Editor's note: Though not mentioned as frequently as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina is a worthy notch on any hiker's staff. Meandering some 1,000 mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the footpath is still something of a work-in-progress, as more land acquisitions need to be made to move the trail off roads in some places. Contributing writer Danny Bernstein has been hiking the trail in sections. She recently completed it with a hike along Cape Hatteras. This is the second of a two-part series that describes what she found.
Day 4 - Easter Sunday - 5 miles
Happy Easter Sunday!
Sharon invites me to go to church with her. We find the Fairhaven Methodist Church in Rodanthe, where we're made to feel welcome. I completely ignored Passover this year and here I am at an Easter service. It’s an interesting cultural experience, part of doing the MST, and unlike a Passover Seder, it’s only an hour and in English.
We drive over the Bonner Bridge to see what it’s like. Traffic is zooming wildly both ways. One guy even tries to pass a slower car on the bridge. There's a permanent wind advisory sign up - and that's just for vehicles. "If two RVs pass each other and we're on the side, we'll be squashed bugs or blown overboard," Sharon says.
This is our rest day but we decide to walk a few miles anyway. We walk from ORV #4 ramp to ORV #2 ramp. ORV ramps are numbered and the place where vehicles can access the beach. The rules and regulations on where and when they can drive the beach have created a big controversy with fishermen and others who prefer to use their vehicles to reach favorite spots on the beach. On the web, I read that ORVs are allowed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. right now. There are certainly plenty of vehicles on the beach, all with friendly visitors, most from Virginia.
We start out walking NC-12. It's warm and the mosquitoes are fierce. Sharon pulls out her bug spray and sprays some right into her eye. It’s very painful. She’s carrying a water bladder and the water just dribbles out. I only have a quart of Gatorade in a water bottle.
I’m hesitant about getting sugar in her eyes as well as insect repellant but I offer her my bandanna soaked in Gatorade water; it’s better than nothing. She swabs her eye with the liquid, though it still smarts.
After she feels a little better, we keep walking. In the excitement, we miss our turn off the road into the Bodie Lighthouse area. So we end up walking a mile up and a mile back down before we get on the Bodie Island Dike Trail.
It’s a short but beautiful walk through the maritime forest. A great white heron flies out of the pond. Soon we reach the Bodie Lighthouse, the third lighthouse in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The Bodie Lighthouse was being renovated when contractors found significant structural problems. Now the National Park Service is looking for another $1.6 million to complete the renovations. In the meantime, the scaffolding was removed. When they find that money, they'll have to put the scaffolding up again.
You can’t climb the lighthouse, so few people visit. Still, it’s an impressive lighthouse with a small house in front where they used to store the fuel.
It’s hot and my feet are very cut up. I’ve gotten a new blister every day, mostly from road walking. I then hold all those Band-aids in place with duct tape. If I have a new blister every day and I need to put Band-aids on my old blisters as well, how many Band-aids will I need? Remember the Gaussian formula? N(N PLUS 1)/2. Who says that math is not needed after you leave school?
Day 5 - ORV ramp #27 to north end of Rodanthe - 10 miles
We’ve been starting very early every morning – up and out at 7 a.m. and hiking by 7:30 a.m. at the latest. This is a short day because the end of the section butts against Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. There's no convenient place to park once we're in the refuge.
We’re on an empty beach before the ORVs wake up. To drive on the beach, they need to let the pressure out of tires on the sand for better grip, called slacking the tires. On the way out, they blow up their tires again. Driving on the beach is not something you can decide to do casually.
The sun rises early and quickly here, and we’ve been fighting our sunburns, Sharon more than me since she’s so fair. When I’m old and full of wrinkles, I’ll remember that it’s the MST that did my face in. We apply and reapply sunscreen and I wear a hat but it never seems to be enough.
As soon as we reach a town, the trail takes us on the streets, in this case Salvo, Waves, and Rodanthe close together. In the grass on the side of the road, baby killdeers scurry to keep up with their mother. She's not happy that we are in her territory.
With all this extra time today, I visit the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, located on the northern end of Hatteras Island - it's not a separate island.
"What is a refuge doing in the middle of a national park?" I ask Ron Marchard.
"Pea Island Refuge was created in 1937. So we were here before Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The national seashore was not formed until 1953."
According to Mr. Marchard, a very involved refuge volunteer, Pea Island was named after a wild pea. Ron is proud of “his” refuges and seems to work at all the ones around the Outer Banks. I give him some information about the MST.
