Yellow Creek Mountain Trail Reroute
"...leaving a footpath for generations to follow."
January 28, 2014
Background and History
When the Benton MacKaye Trail was first proposed in the early 1980's, there was not a clear route for the Trail between the Hiwassee River Crossing in Ocoee, TN., and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park Officials were enthusiastic about the Trail traversing the Park, but refrained from trail designation until a firm route to the Park was approved. A letter of support for the Trail, dated in 1985, indicated that final trail route would be determined, but that “no new trail” mileage would be needed or approved, in part due to the NPS Backcountry Management Plan, finished that same year, that stated that due to lack of funds for existing trail maintenance, adding more trail would be poor use of resources.
Some twelve years later, negotiations with the US Forest Service in Tennessee and North Carolina led to a final trail route thru the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, exiting at Slickrock Trailhead on Route 129 by Cheoah Dam. Subsequently, Tapoco (Alcoa) agreed in 1997 to a five mile section of new trail thru their lands to the Tn/NC State Line, following a portion of the original Appalachian Trail, abandoned in 1948 when the AT was routed over Fontana Dam. At the time, NPS Regulations required hikers to get Backcountry Camping Permits from a registration site, the closest being located at the Twentymile Ranger Station, requiring a 3.5 mile road walk from Deals Gap to the Ranger Station. At the time, there was not enough traffic on Route 129 to present a significant safety issue for hikers in that area.
In 2004, the NPS and the BMTA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (General Agreement) covering the Trail within the Park. This MOU agreed, in part, to study the possibility of using the original AT from Deals Gap north to Dalton Gap and then connecting to existing Park trail system at Campsite 95. At the same time, the Park was involved in environmental studies related to the North Shore Road issue, dating from 1943. It was understood by all that any final route for the BMT might be affected by any settlement of that issue.
Construction continued on other portions of the Trail, and a Trail Completion Ceremony was held on July 16th, 2005, indicating that in large measure, the final route of the Trail outside of the Park was finalized and built. Attention turned to the Park connection issue, resulting in an exploratory trip by Dick Evans, Ken Jones and George Owen of the BMTA, and two officials of the NPS to evaluate the “Old AT Route” as stated in the MOU. The evaluation resulted in the opinion that, due to environmental considerations on that route, more than four miles of new Trail would have to be constructed, with an additional three miles of trail to be rehabilitated. The general feeling at that time was that, given the remoteness of the location and scarcity of trail builders in close proximity, any attempt to build this route would be beyond the capabilities of both the NPS and the BMTA.
The BMTA continued ongoing explorations in the general area to attempt to find a non-road route to reach the Park, without infringing on the route of the existing AT over Fontana Dam. A complication was added when Tapoco (Alcoa) made a corporate decision to sell some real estate and related assets. Although very supportive, Alcoa did ask the BMTA to cease any route exploration to avoid any issues with potential buyers. In early 2012, it was announced that Brookfield Renewables was going to purchase the lands involved. Once that was completed, discussions with Brookfield indicated that it was going to transfer a major portion of land to the Tennessee Nature Conservancy, but again, the BMTA was asked to not take any actions regarding possible Trail routes until TNC took possession. Subsequently, in late 2013, the BMTA was given clearance and enthusiastic support to examine possible alternate routes in the newly acquired lands, destined to be transferred to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency within a couple of years. However, a series of explorations in the area resulted in the determination that any trail reroute in that area would be as difficult, and probably not as desirable, as the “Old AT Route” within the Park, and would still involve three miles of new trail in the Park. Extensive discussions with Park Officials throughout this entire period indicated that they were very opposed to any new trail in that area, and that any evaluation of such route would probably be a decade or more in the future.
At the same time, virtually everyone familiar with the area was becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of hikers on the 3.5 mile road walk from Deals Gap to Twentymile Ranger Station, in particular the mile-long section on Route 129. Indeed, it was felt by many in the BMTA that most thru-hikers simply avoided that section, getting transportation from Slickrock Trailhead to Twentymile. An additional issue arose in February of 2013 when the NPS mandated reservations for all campsites in the Park, necessitating thru-hikers to find some place to get on line and make those reservations. While that removed the necessity of hikers going thru a registration point, it did require that campers print out and carry a copy of their reservation, something that obviously created a major issue for thru-hikers.
