Not many new hiking trails arrive these years, so when a new one does surface, it's great to have a guide to help you plan a walk along it. What Danny Bernstein has done with The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina, is produce not a how-to book, but rather a why-to book.
By that I mean that Ms. Bernstein, a regular Traveler contributor, has put together a guide that doesn't lead you step by step down the trail that stretches from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, across the Blue Ridge Parkway, to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but instead details the natural and cultural history of the route That sweeps from North Carolina's high country down to its surf-pounded shores.
Now, just to set the record straight, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is not exactly new. Its genesis dates to passage of the National Trails Systems Act back in 1968, the author notes. However, it is a trail in evolution, as it is not expected to fully traverse trails and greenways until 2027.
But it does traverse an intriguing slice of American history, segments of which surface in the text. Ms. Bernstein's approach to this guide might seem unusual for a "hiking" guide. But the book puts into your hands a rich collection of both the author's personal experiences gleaned from hiking the trail from Clingmans Dome in the Smokies down to the sandy shore of Jockey's Ridge north of the national seashore as well as some selected regional history.
You can learn about the moonshiners of Stone Mountain in Wilkes County, the Rock House that served as a fort during the Revolutionary War, and New Bern, the first capital of North Carolina. New Bern also represents the largest city, of not quite 30,000 residents, that you'll encounter in your travels from the Smokies to the cape, or vice versa, along the trail. Here you can resupply, wash your clothes, or simply admire the town's painted bears.
"Bern, in German, means 'bear,'" explains Ms. Bernstein. "Painted bear sculptures are sprinkled all over the city."
In a nod to recent events, the author also touches on the seasonal existence of enclosures hikers might encounter on the shores of Cape Hatteras. These enclosures are used to protect sea turtle nests and those of piping plovers, a threatened species.
The text is supported by a 16-page section of color photos in the middle of the book, and black-and-white shots from along the route sprinkled throughout the book. You'll also encounter the author's personal interactions with the landscape and the musings she has, such as this passage that arose from the trail's search for a path that doesn't involve road shoulders:
After leaving Walnut Cove, you pass undeveloped land, punctuated by a few single-family homes. Why is the MST on the road? What are people doing with their property? Why doesn't the MST go through this land? The simple answer is that the parcels are privately owned. But these owners aren't doing anything with their land. The first section has been clear cut. It's a flat mess of stumps and downed saplings, which looks terrible. Maybe the owners hoped to build houses. The parcel is for sale, but if no one wants to buy the land, it's priceless or perhaps just worthless. Other sections are tired, rough woods, with small skinny trees. The land was logged in the past, but nothing has been replanted. A collection of old farm equipment takes up an empty lot. In between, there are a few neat houses with large lawns.
Most of this land isn't used for farming, grazing, playing or living. What if the landowners gave a right of way to the MST? The owners could create a conservation easement or, even better, just donate the land to the state. Much of this land is full of garbage and old abandoned barns about to fall down. Numerous posted and private signs have been nailed to trees. No one is rushing to buy this acreage and build a house on it.
Hiking trails are a means of going from point A to point B, but just as important are the stories that lie within the land and communities a trail wanders through. Ms. Bernstein provides a wonderful cross-section of the stories along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in this book.