COVID-19: At REI, we encourage you to get outside responsibly. Stay local, avoid recreational travel, practice social distancing and check ahead for area and facility closures. Learn More
Hiking Project Logo

Benton MacKaye Trail - Childers Creek to Unicoi Gap - Backpack

Difficult

Trail

19.1 mile 30.7 kilometer point to point
Difficult

Elevation

Ascent: 3,552' 1,083 m
Descent: -2,302' -702 m
High: 2,201' 671 m
Low: 804' 245 m

Grade

Avg Grade: 6% (3°)
Max Grade: 30% (16°)

Dogs

Off-leash
Driving directions Take a virtual tour
Zoom in to see details
Map Key

Trail shared by Richard Harris

This 18.7 mile backpack takes you along the edge of the Hiwassee River then up Unicoi Mountain to Unicoi Gap.

Richard Harris

Features Commonly Backpacked · Fall Colors · Fishing · Historical Significance · River/Creek · Swimming · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife

Overview

The Hiwassee River is a beautiful large mountain river famous for canoeing, kayaking and trout fishing. Backpackers can camp right on the edge of the river about 2 miles into the backpack trip. The trail has a few very nice campsites, including one where the BMT leaves the top of the ridge east of Towee Creek and again reaches the side of the Hiwassee River. Also, camping is available at the Loss Creek crossing and the Coker Creek Crossing. After Coker Creek there are no designated campsites, but LNT camping is permitted. Water is not generally available at these campsites past Coker Creek after leaving the Hiwassee River.

The views are fantastic along the edge of the Hiwassee River and along the ridgeline of Unicoi Mountain, especially in the winter when the leaves are off the trees. A side trip up to Coker Creek Falls and to Buck Bald is well worth the trip. Also, a side trip on the Unicoi Turnpike Trail takes the backpacker by an old CCC camp and a goldmine. This side trail follows the very historic route of the Unicoi Turnpike, one of the lowest gaps in the Appalachian Mountain chain heavily used by the Cherokee, soldiers, settlers, and merchants. At one time there was a turnpike house at Unicoi Gap to collect fees for every man and animal crossing the gap. The Unicoi Turnpike Trail was also used to transport several thousand Cherokee and Creek Indians out of the mountains of TN and NC on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838.

Need to Know

At the various trailheads there are no parking fees, with the exception of the Towee Creek Trailhead. However, if you park in the back parking lot at the end of the road at Towee Creek, parking is free.

Description

Start the hike at the Childers Creek Trailhead near Reliance for the BMT and the John Muir Trail. The JMT was the route used by John Muir when he took his first long distance hike after recovering from the eye injury in a factory in Indianapolis in 1867, as recounted in his book "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf". Follow the BMT/JMT east along the bank of the Hiwassee River. There is a great campsite right on the river about 2 miles into the hike. If starting your backpack in a later afternoon, we recommend camping here for the first night.

After your first night of camping, head east on the trail to the Big Bend trailhead, picnic area and restroom (mile 3.0) then the Towee Creek trailhead, boat launch, picnic area and restroom (mile 4.2). From Towee Creek, you backpack up a series of switchbacks to the crest of the ridge, and follow this ridgeline until again descending to the level of the river at mile 6.7. Just before taking the last plunge down to the river, there is a nice campsite up on the ridge above the river. Soon after reaching the river level, you cross Wildcat Creek (no bridge), then Loss Creek (mile 8.8). There is a great campsite at Loss Creek. There is no bridge at Loss Creek, and at high water this may be a difficult crossing. There are some better spots to cross this creek a short ways upstream. After crossing Loss Creek, you reach Coker Creek trailhead and campsite at mile 10. Camp either at the primitive quiet campsite at Loss Creek or the more public campground at Coker Creek.

The next day we recommend you take a day hike up to Coker Creek Falls, a 2.7-mile side hike, 5.4 miles roundtrip, perhaps spending two nights at Loss Creek or Coker Creek campsites. This series of waterfalls is one of the best in the Cherokee National Forest. Unfortunately, the waterfall is up near the top of the trail, so the full 5.4-mile round trip is required to visit the cascades and waterfalls.

