Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 2, May 30
Three Forks to Wallalah Mountain 14.3 miles
Even though Three Forks was full of Memorial Day campers, I found a tent site at some distance from the crowd, and, after sleeping in— enjoying my trusty old ZPacks tent (it has been pitched on every continent except Antarctica)—I woke to discover a nearly empty site (except Jim and his family nearby, really nice folks from Florida up for a few days wander). Clearly I’m not even close to the early rising necessary for long-distance trekking, but there’s no real hurry these first days. Even though I was very stiff, getting on the trail was a joy. I’ve hiked this stretch of the BMT twice, as part of the Duncan Ridge Trail loop—the DRT goes up the BMT about 23 miles, then hooks right, crossing Duncan Ridge and eventually connecting with the Appalachian Trail on Blood Mountain, then back to Springer, a truly brutal hike.
The Benton Mackaye is well-built and we’ll-maintained, and the forests, though not old (not sure when they were logged off, but the old roads are evident everywhere and the trail sometimes follows them). What is magical is the understory which, in many places is masses of ferns. The oxygen ferns give off has a special quality that’s only found in the plenitude of a southern Appalachian forest. The rhododendron are blooming, so when the trail goes through a green tunnel, it’s carpeted with white petals.
All day the path either crossed the AT or some National Park access points so the meditative silence of an empty trail was broken by holiday revelry. The Toccoa River suspension bridge was a particularly boisterous place— picnickers with their dogs, coaxing them across the rocking suspension bridge (Swinging Bridges). Rather than following a ridge north, the Benton Mackaye works across ranges, so it is very much roller coaster hiking—up, down, and up again. None of the peaks are all that high, but altitude gain and loss is significant across the day. Another concern is water. So far, unlike other parts of the Appalachians with their frequent small branches and springs, water can sometimes be scarce. I didn’t plan well for my night’s camp and ended up in a dry one, so I had to husband those few ounces. Will be more careful in the days to come. It was a beautiful but arduous day, and I was asleep by 6:30–pure exhaustion.
T. Hugh Crawford