out the highlights from the weekend and file them away so they wouldn’t be forgotten.  I hadn’t fully committed to blogging about the experience then, but I’m sure there are plenty of details I’ve overlooked.

As I look back now, I wish we all had posed for a group photo coming off the trail.  I think it would be entertaining to compare our appearance/facial expressions with that at the beginning of the trail.  I suspect all that bright-and-shiny hope and promise at the beginning is replaced with a look of weary determination and relief.  Whatever that looks like…

Back at Springer Mountain, Jason, Ross and I were putting our packs in the back of Jason’s truck when Ross struck up a conversation with the guy next to us.  He looked pretty nervous and said he was beginning his thru-hike.  His pack looked heavy and by his own admission it was more than 40 pounds. I could also see he was wearing plenty of cotton (including jeans).  My first impression wasn’t that he wasn’t going to make it but more that he was going to learn real fast what does, or more importantly, doesn’t work.  I don’t recall his name but I’m mostly certain he said his trail name was “Lone Will.”  Aside from what little (nothing) I know about thru-hiking the AT, I’d say “lone will” was going to be what gets him to Katahdin.  Ross prayed for him and we wished him the best of luck before hitting the road.

We stopped at the Waffle House in East Ellijay for our post-hike lunch where I introduced Greg to the All Star Special.  Ross ate a huge bowl of Bert’s Best Chili, which thankfully didn’t come back to haunt us before we dropped him off.  And I’m not sure if it’s because he was hungry or Ross was paying — but Jason managed to eat $14 of food at Waffle House.

I said my goodbyes to Brian, Brandon and Trent and made sure to re-iterate for the umpteenth time that Brian has an INSANE hiking pace.  (Of course, if I had a 16 pound pack, I would too… or maybe not.)  What a great group of guys to spend the weekend with.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when Jason originally invited me (most likely the worst), but I’d do another weekend trip with any of them all over again.

Greg joined Ross, Jason and I for the trip back to Woodstock and I must have spaced out because I can’t rightly recall what happened after that.  I do remember telling Jason as he picked me up early Friday morning, “Now before anything crazy happens this weekend to cause me regret coming on this hike, I want to go ahead and say thanks for inviting me to join you on this adventure.”  I can honestly say that I had a great weekend despite the bump on the head and accompanying headache.  I hope Jason gets the itch to go on a future trip (maybe not Duncan Ridge Trail though) and thinks enough of me to invite me along.

I’ll wrap up this weekend summary with some conclusions on lessons learned, possible gear changes and other witty banter in another blog post.

BMT Section 3 Elevation Profile
BMT Section 3 Trail Guide

Aaron Melton


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