FKT: Ivey Smith - Benton MacKaye Trail (GA, TN, NC) - 2023-10-12

Route variation
Full BMT
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
6d 18h 0m 54s

Getting There:

I drove for 3 days from Crested Butte, CO, to the Springer Mountain Trailhead in Georgia, where I parked my truck. I pre-arranged a shuttle ride from there to Big Creek Campground, Baxter Creek Trailhead at the north end of the Smoky’s. Mary, from the Grateful Hiker shuttle co., gave me a ride between the two locations on 10/5/23, right after I arrived at the trailhead; I had already driven for 8hrs that day. She was on time, very kind, and made me feel safe; the drive took us about 3h45m. She dropped me off at the trailhead just as night was falling, and I started hiking at 7:47PM.


Day 1: 10/5/23—10/6/23 48.11miles 13,559ft elevation gain

“I stopped walking at 1:30AM and camped somewhere random at mile 13.5. It had started to rain lightly. On my walk, I saw black, slimy newts, listened to the chatter of owls, and became covered in a million spider webs. I don’t feel stressed about the miles before me, I am tired, though. Thankfully body feels good.”

I had climbed up and over Mt. Sterling in complete darkness, it was a big climb, but a well-graded one. Though long, it hadn’t felt hard, and aside from a bit of confusing trail around Laurel Gap Shelter (probably because it was dark), the trail had been easy to follow.

Day 1 Continued (the next morning): 

When my alarm went off at 5:30, my body did not feel good. My back was twingy and spasmy and tight. Pain lanced through my spine just above my hips with my every movement and shiver in the chilly morning air. I had been dealing with a low back strain for the last two weeks and had been hopeful that it was better. It was not.

I was walking by 6AM. We could call it hobbling. I’d never felt so dejected and hopeless. What was the point of me? What was I doing at the expense of my body? What was wrong with my back? I walked until the sun came out and stopped to make some instant coffee in my Talenti jar (I was stove-less)) at a paved bridge. I truly thought I needed to quit the hike.

I walked some more to another bridge over Enos Creek, it was a pretty spot. My back still felt awful. I texted Logan, my boyfriend,  that I was moving slow and my back hurt, I just needed to tell someone. He was really positive in his reply and it actually helped me get my shit together, or at least try to. He told me, “Remember the body is very adaptable and resilient”.

My back actually felt better marginally the more I walked. By mile 35 total (between last night and this day), it wasn’t twinging anymore, by the time I made camp, it was much more manageable. I decided I was going to take it one day at a time. After all, there was nowhere else I’d rather be than walking in the Appalachian Mountains, I’d been dreaming of this trip for months. I would just walk until I couldn’t anymore.

“It’s raining tonight, and there are toads and newts all around my tent, a toad tried to jump on it and I thought it was a bear at first! I listened to an hour of a podcast on this 8mi descent to Bald Creek Campsite. My feet were/are screaming. 4.4 miles before getting to camp, I ran into two older guys. They had already made camp, I tried to scoot by unnoticed, but one felt the need to tell me all about a hornet nest “in a wash” either 100 miles or 100 yds from here. I must have missed it, though, because I never saw one. One of them asked me if I was alone. Uhg. Then he told me to catch up with a group ahead of me for “company”. So annoying.”

I got to camp just before 9PM and was horizontal by 9:30PM.

Tomorrow my plan is to exit GSMNP. I’m covered in horse shit and spiderwebs, so many spiderwebs, it’s insane. You could mummify me in all the webs I’ve walked through.


Day 2: 10/7/23 45.98mi 7,210ft elevation gain

My alarm went off at 3 but it was a slow morning getting ready, I probably wasn’t walking until closer to 4. I slept well though! It was a gorgeous, fresh breeze kind of morning. That is, after I walked in the dark for 3hrs.

The descent along Nolan creek in the dark was cruisy once I got to all the bridges, the fording took some time as I wanted to keep my feet dry and had to take my shoes off a few times to cross barefoot. Then I was on the Lake Shore Trail for the rest of the day. The beginning of it was immaculate, ribbon-like, and easy travel. The middle section which looked flat on Far Out was actually pretty brutal because of all the blow downs and burrs and overgrowth. Not maintained very well at all.

Once it got dark again, I startled a bear which was terrifying. It actually growled. Then I became very paranoid and was calling out “Hey-yo!” a bunch into the dark, wanting to alert any wildlife to my presence well in advance. I saw so many glittery blue-green spider eyes in the beam of my headlamp, all snuggled into the leaf duff, and I even tracked some of them into their little hidey holes. Very cool and creepy to see just how many spiders there are all around at any given time.