After leaving Coker Creek, cross the creek on a bridge, then follow the JMT/BMT 0.4 miles past the bridge. Turn left up the BMT/ Unicoi Mtn Trail and hike 4.0 miles to TN68 at mile 14.0. Primitive LNT camping without water is possible at a couple of sites along the trail on the way to TN68, especially fairly close to TN68. Water is available south on TN68 in a creek along the side of the highway about a quarter-mile from the road crossing and further down at a pipe for filling water bottles along the edge of the road with a pullout. After crossing TN68, climb to the crest of the ridge, then turn left onto the Unicoi Motorcycle Trail. The BMT crosses the Buck Bald Road at mile 15.1. A great side trip to Buck Bald on the gravel FS road is well worth the hike with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. At the road crossing, turn right then immediately left and follow the road for 3/4 of a mile. A picnic table is available. Camping is not permitted here, but LNT camping is possible at several places in the area.

From the Buck Bald Road crossing, you follow the fairly level ridgeline to Unicoi Gap parking area at mile 18.7. From here it is well worth the side trip to hike down the Unicoi Turnpike trail a quarter-mile from the gap. This 2.2-mile trail follows the actual historic route of the Unicoi Turnpike, first built in 1813. This was the best low elevation road across the Southern Appalachians and was used by the Cherokee, soldiers from the War of 1812, settlers, and merchants, then for the Trail of Tears in 1838 when thousands of Cherokee and Creek Indians were sent to the Oklahoma Territory. Also, there is an abandoned gold mine and an old CCC camp along the trail.

From Unicoi Gap or the lower end of the Unicoi Turnpike Trail, the backpacker can find his way back to civilization by automobile. The BMT route is 18.7 miles long, but with the side trips (Coker Creek falls 5.4 miles roundtrip, Buck Bald 1.5 miles roundtrip, and the Unicoi Turnpike Trail (4.4 miles roundtrip), the total distance could be 30 miles.

Flora & Fauna

Backpackers are likely to see trout fishermen with their strings of rainbows as well as bald eagles, river otters, bear, coyotes, deer, raccoons, opossums, hawks, and bobcats. Mountain lions have supposedly been spotted as well, though so far there are no definite documentations. They so far are in central TN, so in time they will for certain be in East TN.

History & Background

This backpack trip on the BMT with the side trips is steeped in history. John Muir took his first long hike through the Hiwassee River Gorge as chronicled in his first book "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf". The Hiwassee Gorge also is the route of the original train tracks between Southeast TN and Atlanta. The route has a loop where the trains looped over themselves to get to the top of the gorge and can be ridden as a tourist train. The Hiwassee River is famous for trout fishing, rafting, and kayaking.

The Unicoi Gap area is also steeped in history as the site of the Unicoi Turnpike, a CCC camp, a goldmine, and the route of the 1838 Trail of Tears when the US Government decided to move the Cherokee and Creek Indians out to the Oklahoma Territory to make way for the gold miners and settlers who wanted access to the Cherokee lands. This was perhaps the low point in American History, a sad time indeed.

Hiked this trail?

We need help with the following missing trail information:

Family Friendly, ADA Accessible

Is something wrong? Let us know. Have photos to share? Help fellow hikers know what's here.

Contacts

Rate This Hike

Rate Quality


   Clear Rating

Rate Difficulty

Share This Hike

Check In

Check-Ins

none

Trail Ratings

  5.0 from 1 vote

#1

in Etowah

#1860

Overall
  5.0 from 1 vote
5 Star
100%
4 Star
0%
3 Star
0%
2 Star
0%
1 Star
0%
Hike Rankings

#1

in Etowah

#36

in Tennessee

#1,860

Overall
32 Views Last Month
66 Since Feb 20, 2020
Difficult

0%
0%
100%
0%

Photos

Benton MacKaye Trail at Big Bend Recreation Area and Hiwassee River.
Mar 21, 2019 near Etowah, TN
Loss Creek Crossing of BMT
Feb 20, 2020 near Ducktown, TN
Hood Mtn Overlook on the Hiwassee River on Powerhouse Rd, Reliance, TB
Mar 21, 2019 near Etowah, TN
Bridge over Coker Creek on BMT and John Muir Trail
Feb 20, 2020 near Ducktown, TN
Big Bend Parking Area on Benton MacKaye Trail.
Mar 21, 2019 near Etowah, TN

0 Comments

Hiking Project is part of the REI Co-op family,
where a life outdoors is a life well lived.

Shop REI Hiking