Trails Benton MacKaye Appalachian Trail

Benton MacKaye National Scenic Trail Bill Filed in Congress

The 287-mile-long Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), depicted in light red on this map, originates at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, which is also the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The BMT traverses federal lands including National Forests and Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 95-percent of its length. The trail crosses and then intersects with the AT again at its northern terminus.

The most fitting possible tribute and monument to Benton MacKaye, conceptualizer of the iconic Appalachian Trail, was proposed today when legislation was filed in the U.S. House of Representatives to designate the existing 287-mile Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) as a National Scenic Trail, as defined and provided in the National Trails System Act.

The “Benton MacKaye Scenic Trail Act” is jointly sponsored by four members of Congress from the region traversed by the trail in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, including Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), Jim Cooper (D-TN), and Scott DesJarlais (R-TN).

I had the honor of speaking last fall at the annual meeting of the non-profit, volunteer Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA) in northern Georgia. The Association was celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding, as well as the 100th anniversary of the publication of Benton MacKaye’s 1921 article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” in which he first proposed the Appalachian Trail. The BMTA used the occasion of its anniversary to launch the effort to seek National Scenic Trail designation for the Benton MacKaye Trail.

BMTA President Ken Cissna made the case for such legal designation for the Benton MacKaye Trail in a statement released by Representative Cohen:

The natural beauty of the BMT makes it worthy of such a designation: The trail’s emerald-green forests, stunning vistas, rippling streams, and rushing waterfalls are just part of the stunning beauty found in the Southern Appalachian Mountains…

Tens of thousands of hikers use the trail every year. Those numbers would increase thanks to better recreational opportunities made possible by the National Scenic Trail designation. Those hikers would provide a boon to local economies. As a National Scenic Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association would be better able to preserve, protect, and maintain the trail’s natural beauty.

The BMT’s southern terminus is at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, which it shares with the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus. The trail swings westward through several National Forests, then reconnects with and crosses the AT in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, terminating at the eastern end of the park. An estimated 95 percent of the BMT is currently on federal land.

The Benton MacKaye Trail was conceived in the late 1970s by David Sherman, then working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He came to Washington DC during the Carter administration, taking positions with the National Park Service, then the U.S. Forest Service, for which he played a key role in the land acquisition to protect permanently the route of the Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia. Sherman was inspired by one of MacKaye’s early maps of the AT, depicting an alternative southern spur route. “[MacKaye’s] map showed the trail coming down the spine of the Smokies and extending into the Cohuttas,” explained in a trail history prepared by the BMTA. “But once it got through the
Smokies and across the Little Tennessee River — then followed the height of land down the spine of the Blue Ridge range, where should it go south of the Cohuttas? Because the Cohuttas are more a range of elevations and not just a single, fixed summit, it seemed appropriate simply to route it over to Springer Mountain.”

Sherman joined with others to form the BMTA, which created and maintains the Benton MacKaye Trail. The BMTA honored Sherman at is 40th-anniversary celebratory meeting, recognizing him as “Father of the Benton MacKaye Trail.” On a personal note, I can say he provided me with tremendous assistance, in numerous ways, during the many years I worked on researching and writing a biography of MacKaye.

Benton MacKaye created this map of the Appalachian Trail for the 1925 meeting at which the Appalachian Trail Conference (now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) was established. The alternative southern route for the AT depicted on this map inspired Dave Sherman to propose the Benton MacKaye Trail.  (Appalachian Trail Conference)

The proposal to seek federal designation of the Benton MacKaye Trail as a National Scenic Trail brings MacKaye’s century-old proposal for the Appalachian Trail full circle. The success and existence of the AT inspired the enactment of the National Scenic Trails Systems Act in 1968. The AT and the Pacific Crest Trail were the original two National Scenic Trails included in that law. Today, the National Trails System comprises 11 National Scenic Trails, 19 National Historic Trails, one National Geologic Trail, and 1,300 National Recreation Trails, totaling more than 88,000 miles.

A map of the National Trails System, as prepared in 2018 for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 National Trails System Act.

The National Trails System Act defines National Scenic Trails as

. . . extended trails so located as to provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass. National scenic trails may be located so as to represent desert, marsh, grassland, mountain, canyon, river, forest, and other areas, as well as landforms which exhibit significant characteristics of the physiographic regions of the Nation.

If authorized by Congress, the Benton MacKaye Trail would become the nation’s twelfth National Scenic Trail. BMTA’s website offers information about how you can help the effort.