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.

A leg a day

With so many legs, how do you know which to choose? We’re going to try and make it easier for you. From now through Sept. 8 (or until every leg is filled), we will highlight a leg-a-day, giving brief insight into why a given leg deserves your presence on Sept. 9. Each week will focus on legs within one of the event’s 18 segments. Let us begin … .

6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome on a day when the cloud ceiling is about 5,000 feet.

Segment 1 (1a & 1b): Clingman’s Dome to Waterrock Knob

Currently, there are two Segment 1 options: Segment 1a: Peak-to-Peak, and Segment 1b: River Valley. We borrow from both options.

Segment 1b, Leg 8: Pinnacle Park to Waterrock Knob. 6.0 miles. This is for the MST-in-a-Dayer who wants a workout — a good workout. From the Pinnacle Park parking lot above Sylva, the trail climbs — and climbs and climbs. There’s the occasional short & stout, but largely switchbacks that guide you above the valley floor and eventually, after 6 miles, gets you to the ridge and Waterrock Knob, which at 6,293 feet is the 16th highest mountain on the East Coast (bragging rights to boot!). More info and sign up here.

Segment 1a, Leg 1: Clingman’s Dome to Fork Ridge Trail & Clingman’s Dome Road. 4.0 miles. There’s a certain cache in being able to say you hiked Clingman’s Dome, the westernmost end of MST (there’d be real cliche to say you hiked both Clngman’s Dome and the trail’s easternmost end, at Jockey’s Ridge — which might be possible if your Learjet awaits). From Clingman’s spaceship observation deck, piggyback on the Appalachian Trail through spruce-pine forest for a short spell before hitting Mount Collins and descending to Fork Ridge Trail. More info and sign up here.

Segment 1a, Leg 2: Fork Ridge Trail at Clingman’s Dome Road to Smokemont Campground entrance. 21.5 miles. Now, if you’re at all familiar with this area, you’re likely thinking, “Clingman’s Dome road to Smokemont … that’s a fair piece.” And you would be correct, 21.5 miles, underscoring the beauty — and challenge — of this run: there are no intersecting roads — and thus, no encounters with civilization, to shorten this leg, a leg that, in addition to drop-dead-Smokies-gorgeositude, passes the last campsite of famed writer and Southland advocate Horace Kephart. More info and sign up here.

Segment 1a, Leg 10: Soco Gap Overlook to Waterrock Knob. 4.2 miles. Whereas the River Valley option of Segment 1b culminates in topping Waterrock Knob from Pinnacle Park, the Peak to Peak option of Segment 1a gets you to the same destination via Soco Gap. This is a shorter approach to the Knob, 4.2 miles; offers an easy shuttle (from MP 455.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway to MP 451.2); and, like the 1b option, also exposes you to the small convenience store at Waterrock Knob, where, on September 9, we’re guessing an icy soft drink at trail’s end will sound mighty good. More info and sign up here.

Segment 1a, Leg 5: Pin Oak Gap to Spruce Mountain Trailhead. 2.5 miles. OK, 21.5 miles in the Smokies isn’t for everyone, especially those of us of the non-superhiker variety. The good news: there are more moderate legs available — Leg 5, for instance, which runs 2.5 miles mostly on gravel road with a little pavement thrown in. Note: this road is open to one-way traffic (you’ll be hiking against the flow), which means that if 2.5 miles proves too much, you can always hitch a ride (or hail an Uber). Despite the length, this stretch is still rated strenuous. More info and sign up here.

