On March 18th, 2017, Benny Braden completed a record-setting trek through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He hiked every known trail in the renowned national park—a network of more than 900 miles—within a 76-day period. Braden chatted with BRO about the logistics of his journey, his favorite trails, and unexpected discoveries.
BRO: Any bear encounters?
BB: I came across only one bear, and I saw it on the warmest day. It was traveling southbound near Shuckstack on the A.T. as I was headed northbound. While it was still about 40 yards away, I yelled so it would see me. Once it made eye contact with me, it took off the other way as fast as it could go.
BRO: Favorite shelter?
BB: Kephart and LeConte were nice, but I really think I liked Laurel Gap the best.
BRO: Favorite springs?
BB: My favorite spring is the one that’s flowing clear and fast. This will disturb some people, but I’m going to say it anyway: I didn’t filter a single bottle of water while on this hike. I was picky where I got my water from, but most often I would get my water from springs and small creeks above a trail.
BRO: Scariest moments?
BB: I walked up on a wild hog while I was coming around a corner. It acted as if it were going to charge me, but quickly turned and ran. I had no other place to go, so I was at its mercy. Also, when I camped CS#84, something was messing with my tent during the night. I thought I had been dreaming it, but when I went to take my tent down the next morning, my tent tie-out was loose and on the ground. I later found out that I was staying at the campsite where a boy was pulled from his hammock by a black bear last year.
BRO: Most unexpectedly transcendent moment?
BB: I was hiking a loop of trails in the Cataloochee area. I had to do some road walking, and I was getting very disheartened because I still had 5.5 more miles of trail once I left the road. I started running as hard as I could possibly go. And as I felt like I was at my body’s breaking point, I asked God to please let the trail arrive soon. Immediately as I was rounding a curve, I saw the trail sign.
BRO: Favorite summit?
BB: My favorite summit was LeConte, and I actually summited it twice: once on my first hike and once on my last hike. I started this hike with LeConte, and I was going to finish it with LeConte.
BRO: Favorite part of the A.T. through the Smokies?
BB: I absolutely love the section from Newfound Gap to Camel Gap Trail. It’s up high and has some amazing views along the way. I could hike that a lot, and it would never get old.
BRO: Surprising things you learned along the way?
BB: Discovering all of the old settlements and home places was a big surprises, but all of the large tulip poplar trees in the park were the biggest surprise for me, many of them wider than a vehicle. It just simply amazed me to see these huge trees still standing. I also didn’t realize there were so many grouse in the park. Every single day I would flush out a grouse and usually it would be 3 to 5 per day. And I didn’t realize the park had so many elk and turkey.
BRO: Favorite trail?
BB: The Noland Divide Trail. It runs from Clingmans Dome Road down to Deep Creek Campground through a thick hemlock forest which turns into rhododendrons and then hardwood forest, and two-thirds down, you hike an exposed ridge line with 360-degree views.
BRO: Toughest trails?
BB: Jenkins Ridge, Eagle Creek, and Cold Springs Gap Trail, where I crossed Hazel Creek with 3″ of snow on the ground and 20° degree temps. Hazel Creek was up to just under my knees that morning.
BRO: New discoveries about the Smokies?
BB: When I started this I had only hiked less than 150 miles of trail in my whole lifetime. Most of the park was all new territory for me. I was like a kid in a candy store. I was always excited to hike the next trail and see what else I was about to discover.