I walked across Fontana dam in the dark, finally! It was all lit up which felt really special. Then I got to the “Fontana Hilton” aka the shelter, and met an A.T. hiker, Alan. He was flip flopping the and when I told him I was hiking the BMT he said, “I heard that trail kinda sucks”. Haha.

I told him it was dark half the time so I had no idea really, but so far I thought it was a good trail, an adventurous one. I was horizontal by 9PM, but it didn’t really feel like I slept. I rested, my body rested, but I didn’t sleep deeply like the night before and was already awake when my alarm went off a few hours later. 


Day 3: 10/8/23 (The Hardest Day Ever) 40.21mi 10,881ft elevation gain

My alarm went off at 3AM and since I wasn’t asleep, I shut it off instantly so as not to wake Alan. I was quick and quiet about packing, then set off. My headlamp promptly died. I tried to charge while using it but the cord wasn’t long enough and the headlamp didn’t like it, it started flashing angrily. So I used it on the dimmer than dim, emergency power save mode until I got to a water source, then charged it for a bit while I filtered water and drank and protein shake.

After parting ways with the A.T., the trail got confusing. The BMT was a mess of weird trails and old roadbeds in that section, my gps was either wrong or provided no direction at junctions. It was horribly frustrating to walk this bit in the dark and I was moving very slow. Finally, I started up the steep track to the fire tower Look Out and while the trail became easier to follow because there was only one option, the blow downs, snags and thorn bushes were hideous on the steep terrain. I got more spiderwebs in my face than ever. 

The day did not get better. Conditions were deplorable over the ridge from the fire tower to Tapoco Lodge at mile 107.9. Almost like the trail had been retired and was no longer maintained. The climbs were steep and my legs were ravaged by thorns. Not to mention all the blow downs I had to clamber around, under, and over.

Then a pack of 4 dogs came over the hill and started barking at me. There was a chocolate colored pit, a greyish hound, a fluffy white malamute, and a black and white spotted boxer-mastiff-looking mix. Weird combo for a pack. I noticed a purple collar on one dog, but it ran off, and so did two of the others. The black and white dog remained, wagging his tail behind me as we trucked up the steep climb, he was breathing harder than I was. On the descent, the dog led the way, pausing at the corners of switchbacks to look back over his shoulder for me. He got further and further ahead until he, too, vanished. 

The climb up Haoe Bald from the lodge was brutally steep. Straight up climbing on root systems like ladders, scrambling up sections of slickrock, a real calf burner. I was wiped out by that point, but I still had so far to go.

The ridge walk after the climb took ages, though I’ll admit, it was beautiful. The Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness Area was a joy to walk through in that there was a real trail to follow, even if it was arduous. Unfortunately coming down again was not the cake walk I wanted it to be.

Mud Gap Road was full of slick, rolling moss covered baby heads, mud, and debris. My feet were screaming and so was I. I actually yelled into the dark, cursing the brutal footing. Nine miles of complete agony. Hell. Then I broke a trekking pole—well, the road did—actual quote from the night: “f*ck that road”. I made it to my mile goal, though, at 9:57PM. And I threw up my tent while shivering. It was so cold at Sycamore Creek. 

Once in my tent I dug around for my InReach charging cable only to come up empty. It must’ve fallen out when I was dealing with my headlamp in the dark that morning. I was so bummed, it felt like a kick in the shins after everything else, but exhaustion won out and I fell asleep quickly, regardless. Only my first 3 days would be tracked on my InReach as it was about to die. Luckily my Garmin Enduro watch was still tracking.


Day 4: 10/9/23 42.4mi 9,139ft elevation gain

My alarm went off at 3AM, it was time to get moving even though I felt like I had only just gotten warm. It was dark of course, but the trail proved more forgiving underfoot when I left camp. The trail was steep packed dirt, no baby heads.

I climbed a rise to some knobs as the sun began to shine above the mountains and the air was electrified with another fresh breeze. Aside from the thorns and brambles (my skin, at this point, was more torn up that it was on the AZT), it was a lovely morning walk. I reached the estimated halfway point on Rocky Top and promptly started my period. Didn’t it just figure.

Later on I stopped to get water slightly off trail and spotted something slimy and brown, the size of my pointer finger, sticking its head from an aqueous cavern above where I was filling my BeFree. It was a tiny frog!

I hiked 28miles by 3:30PM on cruisy trail for the most part, and most of my vertical gain occurred in the first part of the day. The rest of the afternoon unfolded smoothly, but I was exhausted. I kept rallying to power-hike 3-mile stretches, then I’d crash. I took more breaks than I’d planned to, but it was unavoidable.