Segment 2: Waterrock Knob to Pisgah Inn

Leg 1: Watercock Knob to Woodfin Cascades Overlook. You want to do your part to help the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail reach their goal of having every inch of the 1,150-mile statewide trail hiked on September 9, but truth be told, you’re not much of a warm-weather hiker. On this, the “Mile-Hi” stretch of the MST, you’ll find the coolest hiking available in the Southeast the weekend after Labor Day. You’ll start at 6,293 feet: Waterrock Knob; packing a light fleece would not be a bad idea. The additional good news about this 4.7-mile stretch? You’ll finish nearly 2,000 feet lower, at the 4,345-foot Woodfin Cascades Overlook. Don’t be deceived, however: this is still rugged terrain that earns a “Strenuous” rating. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 6: BRP Milepost 426.5 to NC 215 crossing. Jackpot time if you like hiking in a bonafide designated wilderness area, in this case the Middle Prong Wilderness. The Middle Prong gets less attention than it should, mainly because it lives in the shadow of its glamorous wilderness brother to the east, Shining Rock. Yet Middle Prong is actually a bit more wild, dropping off the north face of the Blue Ridge in dizzying plunges that are about as challenging going down as they are up. Fortunately, this 6.1-mile stretch of the MST gives you a taste of the Middle Prong’s wilderness without the pain, running, as it does, along the area’s elevated southern edge. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 8: Black Balsam Access to Graveyard Fields. This 3.1-mile run captures the essence of the Shining Rock region (though it’s just outside the actual wilderness). There are forests of black balsam, the fir you find commonly in Canadian forests but only near 6,000-feet-and-above in the Southeast. There’s rocky landscape more commonly associated with the West. There’s the moonscape of Graveyard Fields, the falls along Yellowstone Prong, and there are views. A great trail to enjoy on the 9th of September. Lots of up-and-down; rated Strenuous. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 11: US 276 to Pisgah Inn. This 6.4-mile stretch is worth it on its natural merits: for the most part, it’s a mite flatter than the rest of Segment 2 and near the end it affords some sweeping views of the French Broad watershed below. But sometimes the best part of a hike is when the end is near and you know that small indulgences await. Like an icy-cold pop. Or Cheetos. Or Walnut Crusted Fresh Mountain Trout. The being the case if you happen to be finishing up Leg 11, Segment 2 of MST in a Day, at the Pisgah Inn. With that carrot (served, say, as garlic-roasted medallions) urging you down the trail, this leg should be sold out long before September 9, so act quickly. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 10: Cherry Cove Overlook to US 276. You’ll find some short but stout climbs on this 3.5-mile run that parallels and crosses the parkway. There’s a good look at Looking Glass Rock to the south, some nice views of Cold Mountain and Shining Rock to the north. And, it’s an easy shuttle. Learn more and sign up here.

Segment 6: The Elkin Valley — Devil’s Garden Overlook to Pilot Mountain State Park

Devil’s Garden Overlook

Leg 1, Devil’s Garden Overlook to Stone Mountain State Park backpack trailhead, 6.0 miles. Strenuous (even though it’s downhill). Ever wonder where the MST goes once it departs the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Devil’s Garden Overlook at MP 235.7? It goes down, precipitously in spots. It’s an interesting ride, made oh-so-much-more-enjoyable with a pair of hiking sticks. Some good history here as well. Note: Important to hike this stretch west to east, a k a, up to down. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 2, Stone Mountain State Park backpack trailhead to upper Stone Mountain parking lot, 3.8 miles. Moderate. Pass Widow’s Creek Falls, Bullhead Creek (known for its trout waters), then enjoy the trail through the heart of the park, past a massive meadow, the old Hutchinson Homestead, climbers scaling the 600-foot dome and Stone Mountain Falls. Good scenic bang for the buck on this one. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 15, Old Rockford Road to Shorty’s Country Store, 5.1 miles. Easy to moderate. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a work in progress: of its 1,175 envisioned miles, about 700 are finished. The rest is temporarily routed on roads, mostly backcountry roads with minimal traffic. Such is the case with Leg 15 of Segment 6, which provides an up close view of the rolling, bucolic Elkin Valley. Best of all: this stretch ends at a place called Shorty’s. Learn more and sign up here.

The Yadkin River above Pilot Mountain

Paddle Leg 1, Elkin Boat Landing, Crater Park to 601 Bridge, 11.5 miles. Not a hiker? Not a problem. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail has several paddle options, including three on the Yadkin River. PL 1 puts in at Crater Park and spends 5 hours meandering an 11.5-mile stretch of the Yadkin, encountering a riffle or two along the way. Learn more and sign up here.

