The Mountains-to-Sea Trail in a day

The MST at Rough Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway

The MST at Rough Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway

Picture, if you will, a 1,175-mile trail hiked in its entirety in one day. And not by one person, but rather by a fleet of well-organized hikers hoping to bring attention to what, amazingly, still is a hidden gem in the hiking world.

Now picture Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

That is the goal of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, as they set out to make sure the entire trail is trod in one 24-hour period by at least one person. Every inch, from the 6,644-foot summit of Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee line, to long mountain stretches along the Blue Ridge Park, through MST trail town par excellence Elkin, through the Sauratown Mountains, down the Haw River, along the Eno River, down Falls Lake and on to the coast to, finally, Jockey’s Ridge on the lip of the Atlantic. All 1,175 miles, from the down-and-dirty 682 miles that are ready to hike, to the just-under 500 miles that are temporarily routes along mostly back roads.

So, the organized among you may be wondering, how do you ensure that all 1,175 miles are hiked?

You divide and delegate.

Showing the MST way, at the Holly Shelter Game Land

Showing the MST way, at the Holly Shelter Game Land

First, divide. For purposes of MST-in-a-day, the trail has been divided into 18 segments, each roughly 65 miles in length. Then you further subdivide each segment into day-hikable legs of roughly 3 to 5 miles. Then, for each leg, you create a Meetup page, where people can sign up to hike.

Eighteen segments and more than 350 legs, that’s a lot to keep up with! you may be thinking. This is where the “delegate” comes in.

As you may or may not know, the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is largely a volunteer-driven group. It has two full-time employees, two part-time. Those three FTEs could not forge a trail across North Carolina on their own: in 2015, more than 700 volunteers contributed 30,000 hours toward completing the trail. Thus, there are 18 Segment Leaders, whose job it is is to make sure that every segment in their jurisdiction gets hiked.

So, how can you help? By hiking, of course! Here’s what we recommend:

You’ll notice when you go to sign up that there are only 5 spots allotted for each leg. That’s to spread the joy, to help make sure every inch of trail gets some love. It is not to be dictatorial: if you and five buddies want to hike a leg together, there will not be monitors on the trail taking roll. By all means, gather a group and hike.

Stymied by the preponderance of great legs to sign up for? Need a little help? Every day this week, we’ll highlight a leg you may not know, but that you should acquaint yourself with, on Sept. 9, if not sooner.

Our first suggestion:

Hiking the MST along Falls Lake in Raleigh.

Hiking the MST along Falls Lake in Raleigh.

Monday: Segment 10, Leg 5, Eno River to Falls Lake, 4.1 miles. One of our favorite stretches of the MST on its 120-mile run through the Triangle. Hiking west to east, the trail begins in a mature forest, then climbs a bluff some 80 feet above the Eno River (great views to the north in winter). The trail stays high for a bit, brushing meadows, briefly piggybacking on old farm roads. Then, for about the last third of a mile it dips into a bottomland hardwood forest full of healthy giants. A great escape for Triangites in their own backyard. Learn more and sign up here.

Eno Quarry

Eno Quarry

Tuesday: Segment 10, Leg 1, Eno River to Falls Lake, 2.5 miles. OK, we’re going with another stretch of Segment 10, and here’s why: the guy who writes these promotions (Joe Miller) is also the Segment Leader for Segment 10. Thus, it’s his job to make sure all 22 of his segments are spoken for — hence, the self interest. (We’ll get to the other segments, don’t worry.) As for Segment 10, Leg 1, there are so many reasons to hike this stretch. After crossing under Pleasant Green Road, you enter an bottomland region, they begin an ascent that includes a couple of switchbacks through rocky terrain festooned with mountain laurel and holly (creating a tunnel before long). Atop the bluff (this trail, in Eno River State Park parlance, is called the Laurel Bluff Trail), you’ll catch glimpses of the Eno River 80 feet below. There’s more high passage, then descent through a pine forest into wooded bottomlands that take you to the old Eno Quarry. The trail goes two directions around the quarry lake; go right to prolong your visit and enjoy the dark green waters rimmed with pine. From there, it’s about a quarter mile to trail’s end, at the Cabe Lands Access. Good protective canopy for a hot September day. Learn more and sign up here.  

Wednesday: Segment 16b, Legs 2, 3, 5, Croatan National Forest, between 5 and 6 miles each. Hiking the coast in the heat of summer is a sweaty proposition no matter what. But on the gravel forest roads that the MST piggybacks on periodically at the coast, summer’s heat is slightly less onerous. It’s not as tight and stuffy as on classic single track, not as prone to surprise appearances of critters of the slithery sort (you usually see them well in advance on a road), not quite as … intimidating. Rather, a certain serenity settles in on a long forest road ramble, and because the roads are few and simple, you can lose yourself without getting lost. Thus, we recommend these three segments of Segment 16b, which runs, essentially, the width of the Croatan National Forest. Note: we’ve tagged these three legs because they are all on gravel road; the other seven legs on this stretch include or are entirely composed of paved roads, which are more exposed, wider and contend with motor vehicles. Learn more and sign up here.

The MST through Jones Lake State Park

The MST through Jones Lake State Park

Thursday: Segment 13b, Leg 5, Salters Lake / Jones Lake State Park, 5.1 miles. This stretch offers 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. Best of all, if it’s been a sweaty hot hike, the finish line includes a dip in the cool, tannic waters lapping at the Jones Lake swimming beach. Ahhh … . Learn more and sign up here.

MST crossing a meadow, near Holloway Mountain Road. (Photo: Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail)

MST crossing a meadow, near Holloway Mountain Road. (Photo: Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail)

Friday: Segment 5, Leg 3, Blue Ridge Parkway, 3.8 miles. When it comes to the 300 miles or so of MST through the mountains, you can’t go wrong — you can only go righter. Thus, one of the righter legs of the trail, in our opinion, is the 3.8-mile run between the Boone Fork Parking Area and Holloway Mountain Road. Hiking from the west, the trail has just descended a spectacular rocky stretch at the base of Grandfather Mountain. Here, the trail’s complexion changes, entering an enchanting, mature forest of pine and hardwood that’s as peaceful a stretch of mountain trail as you’ll find. Then, it emerges into a series of small, rolling meadows that, in early September should be full of green. Intimate at the beginning, open at the end, delightful throughout. Learn more and sign up here.