Close to the Pea Island Visitor Center, there’s a walkway and lookout station, part of the Charles Kuralt Trail. The trail was named after the broadcast journalist who "shared the delights and wonders of out-of-the-way places like these." I know these are "out of the way" places for the general American public but to me, the refuge Visitor Center is a landmark, an oasis in the vast beach walking that we're doing. Kuralt Trails are short trails in several refuges, not one continuous trail. Many have boardwalks and observation platforms, allowing visitors to get closer to shore birds.
The Army Corp of Engineers built impoundments to regulate the flow of water and create the best habitat for waterfowls and shorebirds. Today, I only see red-winged blackbirds up close and lots of turtles.
Day 6 - Walking through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge - 12.8 miles
Today's walk is all on the beach - there are no towns to break up the day. Sharon and I start south of the Pea Island Refuge sign and finish at the Bonner Bridge. We’re not sure how we’re going to like walking on the beach for over 12 miles.
The forecast is for thunderstorms, which is not great if you’re the highest thing on the beach and carrying metal hiking poles. We figure that if the weather really deteriorates, we’ll run over the dunes and onto the road.
The big difference in this setting is that the refuge doesn’t allow driving on the beach and has no ORV ramps. The sand is smooth and the walking is much easier. I think I’m seeing a difference in the number of birds on the beach - more pelicans, whole flock of ducks heading north, more sanderlings, and a few more oystercatchers. We even find a shark that has washed up on the beach.
There are few landmarks on the beach and almost no visitors because they would have to walk here. We find a painter who has set up his easel in a hollow created by three dunes. He’s out in the full sun in his baby blue shorts, painting a seascape. I admire his work and wonder how long he’s going to stay out so uncovered.
We have no idea of where we are on the beach. We can only estimate our progress based on how long we’ve been walking. In the distance, we see a blue water tower and the outline of the Bodie Lighthouse, but they’re a long way off.
Finally, we spot a large house, the remnants of the Pea Island Life Saving Station (1878 – 1947). This was the base for the first African-American group of “surfers” who rescued sailors in trouble. Life-saving stations were the precursors of the U.S. Coast Guard.
We climb over the dunes and it feels like we’re marching into the Sahara Desert. All I can see is sand. Around the parking area, families are getting out their towels and picnic lunches and getting ready for a day at the beach. But we get out of the sun as soon as possible.
Day 7 - Summiting Jockey's Ridge - 12.4 miles
Today is the big day where Sharon and I will summit at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the end of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. We start at ORV#2 and walk on the beach. Sharon takes off her shoes and socks but I don’t want to expose all my Band-aids and duct tape to sand, salt, and water.
But soon we see buildings and figure we’re no longer in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Good bye Cape Hatteras, hello Nag’s Head – what a difference.
A long row of houses that were built too close to the ocean are now derelict and condemned. They were built on stilts and needed long and steep staircases to get to the front door. The quickest way to show that they are no longer habitable, besides a condemnation sign, is to knock off the bottom part of the staircase.
Some are tilted and we walk between those houses and the ones further back that are still occupied. I keep looking at these houses fascinated and horrified, like watching a train wreck.
“This is just plain vanity,” I say to Sharon. “But no different from those who build on steep slopes in the mountains.”
We’re in Nag's Head, the first town north of the national seashore. Passing two fishing piers, we get on NC-12, here called Beach Road. We cross US 158, the bypass road with fast-food restaurants and beach stores, and enter Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It’s a small state park (426 acres) but has the tallest natural sand dune in the Eastern United States.
We stop at the Visitor Center and meet Superintendent Debo Cox, who is so happy to see us and makes a fuss. We sign the MST visitor book, a book that only has four entries in 2011, all hikers that started here and set out for Clingmans Dome.
Are we ready for the finale? We pick up four sparkling apple juice containers (no alcohol in state parks) and some dark chocolate truffles from my car that we had placed here overnight and start the climb up to the dunes.
The trail starts with a boardwalk but soon leaves us on a sand dune that is the highest thing we’ve seen since Hanging Rock State Park, miles and months back. We drudge up on the soft sand with the wind and sand blowing in our faces. Laura Arrington, a park employee, is waiting up to take our pictures with one of her volunteers.
This place looks like the Sahara Desert; even the brochure calls it that. Technically, the ridge is an example of a medano – a huge hill of shifting sand without vegetation.
We take pictures and have pictures taken of us, but I know we’re at the end of our adventure.
Traveler postscript: The Mountains-to-Sea Trail took me through North Carolina in 78 hiking days for 985 miles and 95,200 feet of ascent.