On Thanksgiving weekend, 2016, my kids and I meet up with some friends for a 3 day hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This actually happened to be the weekend right before the huge fires recently broke out in the park. In fact, on that Saturday night before they became uncontrollable, Benny and I sat on top of Cliff Tops (at Mt. LeConte), first watching the sun set, and then watching the (at that time) small fires smoldering across the valley on Chimney Tops.
While we were sitting atop that mountain, Benny talked to me about wanting to take a break from section hiking the AT in 2017, and instead take the new year to hike all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. He felt like it was something he wanted to do. It was somewhat close to home for him, and he had only hiked a small portion of the trails throughout the park at that time. I could hear it in his voice, I knew that he was going to complete this task… it was the manner in which he completed it that shocked us all, including himself!
Benny wanted to begin his official “GSMNP 900 mile hike” on January 1, 2017, however, he ended up starting it a day early, at 3 am on December 31st. He went with a group of hikers up Alum Cave to Mt LeConte to catch the last sunrise, and sunset of 2016. This began his official hike to join the GSMNP 900 miler club.
As I said, before Benny decided to hike all of the trails in the park, he had hiked approximately 150 or so miles of the trails in the park already. However, he wanted to start this adventure out fresh, even though that meant hiking the trails he had already hiked before, again. He wanted to hike all of the official trails in the park in one fell swoop.
Before he started his hike, he had spoken with some other hikers that had hiked the trails before, as well as picked up the book “Day Hiker’s Guide To All The Trails In The Smoky Mountains” by Elizabeth L. Etnier. This book in particular helped him to begin planing out how he wanted to go about hiking all of the trails in the park. What many people do not realize is that in order to hike all of the trails in the park (~800 miles total), some trails would need to be hiked more than once. Generally, after one hikes all of the trails in the park, due to hiking some trails more than once, a hiker can log as many as 1500 (or more) miles total. But, with this guide-book he was able to plan an itinerary that would minimize the amount of times he had to hike some trails more than once, which would ultimately help keep his mileage a bit lower than 1500 miles, and closer to the 900 mile mark.
Beginning with his hike up to Mt LeConte on December 31, 2016, Benny was sure to document each of his hikes in the park on the ‘Hike the Smokies‘ Facebook page. This allowed him to share some of the awesome photo’s he snapped along the way, but also a way to keep (and share) a detailed record of what trails he had hiked, as well as his mileage (which he split into 2 categories: total miles hiked, and new miles, which were miles that went towards the goal).
In the first few weeks of his hike, he worked during the beginning of the week, and then took long weekends to go out and hike. Being that he was posting his hikes on the ‘Hike the Smokies’ FB page, he ended up making a number of new friends along the way. Some of those friends actually hiked with him at times, while others would help him out with shuttles so that he was able to hike certain trails end to end, as opposed to turning back and having to rehike them. As well, my son and I got to make it out and do another overnight hike with him on the south side of the park one weekend in January.
Within just a few weeks of hiking the trails in the park, he realized that he was making much better time than the had originally planned, and that he would likely be done with all of the trails much sooner than the end of the year. At this point he got back in touch with the folks at the GSMNP 900 miler club and inquired as to how fast all of the trails had been hiked previously. He was then told that the quickest time it was ever done was four months and twelve days, which was held by Sharon Spezia. At this point, already 150 miles into it, and in just a few weeks, he decided that he wanted to set a new record…
At this point, he became more focused on his hikes. He focused on making more efficient choices on his routes, and of course laying down some big miles. Keep in mind, he started on December 31, 2016… this means that he was doing all of these hikes in the winter time. Thankfully, this was a much milder winter than normal, however, that doesn’t mean it was all just “a walk in the park.” Benny still encountered very cold temperatures (down to 6F one night), snow, and of course a number of fords in some icy cold waters! It was still a rough time of the year to be out on the trail… and especially now that he was trying to set a new record!
In the weeks to follow, his miles ticked by: 300, 400, 500, 600, and then 700. Throughout his hike’s I talked with Benny several times. As he was getting closer to meeting his final goal, he asked me if we could make it out and hike with him on his last, and final hike in the park. As it just so happened, the date that he planned to finish up on was a weekend I was off call, so I told him to count both, my son and I, in!
Then, on March 18th, 2017, 2 months and 19 days since he started his GSMNP 900 mile hike on December 31, 2016, a group of us stood next to Benny at the Trillium Gap Trailhead to join him on his final hike. That day we hiked back up to Mt LeConte, then back down the Rainbow Falls trail where we met a news anchor which did a short interview with Benny. After that, we hiked along the Old Sugarland Trail, which would bring us out near the Sugarland’s Visitor Center. It was here that the crowds, and a few more news anchors were waiting for his arrival.
At approximately 3:45 pm on March 18th, Benny walked through the “Hiker’s Tunnel” at the end of the Old Sugarland’s Trail. This marked the end of his first “map”, or his completion of his 900 mile hike! And in record time at that! By the time he finished his hike, Benny hiked 944 miles total, and of those, 770 miles were actual unique miles that applied to his map.
I have known Benny for about 2 years now. We talked some on YouTube, or on my blog for a bit, but the first time we actually met was when he gave my son and I a last minute shuttle while on a hike. Since then we have hiked together quite a bit. In the time since, I have gotten to know Benny pretty well, and I must say he is a genuine friend. Besides this, he is a loving husband, a giving and caring father, a hard-working, honest man and a follower of Christ. I am thankful to have crossed paths with Benny, and honored to be able to call him friend, and brother in Christ. And on top of all of this, he is one heck of a hiker, and this record-breaking hike is proof of that!
So while many have said it already, I would like to congratulate Benny on his accomplishment. But I know Benny, and I can say that this is only the beginning for him…
If you don’t already, be sure to follow Benny on his Plug-it In Facebook page, and on his Instagram page. Also, here are a few more links to different articles, and news interviews about his record breaking hike:
- WVLT News Interview
- Write up on Blue Ridge Outdoors
- WATE News Interview
- WBIR News Report
- Knox News Report
So, until our next hike, thanks for stopping by!