National Geographic Traveller (UK)
For a dose of the Deep South’s legendary wildernesses, lace up your walking boots and tackle the Benton MacKaye Trail in the North Georgia Mountains — home to rushing waterfalls, rustic towns and devoted local protectors. Words: Joe Sills
Peppered by silverly flakes of mica, the forest trails of North Georgia seem to sparkle in the mid-morning light. No wonder my guide wants her ashes scattered here: there’s a wild and uncontained beauty to these hills. Bounding around the boulders ahead, 71-year-old Darcy Douglas first came here more than 40 years ago. On the heels of a divorce, she found a new lifelong partner in this soil — a nearly 300-mile loop through the Appalachian Mountains called the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT).
“This is where the marker is,” says Douglas, placing her pack on the ground as we round a bend on the BMT. We’re less than 1,500ft from the trail’s intersection with its more famous cousin, the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (AT).
I’m eager to reach the junction, but Douglas has paused to show me a cow-sized grey boulder emblazoned with a brass placard. “This is our Benton MacKaye memorial,” she says. “In Georgia, our trail follows part of the route the environmentalist originally envisioned for the AT.”
Darcy talks about the BMT with an air of love, admiration and ownership. For most of her adult life, she’s worked to maintain the splendour of this hidden slice of wilderness within a short drive of Atlanta. Together with other trail association members, she’s built bridges, designed kiosks and conducted scientific research along the trail. She’s also battled the area’s prolific population of poison ivy, swiping it aside with a sling blade to aid beginner hikers.
Though we’re within spitting distance of the AT, Darcy is quick to point out that the two trails differ widely. “The AT is like a party. A million people per year come down that trail. There are shelters every few miles, and you’re never far from a phone call to grandma if you get hurt.
The Benton MacKaye isn’t like that at all. It’s more wild, more primitive. There are no shelters and there are places where you can only get in and out by hiking pretty far.”
By the time Darcy and I connect with the AT and converge on the longer trail’s southern terminus atop Springer Mountain, she’s fully sold me on the BMT. Her passion and the promise of hiking through this lush landscape without long lines at a latrine have me aching to explore more — but Darcy Douglas isn’t the only local who’s become completely enamoured with this wonderland of wilderness and waterfalls.
Some 80 miles away, Jake Scott has another hidden gem to reveal. With the BMT in the rear-view mirror, I rendezvous with Scott at his adventure shop, Wander North Georgia, in the small town of Clayton. The community is bustling with visitors stopping for food and coffee along Highway 23, which runs between Atlanta and Asheville, North Carolina. Clayton isn’t much, but it holds a special place in Scott’s heart. As a child, the native Floridian, who’s spent stints in Switzerland, California and China, holidayed here every year with his family. He’s returned as an adult to bring the small town to life.
“Five years ago, you might have seen maybe just three cars on the street on a nice day like today,” explains Scott. “Now, these are all tourists.”
Scott is quick to use me as an excuse to leave his shop. We hop in his Toyota pickup and make for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, where he often runs and cycles to reset. As we careen down a gravel road, the 45-year-old entrepreneur points his truck into a shallow river ford and begins to explain.
“We bring in world-class athletes all the time for business. These are mountain bikers who have been all over the world. They almost always question where they’re going, but after a day out in the mountains, they always end up saying, ‘Dude. I get it.’”
Soon, Scott has me trudging up another mountain — this time for a sunset view atop Black Rock State Park. As we emerge from the foliage, plop down on the stone and crack open a cold beverage, Scott wanders over to a favourite pine tree clinging to the rocky cliff. I find myself wondering about the spell these mountains seem to place on people. Watching the lavender sky cast shadows on the valley below, I get it too.
Hike the BMT by parking at Springer Mountain Trailhead off Forest Service Road 42 outside of Ellijay. At Black Rock State Park, take the James E Edmond Trail half-way up. The White Birch Inn in Clayton has rooms from $245 (£177), room only. thewhitebirchinn.net wandernorthgeorgia.com exploregeorgia.org