Best Damn Weekend Ever: Hike & Paddle the Benton MacKaye

Link two classic Southern rivers on a trek along the newly completed Benton MacKaye Trail in Tennessee and North Carolina.
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Link two classic Southern rivers on a trek along the newly completed Benton MacKaye Trail in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Tennessee's Ocoee River is among the most beloved whitewater paddling destinations in the United States. The nearby Hiwassee River is one of the top tailwater trout fisheries in the South. In the past, their proximity was nothing more than a footnote; there was no way to do both rivers without getting into a shuttle vehicle. Now? Their link-a new section of the 290-mile Benton MacKaye Trail-makes for one of the coolest 4-day adventures anywhere below the Mason-Dixon.

Named for the man who originally envisioned the Appalachian Trail, the recently completed BMT runs across the spine of the western Appalachians, hooking west where the AT runs north. And the new trail has something its venerable cousin lacks: light traffic. This quieter and more primitive path rolls past a wildly overgrown Southern wilderness of immense, moss-draped boulders, pristine creeks, and riverbanks thick with rhododendron. And it's all about as crowded as a sixth-grade dance floor.

The freewheeling 35-mile southeast Tennessee section features the two rivers as its adventurous bookends. Set up camp 100 miles north of Atlanta on the Ocoee's banks at Thunder Rock Campground, in 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest. You'll be a mile or so upstream from the site of 1996 Olympic whitewater events, and downstream from where scores of freestyle kayakers do tricks in a rapid called Hell Hole. Join them in a funyak-a one-person raft that can take a paddler with basic skills through Class III-IV whitewater. A guide leads the way (details below), showing you how to read the river and choose lines, and how to ferry and surf in rapids.

Dive into the BMT's solitary confines on day 2. First, climb north out of the Ocoee's valley and hike 4 miles up onto a ridge that tops out at about 3,000 feet while skirting 4,666-acre Little Frog Wilderness Area. The trail connects old logging roads garnished with mountain laurel, then descends from the mountains to trace clear-as-moonshine Big Lost Creek. One mile past Lost Creek Campground (and about 12 miles from your starting point), bed down where Big Lost Creek and Little Lost Creek converge, beside a series of waterfalls that drop 10 feet from garage-sized boulders into deep, swimmer-friendly pools.

On day 3, break out the fly rod. Three miles farther along the BMT, the trail opens up to reveal the Hiwassee, surrounded by green mountains and usually shrouded by fog in early morning. That's when fly fishermen unfurl fluorescent tethers to rising rainbow and brown trout. Stop at the old-timey Webb Brothers General Store to check the dam release schedule and pick up flies before crossing over a bridge to pick up the trail on the river's north side. Wade out and drift your bugs through eddies and riffles accessible along this stretch of trail. After camping upstream of the powerhouse where water is released from the dam on the other side of Rock Island Branch (a 7-mile hike along the river), spend your last day exploring 200-foot bluffs along the riverside between Loss Creek and Coker Creek and downstream near Towee Creek. The panoramic views span up the river toward the ancient stretch of isolated mountains you've

just traversed.