The “river” walking that was supposed to be easy at the end of the day was not, it was a maddening roller coaster of switchbacks with straight up climbs and scorching descents. My knees felt stiff and looked swollen, and the backs of them were so tight; my feet felt wrecked.

I encountered another dog on the top of the climb before the descent to Towee Creek TH. A hunting dog wearing a gps collar. She was super chatty and sweet, and she followed me down off the climb, I hoped her owner was in the parking lot below but I doubted they would be, so I called the number on her collar. She belonged to one of the 5 hunters in a group I’d passed earlier, (the only people I’d seen that day and not until mile 35 or so) they’d had a pack of dogs.

When a man answered the phone, he asked if I could tie her to a tree out of sight of the road, a friend would come get her. I had no string, and no knife to cut my bear cord. He’d literally just left her out there because she had wandered “too far” for him to get to. I wound up pulling some cord off my pack and using that to tie her up. She was so upset, she looked betrayed. I could hear her barking all the way across the river and I cried as I walked away. My heart just broke for her.

I camped slightly earlier than planned, after just 43 miles near Childers Creek TH, at 9:43PM. I’d had enough.


Day 5: 10/10/23 45.4mi 11,227ft elevation gain

I woke up to my alarm at 4AM and was on the trail by 4:30. My tent smelled like mildew; it had been wet since my rainy night in the Smoky’s. It was dark and I lacked motivation. I felt like the miles ahead were crushingly impossible. But I got up and walked anyways.

The trail was merciful to start, the walk along Lost Creek was so smooth. Then I got on some winding road beds and trails which were alternately great and terrible. At mile 11 I encountered Chester, my first BMT backpacker, he was incredibly nice and we chatted while I got water and he packed up camp. He told me the trail ahead was full of blowdowns and that he’d been documenting them so that someone would come clean them up. I admired his hopeful determination. (I will say, going forward the blowdowns were not nearly so bad as they had been in the north, though.)

I climbed up and over Little Frog, then took a break at Thunder Rock Campground, mile 196, to dry my tent in the sun, eat some snacks, and rest. It was a good break, probably my favorite one of the trip.

After Thunder Rock, I climbed up Big Frog; it was a long climb and towards the top I was stepping slowly, completely checked out and in my own little world, when I met Garry, my second BMT backpacker. (Most days I went 35 miles without seeing even a single day hiker, so today was a very social day comparatively!) Garry asked when and where I’d started and when I told him the nature of my hike he exclaimed, “Do you need a snack?!” It was the best response. I laughed and told him “No thank you,” that my hike was unsupported. We chatted for a while and parted ways smiling.

After the descent, I began another climb up to Double Hogpen Gap, where I ultimately camped for the night. I arrived to camp at midnight, the climb up and the subsequent ridge walk were agonizing because I was exhausted. There were SO MANY SPIDERWEBS. Every step I got a face full. I wanted to use my trekking poles to hike up the hill but I was sick of getting coated in that sticky, infuriating silk, so I swung them around in front of me mostly. (I found the perfect stick to use as a stand in trekking pole for the one I broke, which I was now carrying in my pack; I am lost without two trekking poles and will never understand people who can use just one).

My feet hurt the worst yet, that night: pins and needles, zapping, burning, and a deep tissue ache. I think it must have been nerve pain. My campsite was nice though, very flat, and I stayed horizontal until about 5:30AM. My hips ached so much, though, that I didn’t sleep very consistently. I had to keep rolling over, fighting w my sleeping bag every time. 


Day 6: 10/11/23 39.2mi 8,856ft elevation gain

I started in the mountains, finishing out several roller coaster hills, then dropped down to the first of many road walks for the day. I quite enjoyed walking through towns, seeing people’s homes, it was a nice change of pace; though, the gravel and pavement really did hurt my very sore feet. I saw some chickens, I saw some turkeys. I was very fatigued. 

I passed several non-hikers and day hikers, and some people drove by me with their windows open, and they all smelled so distinct, like Skaull chewing tobacco, grape blunt wrappers from 7-11, laundry detergent, marijuana, car air freshener (the kind that smells like porta-potty chemicals), cigarettes, & candy—it was overwhelming.

The climb up and over Rocky Mountain felt long and arduous. I stopped at Fall Branch Falls and treated my feet to a soak and popped a massive blister that had grown out from under the callous on my left foot pad, up into the webbing of my toes. I KT taped the hell out of every hot spot on both feet.

