Mountains-to-Sea Trail Weaves Through North Carolina's National Parks
Every state wants to have a long-distance hiking trail to show off the best of its natural features. The Long Trail in Vermont that meanders from the Massachusetts border to Canada is the oldest, having been created in 1910.
Farther south in North Carolina, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretches across a diverse landscape in literally connecting the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. The path starts atop Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It weaves in and out of the Blue Ridge Parkway, then traverses the state to Jockey’s Ridge State Park just north of Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks. (Click here for a PDF map of the route.) However, that by no means is to suggest that the trail is a downhill walk from west to east.
The trail, marked by white circles that dot trees and posts, offers a unique trek of about 1,000 miles, reaching high peaks with outstanding views, green valleys, rushing streams, farm land, and sand dunes. Currently, the MST is about half on footpaths and half on backcountry roads. But trail travelers also have the option of biking or canoeing parts of the trail until the entire footpath is completed, something that might take years or even decades.
In the Smokies
The trail from Clingmans Dome goes north on the Appalachian Trail for a few miles, plunges down via Fork Ridge Trail, and follows Deep Creek Trail. It then climbs up over Martins Gap to come out at Mingus Mill on Newfound Gap Road. And then what? Even the section in the Smokies is not finished, and that fact is the subject of much discussion. Officially the trail was destined to go through the Qualla Reservation but there haven't been serious negotiations with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for years.
So, those hikers intent on doing the whole trail have walked along the Blue Ridge Parkway, not the safest thing to do, particularly since that section goes through five tunnels. So why not use existing Smokies trails to bypass the road walking?
The Carolina Mountain Club, the hiking and trail-maintaining club based in Asheville, North Carolina, has started informal discussions on how the MST could be routed through the park. Park officials suggested a route that follows the Benton MacKaye Trail as much as possible, then drops down into Cataloochee and comes out at Polls Gap. Hikers then walk on Heintooga Ridge Road, out of the Smokies and alogn the Parkway extension.
This proposed route shows off the best of the North Carolina side of the Smokies and keeps hikers off the road a little while longer.
On the Blue Ridge Parkway
The MST continues on the Blue Ridge Parkway for about 300 miles, connecting parks and forests like a string threading pearls. By walking the MST, one enters and leaves several parks on and off the Parkway. Highlights include Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the east (6,654 ft.). Linville Gorge is considered the most difficult section, with little water and rugged climbs. Called the Grand Canyon of the East, it’s in a wilderness area without signs or blazes. You better know how to use map and compass.
The MST then enters Price Park, with views of Grandfather Mountain, and crisscrosses Boone Fork. It joins Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, an estate donated by the Denim King, with easy carriage roads, and continues to E.B. Jeffress Park and Doughton Park with their well-manicured trails and good facilities. The MST keeps coming back to the Parkway until the road leaves North Carolina north of Stone Mountain State Park. On Blue Ridge Parkway land, you can only camp at designated campgrounds, and there aren’t many of those.
In the mountains, the MST was built using existing trails, old logging railroad grades, and carriage roads whenever possible. Here the trail ascends and descends with the contour of the Blue Ridge Parkway and is intimately connected with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Casual hikers will talk of “hiking the Parkway,” but they don’t really mean walking the road. They’re referring to walking the MST.
It's not the A.T.
In a way, the state of the MST can be compared to where the Appalachian Trail was in the 1930s. That just might explain why only 16 hikers have walked the entire trail. Much of the Appalachian Trail’s vision came from the Vermont Long Trail. In turn, the MST took much of the vision and application from the A.T. But the logistics of hiking the whole MST are much more complicated than those of the A.T. There are no shelters and few legal places to camp, so backpackers have to be creative in finding a place to stay for the night.
Since this is a relatively new trail still in the design and construction phase in many places, few services have sprung up to cater to MST backpackers – no hostels, shuttle services, or all-you-can-eat buffets. There are also few chat rooms, websites, blogs, personal published accounts, or mythology of walking the trail, all essential for hikers trying to plan a long-distance hike. Like the A.T., the MST follows the rules of the land it traverses.
The Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, a non-profit organization formed to turn the vision of the MST into a reality, organizes volunteers to build and maintain the trail across the state. They have adopted the same design and construction practices as those used for the Appalachian Trail.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
After miles of road walking or biking through the middle of the state, the MST enters Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a sister organization to the National Park Service. A toll ferry ride then takes the MST through the quaint town of Ocracoke to Cape Hatteras. Established as the nation's first national seashore in 1953, Cape Hatteras runs from north of Ocracoke to Nag's Head, the entrance of Jockey's Ridge State Park.
At the Cape Hatteras Visitor Center they boast that their beaches were voted the fourth best in the nation. MST hikers will enjoy all 82 miles of it as they walk the trail on the beach. Some areas are closed to protect nesting birds and hikers have to get permission to walk in the water. These barrier islands are constantly changing in response to storms, ocean currents, and wind.
The end of the trail has the tallest sand dunes on the Atlantic coast. With shifting sands, high winds, extreme temperatures and a lack of water, the environment looks like a desert.
A Little History
The concept of a long-distance trail for North Carolina was first proposed in 1977 by Howard Lee, then secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development. Recently Lee reflected in a series of stories in the Raleigh News & Observer on the promise and progress of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
"I think what makes this dream so compelling is that it represents more than just a hiking trail. This trail embodies a vision, which, little by little, comes more into focus each year," wrote Mr. Lee. "There is, also, a sense of pride -- held by citizens and our leaders -- of what is best about North Carolina. When it is completed, the trail will showcase North Carolina's natural and cultural beauty, off the beaten path in the mountains, the Piedmont, the Coastal Plain and the Outer Banks; natural lands and farms; small towns and big cities."
The vision for the MST was not of thru-hiking or even of hiking the whole trail in sections. Rather, the MST was going to be the trail in your backyard. But where there’s a line on a map, there will be hikers wanting to color in their map.
Allen de Hart, who wrote Hiking North Carolina’s Mountain-to-Sea Trail, was one of the first two people who finished the MST in 1997. Mr. de Hart, a retired college professor and considered the father of the MST, was involved in the planning for the MST from the beginning. When interest for the trail seemed to wane, Mr. de Hart, with some of his former students, started Friends of the MST.
The state of North Carolina worked out the trail route from trails already available on public land. Allen de Hart designed the route along the road. The trail became part of the North Carolina State Park System in 2000. Technically, the MST on the road is not officially part of the state park.
This past April, President and Mrs. Obama visited Asheville on a private vacation. During his weekend trip, the president spent hours on the golf course, but the first couple walked along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for an hour. It brought national, though admittedly short-lived attention, to the MST.
“He is the first sitting president to ever visit the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said.
Hikers were thrilled.
de Hart, Allen. Hiking North Carolina’s Mountain-to-Sea Trail. University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Ward, Scot "Taba". The Thru-Hiker's Manual for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail of North Carolina. C.R.A.S.H. Publications, 2010. See www.thru-hiker.us.
Weber, Walt. Trail Profiles and Maps from the Great Smokies to Mount Mitchell and Beyond. Grateful Steps, 2009.
Contributing writer Danny Bernstein is a hike leader, outdoors writer, and author of Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage