MST at 40: Five Favorite Hikes at the Coast and Coastal Plain 

The MST through Jones Lake State Park

The MST through Jones Lake State Park

As the Mountains-to-Sea Trail celebrates its 40th anniversary, we celebrate the trail by looking at five of our favorite segments in the Piedmont. (Last week, we shared five favorites in the mountains, next week, we’ll share five in the Piedmont.) We focus on the coast and coastal plain this week because there’s a narrower window for hiking — pleasantly hiking — in the hotter, wetter, buggier part of the state. Buzzy creatures will soon surface, slithery ones, too. For now, spring is in progress and it’s a great time to explore this region. Especially these five segments.

1.Jones Lake State Park

4 miles

Easy

Elizabethtown

Less than half of this trail circumnavigating Jones Lake is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. But it gives you a great sampling of one the best stretches of MST in the state. The trail plays peak-a-boo with this 224-acre Carolina bay lake, one of 500,000 of the mysterious bays dotting the Southeast. This is one of the largest surviving bays, oval lakes that may or may not be the result of a meteor shower a really long time ago. In places, you’ll be enveloped by dense stands of bay trees, in other places, open pine savannah. Hit the trail on a warm day and you may be tempted upon your return by the cool, tannic waters lapping at the swimming beach.

More info here.

Hiking along an airstrip, at Turnbull Creek

Hiking along an airstrip, at Turnbull Creek

2. Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest

4.5 miles

Easy/moderate

Elizabethtown

Literally across the street (NC 242) from Jones Lake you’ll find the slightly more rustic Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest. Whereas North Carolina State Parks have some of the most well-blazed, easy-to-follow hikes around, State Forests tend to offer a bit more of a challenge, and that’s part of the attraction at Turnbull. Again, only a portion of this loop is part of the MST — the part that’s easiest to follow (keep your eye on the MST’s white circle blaze). That will take you along tropical Turnbull Creek for a spell. Then, you’re spit out into the forest’s other trails/roads, which could take you on a big loop around the forest, to an old air field, or deposit you before an ancient helicopter. Especially great exploring with kids.

More info here.

The long and not-so-winding roads through Holly Shelter Game Lands

The long and not-so-winding roads through Holly Shelter Game Lands

3. Holly Shelter Game Land

19 miles (shorter out-and-backs are advised)

Easy/moderate (depending upon length)

Hampstead

Sometimes, all you want to do is walk and not have to think much about where you’re walking. You want an easy, non-challenging (read: flat) route that lets your feet do the walking, your mind do the wandering. The 19 miles of arrow-straight gravel roads constituting the MST through this 63,500-acre game land within four miles of the Atlantic, makes for the ideal mindless meander. Or not mindless, necessarily: dense forest rimming the road and large expanses of open area open the mind to wild speculation: What’s lurking in those woods? Could a more open wide-space exist in North Carolina? Particularly good if you’ve got a weighty thought to ponder.

More info here.

Hiking the shoreline of the Neuse, on the Neusiok Trail

Hiking the shoreline of the Neuse, on the Neusiok Trail

4. Neusiok Trail / Croatan National Forest

6.8 miles (out of 21 total)

Moderate

Havelock

The Neusiok Trail runs for more than 20 miles, from the southern shore of the Neuse River southeast to Harlowe. Though it has been done in a day, a more sensible option is the northernmost 6.8 miles. Start at the northern terminus, at the Pine Cliff Recreation Area, and walk beneath a 30-foot bluff along the Neuse before heading inland through a pine savannah. There’s much to see along the way, including rusting stills representing a bygone economy. There’s also a twilight zone stretch where, for a minute or two, passing holly and galaxy you’ll think you’ve been beamed up to the Appalachians. There’s also more up and down than you might expect at the coast, so be warned. When the trail hits NC 306, you are done — and hopefully you dropped a shuttle car on the drive in. No biggie if you didn’t: you’ll get a bonus couple of miles hiking up the road to your car.

More info here.

MST.Coast.Stones5. Stones Creek Game Land

4 miles

Easy/moderate

Sneads Ferry

One of the beauties of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is that it exposes us to places we had no idea were there, such as the Stones Creek Game Land near Sneads Ferry, a  3,537-acre wedge of land protruding into Camp Lejeune. Here, the MST makes use of existing trail, piecing together a route that seems unlikely based on the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission map of the land. Along the way, you’ll hike through coastal hardwood forest and pine savannah, past bogs and small ponds, by pitcher plants and hobbit holes. Because of its somewhat undeveloped nature, this is a hike best done with a knowledgeable guide. As luck would have it, one of the hikes on the Spring 2017 Hike NC! lineup is at Stones Creek, led by Tim & Cathy Supple. The hike is on Sunday, May 7 at 10 a.m. Learn more and sign up at GoHikeNC.com.

More info here.