I wound up camping at Payne Gap that night, after several more tedious climbs (Brawley, Tiptop, Deadennen) in the dark and spitting rain. I was so tired, but I also sensed just how close I was to the finish. It was anxiety inducing. Could I close the deal? Could I make it these next 27 miles on my poor, abused feet?

I arrived at camp AT 9:54PM, got cozy, and slept as well as could be expected.


Day 7: 10/12/23 Final Day! 26.8mi 7,690ft elevation gain

I woke up before my alarm was supposed to go off, it was 2:09AM. I felt snuggly, though, so I stayed in my sleeping bag until I heard it ding.

It was raining; it had been when I went to bed, too. I wasn’t upset. I almost felt I’d gotten off too easy up until now, weather-wise. It had been so perfect and sunny!

I packed up quickly and made sure I had all my spare clothes and my sleeping kit tucked into my waterproof liner bag—it’s literally just a trash bag—before pushing my pack and myself out of the tent. It wasn’t terribly cold, but the wind was blowing hard, so I was still a little nervous about getting chilled. I kept my fleece on under my raincoat and hoped for the best.

I had several climbs up a series of mountains—Rhodes, Licklog, and Wallalah—then a descent, a big bump up and over Toonowee, and then I’d reach the Toccoa river. 

I hit a spider web with high tensile strength just as the sun was starting to come up; there have been other webs of similar caliber, but none quite as strong as this. My forehead snapped back and I heard a tearing noise, it was the web literally ripping apart. I don’t want to meet the spider that made it. 

The weather improved at 8AM. After 5hr of walking in the pouring rain, wind and dark, the clouds began to lift and the wind became more of a breeze; it sounded like the ocean in the trees and felt energizing. I had walked 20 miles by 12PM. The first day I’d really been able to achieve this, mostly due to the gravity of Springer Mountain pulling me in, I think. 

The miles on the BMT were mostly hard won; every day I’d wake up early thinking, this is the day I get to camp before 9PM, it really never happened. I’d get ahead and then get hit with a climb like the one up Haoe Bald, or the creek walks that wound up being up and down and bushy and thorny and full of snarled roots. The rocky, rooty, stick-filled tread of the trail played a huge role in how slow I was moving, too. It was full of debris—twigs and branches, whole trees, acorns, brambles, rocks, fallen leaves which obscured what lay beneath, mulch and grasses as tall as my face.

It felt rugged, it felt overly hard, it felt like an adventure in the truest sense. 

When I got to the final climb up Springer Mountain, after 11 miles gave way to 9, then to 6, then to just 3, I felt awash in emotion. Overwhelm, gratitude, confusion (how did I make it this far?), happiness, anxiety, urgency, lethargy—I couldn’t decide whether to smile or cry, so I buckled down and marched up the climb.

I found the memorial plaque on my way to the terminus and stood reading about Benton MacKaye, I didn’t care if it added time. I’d read a lot about him and his wife, Betty, prior to hiking this trail and found his memorial rather peaceful. What a nice spot to be remembered, what an important man and woman to remember. I can’t help but wonder if the AT or BMT had been created just a little bit sooner, would Betty have had a chance to confront her depression in a different way? Would she, like myself and so many others, have gotten a second shot at this thing called life? Betty loved to walk long distances, maybe things could have been different for her if she’d found a trail in the woods. 

When I reached the final junction of the BMT/AT, I felt borderline numb. My feet were screaming and zapping and pinging, like a knife was being driven into the sole of the right and blow torch was being held to the left. Two of my toes felt encased in ice and another throbbed like a hammer had fallen on it. I was all emptied out, my body covered in scrapes and dried blood from thorns, in dirt and crusty sweat; I truly had nothing left to give the trail, I had played my absolute best game and now it was over.

I stopped my watch at 1:47PM, gazed vacantly out at the woods, at the startling green and shaking leaves; I listened to the strong wind shushing through forest, its green canopy illuminated by the sun and the bushes and grasses shivering on the ground around me. What a perfect ending to this trip, this long, hard walk through the woods. I asked a passerby to take my photo by the AT/BMT signpost and she obliged. 

It was over. Sadly, happily, finally and completely. I’d walked every step, I’d stayed true to the rules of an unsupported hike, carrying everything I needed from start to finish, not accepting help, food, hydration, supplies, etc. from anyone; I didn’t stop at any stores, didn’t mail myself any resupply, I filtered all my water, I stuck to the route, and I carried all my trash with me from beginning to end.

When I got to my truck (something I’d fantasized about so much in the last few days) I barely knew what to do. I rehydrated a backpacking meal, I laid in my truck bed, and then I began the 11hr drive to Maryland to visit my family. The journey continues.