Mountains to the Sea Trail

The 1,200-mile long trail that exists almost entirely within the borders of North Carolina, the Mountains to the Sea Trail, was created just 21 years ago

Hiking and many other outdoor activities became very popular during the pandemic. The desire to escape from lockdowns and turbulent big city environments led to a noticeable increase in the number of people spending time in nature during the last year and a half.

For experienced hikers or those that desire to build up their hiking skills to take on a months-long, life-changing journey, many are taking advantage of these unique times to try and achieve adventures that exist on a bigger scale. For those hearty and hopefully-prepared folks, there is a series of very long trails found in the United States that provide such an opportunity.

For example, on the West Coast, the Pacific Crest Trail goes from California to Washington State. Further inland is the 3,000 mile-plus Continental Divide Trail that meanders through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. East of the Mississippi River there is the world-famous Appalachian Trail that travels from northern Georgia to Maine, including a large swath that cuts through western North Carolina.

Here in the Tar Heel State, however, we have our own relatively new, 1,200-mile long trail that exists almost entirely within the borders of North Carolina. It is called the Mountains to the Sea Trail and since its creation just 21 years ago, it now forges over the mountain region in the west, heads downhill into the flatter Piedmont area and ends up on the beautiful Outer Banks Barrier Islands found on the Atlantic Ocean coast.

While the Appalachian Trail was conceived in the early 1900s, the Mountains to the Sea Trail was officially created in the year 2,000. Technically, the pathway begins near Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest mountain in Tennessee and in the Great Smoky Mountain chain. The trail then becomes a series of runs on dirt trails and paved roads until it crosses the world-renown Blue Ridge Parkway around milepost 460 at Big Witch Gap. From there and for many miles to come, the Mountains to the Sea Trail meanders through the gorgeous-yet-daunting western North Carolina Mountains and forests.

Somewhere between Asheville and Boone, geographically speaking, the Great Smoky Mountains turn into the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, the MST makes its way around Asheville to Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain found east of the Rockies. Rising to 6,683 feet in elevation, the views on Mt. Mitchell and its surrounding companion summits are incredible.

As the MST intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway often as it heads east, it also crosses and combines with many popular trails found here in the High Country. Those include the potentially dangerous yet exciting wilderness area known as Linville Gorge, the “Grand Canyon of the East,” along with many other trails near the towns of Boone and Blowing Rock.

The trail marker officially established for the MST features a large white circle, which you will see on trail signs and on trees along the pathway.

The MST is still a work in progress as it becomes more popular. As a result, an organization was formed called The Friends of the Mountains to the Sea Trail, which is a loosely-affiliated group of like-minded hikers who work together to help build and maintain the trail.

The organization brings together folks in the communities that the trail intersects and gathers together volunteers of all stripes who work to clear the trail and keep it navigable. The trail collective has a staff and a Board of Directors who help so-called “trail angels” to improve the pathway as well as advocate for the importance of the MST to local, regional and state politicians.

The Friends of the Mountains to the Sea Trail consortium offers Trail Building classes and sets up workdays for volunteers at 20 different crew leader segments located at various points throughout the length of the journey. The good works done by these volunteers are essential to keeping this younger and lesser known trail among the elite pathways in the world. The organization raises money by memberships, stock gifts, matching gifts, workplace fundraising and even through the purchase of a special MST license plate for your vehicle.

Older, more famous trails such as the Appalachian Trail have benefited by this kind of support for decades. Now the MST and its wonderfully unique characteristics are being brought to life by the efforts mentioned above.

Back on the trail, as the MST makes its way past Grandfather Mountain and the town of Blowing Rock, it eventually begins to head down into the foothills and eventually the lower elevations of the flat-land Piedmont section of North Carolina. Following a combination of trails and hike-able roadways, the MST comes within eyesight of the famous Pilot Mountain in-between Mount Airy and Winston-Salem and soon veers south towards Greensboro.

The MST then explores the Triad area and reverts back to strictly dirt trail near Durham, which lasts until it passes the eastern side of Raleigh. When you reach the town of Smithfield, the MST traveler has an interesting and adventurous decision to make. One can either continue walking on foot to the southeast, or one can bring in a canoe and paddle 170 miles on the Neuse River all of the way to the coastal Pine Cliff Recreational Area.

Once the MST begins to follow the North Carolina coast, it trails through Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge until you catch the Cedar Island Ferry, which takes you to the island of Ocracoke and the heart of the Outer Banks Barriers Islands. Once on the wonderful barrier islands, you will follow Rt. 12 until the end of the MST found on Jockey’s Ridge State Park, featuring one of the highest sand dunes on the East Coast.

Many people simply hike various short sections of the MST while others seek out the full trek. Either way, it is always a good thing to do your trail research ahead of time to make sure the trip goes smoothly. All of this is what makes the MST such a challenge.

Like the other long-hike trails mentioned above, doing a trek on the MST requires proper planning, gear purchases and a pre-hike exercise regimen as you lead up to the months-long adventure. Once all of that is figured out, you will be ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

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