For experienced hikers or those who build up their hiking skills to take on life-changing journeys, there is a series of very long trails found in the United States that provide such an adventure.
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, is a relatively new 1,200-mile trail that exists almost entirely in North Carolina. It is called the Mountain to the Sea Trail and since its creation just two decades ago; it forges over the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, down into the flatter Piedmont region and ends up on the Outer Banks Barrier Islands found on the Atlantic Ocean coast.
When reading the following information on the Mountain to the Sea Trail, remember that this wonderful pathway goes through small towns as well as deep woods. So, do your research as to what supply stores may be open during this time of coronavirus pandemic. And, remember that winter is coming quickly, so time your full trail hikes appropriately. Still, the autumn of the year is a great time to section hike the Mountain to the Sea Trail with fall foliage coming and striper season and more happening on the coast
While the Appalachian Trail was conceived in the early 1900s, the Mountains to the Sea Trail was officially created in the year 2000.
Technically, the Mountains to the Sea Trail begins near Clingman’s Dome, 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 then on and for many miles, the MST meanders through the beautiful Western North Carolina mountains.
Somewhere between Asheville and Boone, the Great Smoky Mountains turn into the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, the MST makes its way around Asheville to the highest mountain found east of the Rockies in Mount Mitchell, which reaches to 6,683 feet high, where the views are incredible.
As the MST intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway often as it heads east, it also intersects many popular trails found in the western North Carolina High Country from Linville Gorge, the “Grand Canyon of the East,” to trails near Boone and Blowing Rock.
The trail marker for the MST features the large white circle, which you will see on trail signs and on trees along the path as well.
The MST is still a work in process and will be as it becomes more popular. As a result, there is a group called The Friends of the Mountains to the Sea Trail. The loosely affiliated bunch of like-minded hikers work together to help build the trail. The organization brings together folks in the communities that the trail intersects and volunteers who work to clear the trail and keep it navigable. The trail collective has a staff and a board of directors who help “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. These good works by volunteers are essential to keeping a 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 coordinated this kind of support for decades. Now the MST and its wonderfully unique characteristics are still being brought to life by the efforts mentioned above. Due to the pandemic, of course, check ahead for current news on classes and meetings.
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. You can either continue walking on foot to the south and east, 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.
All of this is what makes the MST such a challenge. Like the other long-hike trails mentioned above, the MST is like its trail brethren in demanding proper planning, gear purchasing and exercise while leading up to the months-long adventure.
Once the MST begins to follow the coast, it trails through Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge until a point where you will 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 sections of the MST while some seek out the full months-long feat. Either way, it is always a good thing to do your trail research to make sure the trip will go smoothly.