Paddle Leg 2, 601 Bridge to Yadkin River Adventures take-out, 5.5 miles. No Not a hiker and no boat? No problem and no problem: On this leg, you can rent a boat from Yadkin River Adventures. They’ll drive you up the river and put you and your boat in on the Yadkin. (Bonus points for exploring the Fisher River, when meets the Yadkin river left about mid-way.) Your trip ends back at Yadkin River Adventures, where your car awaits. Learn more and sign up here.

Segment 3: Pisgah Inn  to Black Mountain Campground

Graybeard Mountains, as seen from its namesake overlook

Leg 7: BRP at US 74A (BRP MP 384.8) to Folk Art Center (BRP MP 382), 3.0 miles, moderate. When you hear that the MST follows the Blue Ridge Parkway much of the way through the mountains, it’s easy to be intimidated: There’s not a lot of flat to the Parkway — though there is around Asheville. Leg 7 is marked by minimal elevation gain and lots of water, in the form of small stream crossings. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 8: Folk Art Center (BRP MP 382) to BRP at Craven Gap (BRP MP 377.4), 5.2 miles, moderate. We like this stretch for two reasons: 1) it can be coupled with a visit to the Folk Art Center (at the trailhead) and 2) here begins the MST climb, subtle for the most part, to the trail’s high point, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, some 30-plus miles distant. A feel of the mountains close to Asheville. Learn more and sign up here.

Smoky Scout checks out the scene from Walker Knob

Leg 11Craggy Gardens picnic area (BRP MP 367.6) to Greybeard Mtn. Overlook (BRP MP 363.4), 3.9 miles, strenuous. Not to sound like a used car salesman, but this leg won’t last: Craggy Gardens involves an uphill hike through an open shelter, then continues through a run of heath where views unfold by the score. Then it’s on to the Graybeard Mountain overlook and a view of the Asheville watershed and Graybeard in the distance. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 15: Mount Mitchell summit to Black Mountain Campground, 5.9 miles, strenuous. Gravity is your friend on this stretch, which loses about 3,700 feet of altitude as it descends from the highest point on the East Coast — 6,684 feet — to the campground. Start in a balsam fir forest and descend through a Southern Appalachian hardwood forest on a trail that exposes the best in southern hiking. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 13: Walker Gap Overlook (BRP MP 359.8) to NC 128 crossing, 4.8 miles, strenuous. This stretch tends to hang out around the 6,000-foot mark, which you’ll really appreciate if the temperatures are summerlike below (which they usually are on September 9). While others hiking below are working to keep the sweat out of their eyes, you’ll be zipping up the fleece and getting a jump on fall. Learn more and sign up here.

A shelter over the MST at Craggy Gardens

Riverwalk, through Hillsborough

Segment 9: Greensboro’s Bryan Park to Eno River State Park at Pleasant Green Road

The Haw River makes a great companion for Section 9 hikes

Leg 7: Indian Valley Paddle Access to Stony Creek Marina, 4.0 miles. Frankly, we’re surprised this leg wasn’t filled on Day 1. This is such an entertaining stretch, brushing up to a golf course (quiet, please), encountering historic Glencoe (with a tour through the restored mill village and past the textile museum), past an abandoned mill and on to the marina, spending time along the rocky Haw River the whole way. Easy to moderate hiking. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 8: Stony Creek Marina to Red Slide Park, 4.0 miles. Again, May 9 and no one has signed up!? The Haw is at its rugged best through here, and hikers have a front-row seat. One of the newest stretches of MST, too, which means the trail is in especially good shape. Learn more and sign up here.

 

The MST takes you down historic Glencoe’s main street

 