In mid-January, 2014, the BMTA was informed that the Backcountry Operations Specialist, our main contact at the Park, would be leaving for a new position in early February, and it was felt that a replacement for that position might be a prolonged issue, and that the “corporate memory” would take a while to replace and have the replacement become familiar with the issues and history of the project. At the same time, several experienced BMTA folks felt that any attempt to build a new trail on any route in the Deals Gap area would be a several year project even if a quick approval were given, something very unlikely. With those facts, the BMTA approached the Cheoah Ranger District about the possibility of rerouting the BMT over the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail. This would allow thru-hikers to use it to get to Fontana Village, obtain their required permits (as well as resupply, showers, meals, etc.). However, this would necessitate having the NPS change the route of the BMT within the Park, as reaching Twentymile Ranger Station from Fontana Village is another near impossibility by trail. Park officials were very enthusiastic about agreeing to have the BMT start at the Lakeshore Trailhead and follow Lakeshore Trail to Lost Cove, joining the existing BMT within the Park. A new MOU was drafted, approved and signed in record time in late January, 2014.
Overview of Reroute
With the new reroute, north-bound thru-hikers will leave the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness at Slickrock Trailhead, and then turn south for a one-half mile roadwalk along Route 129. In this section, passing the Cheoah Dam and Tapoco Lodge, the road is not curvy and sight distances are good. In addition, parts have sidewalks, and there is ample room for hikers to get off the road to make way for traffic. It is not thought to be a dangerous section to walk. Hikers then turn east and cross Route 129, taking Meadow Branch Road a few feet to the start of the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail.
Hikers would then follow the YCMT easterly along the ridge some nearly nine miles to Green Gap and then down into Fontana Village, where facilities for obtaining camping permits are available at the Fontana Lodge, open 24/7/365. Hikers could then take the Fontana Shuttle directly to the trailhead across the Dam, or follow a signed path to intersect the AT near the Fontana Marina, and follow that thru the Dam area to the trailhead. Appalachian Trail Conservancy officials have been briefed on this plan and fully support it, so the short “co-location” would not present an issue. Hikers would then follow the Lakeshore Trail some five miles to meet the existing BMT in the Lost Cove area, and continue their hike.
These work trips will need a good participation by BMTA members. Contact Dick Evans (bmta AT frontier.com) or 828-479-2503 to attend. Dates and areas may change according to work, so coordination is necessary.
A Personal Note
This project is the culmination of nearly nine years of effort by many BMTA folks, as well as NPS, TNC, USFS and others. I want to personally thank all those who volunteered their time (and sweat) low-crawling thru rhododendron thickets, fighting Yellowjackets and snow, deadfalls, BRIARS, interminable map recons, meetings, etc. You all lived up to the motto:
“Leaving a footpath for generations to follow.”
2/9/14: Ernie Engman (Sgt. Rock) and Dick Evans went on a route recon today from the Old Field Gap Road to Fontana Village. We followed the Forest Service road to about the intersection of FS 251C and the existing trail (Section 2 on the map), and then followed the existing trail easterly under the power lines and to Green Gap, and then down into Fontana Village. We found that the existing trail had been cleared from the FS 251C intersection to the power line by power crews for maintenance a couple years ago, and that section is in real good shape. East from the power lines will need a lot of brush cutting as well as some chainsaw work. A big surprise was that the trail down to Fontana was in terrible shape, and that is now the highest priority to be completed. We did measure distances, and found that we walked 7.6 miles between the two points, some 3 miles shorter than earlier estimates. I intend to ask the Sierra Club work trip to address the Green Gap to Fontana Trail on their trip in early April. Other work trips remain as scheduled.
2/17/14: On President's Day ten folks went on a Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Fun Hike on the 1.8 mile section of the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail between Old Field Gap Road and Meadow Branch (the western-most portion of the BMT reroute). They were able to brush out the entire length to an acceptable standard. Marshall McClung and Hoot Gibbs plan on going back out Wednesday to remove the larger trees blocking the trail, but at this point, the trail is open and passable.
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Photos courtesy of Dick Evans.