Leg 4: Guilford County Farm to Trailhead on Amick Road, 2.3 miles. On the one hand, this stretch passes the former Guilford County Prison Farm. On the other, the former Prison Farm property is considered among the most scenic natural areas in Guilford County — arresting, you might say. Sign up before you get locked out, by going here.
Leg HR3: Saxapahaw Section, 0.5 miles. Eager to participate but not a big hiker? This easy half-mile stretch runs along the Haw River behind an old mill that has been transformed into the home of the Saxapahaw General Store (its food reviewed in the New York Times), The Eddy Pub, Left Bank Butchery, Village Bakehouse and Cup 22 Cafe. In short, take a short hike, take a long break afterward. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg HR1: Shallow Ford Natural Area section, 1.7 miles. A stretch of preserved wildness along the Haw, Shallow Ford offers a forested respite from the surrounding farmland. Act now: this stretch won’t last long. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 6: Sauratown Trail: Thore Road to Taylor Road.” So much to see on this 4-mile stretch, starting right off with Ryder Falls! (Usually, you have to hike in a bit for a waterfall, right?). A little less than a mile in, a bridge takes you over South Double Creek, then pass the Thore Family Cemetery. You’ll travel the horse country through which the Sauratown passes, even have an audience with the R.M. Collins Memorial Saddle. Which is? you ask. Hike this leg and find out. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 7: Sauratown Trail: Taylor Road to Tory’s Den (Hanging Rock State Park). One of the joys of the Sauratown stretch of the MST is that it escorts you through some pretty dandy stretches of rolling farm and pastureland: the Sauratowns rise on your right (hiking eastbound), miles of wavy green on your left. There’s a bit of walking on NC 66. The reason: most of the Sauratown stretch is on private land and the trail is constantly changing, necessitating these temporary passages, on occasion. The payoff here is worth it, ending in the Tory’s Den section of Hanging Rock. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 5: Sauratown Trail: Brim’s Grove to Thore Road. Like some real adventure with your adventure? First, this 5.3-mile run of the Sauratown Trail is one of the longest available on MST in a Day day: that in itself elevates the adventure level. Then, there’s the water crossings. Most are spanned by footbridges, but not the Little Yadkin River: Says the MST guide for this section: During periods of extreme high flow, this river crossing may not be possible.” Which suggests that during moderate flow, it could be a lot of fun! Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 2: Pinnacle Hotel Road to Pilot Mountain State Park office. This leg includes one of the least visited, least appreciated trails at Pilot Mountain State Park: the Mountain Trail. The Mountain Trail eschews the more touristy trails atop Pilot Mountain and instead embraces the mountain’s base, passing rock outcrops and slopes of mature hardwoods (there’s even one nice view of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west). Just two openings remain for this stretch. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 3: Pilot Mountain State Park office to Old Winston/Coon Road. Here’s your chance to explore the Sauratown Trail segment of the MST, linking Pilot Mountain State Park with Hanging Rock State Park. The Sauratown Trail was designed as a horse trail; as such, it has a slightly different feel than much of the rest of the MST. Much of the trail is on private land, with links made via short passages on country roads. This 2.4-mile stretch offers a good sample of the MST on the Sauratown Trail. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 10: Mebane, 4.4 miles. One of the advantages of the paved sections of the MST — that is, those not yet official trail — is that you get to see some parts of rural NC that will surprise you. This stretch, for instance, ends in Mebane, which if you haven’t been there lately, you’re in for a big surprise. Clay Street in downtown is hoppin’, and offers all sorts of post-walk options, from coffee and a pastry at Filament Coffee & Tea to a hunger-slaking lunch at Martinhos. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 13: Efland, 3.7 miles. Efland … Efland … . It’s popped up in several conversations of late, yet you have no idea where it is. Well, it’s on your hiking agenda for September 9, if you like. This leg begins at the convenience store on Mt. Willing Road (stock up on provisions) and ends at the corner of Dimmocks Mill Road and Allison Street, offering a bird’s-eye view of whatever it is you’ve been hearing about in Efland. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 14: Hillsborough, 3.3 miles. How this stretch remains available is beyond us, for this is quite possibly the coolest stretch of urban trail on the MST. The trail runs along the paved Riverwalk along the Eno through downtown Hillsborough, then leaves town to the east on mulch trail out to Historic Occoneechee Speedway, then through the gorgeous James Johnston Nature Preserve. A prized stretch of trail for the first five hikers to act (and you may get to hike with Hillsborough mayor Tom Stevens!) Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 3, Northeast Park, Greensboro, 4.7 miles. Sometimes the thrill of the adventure is in having no idea what lies ahead. So why not just go ahead and sign up for Leg 3, which starts at Northeast Park and heads east to Guilford County Farm. Learn more and sign up here.

Leg 1: Lake Townsend east, Greensboro, 4.6 miles. George Poehlman, section leader for Section 9, makes the case for the 18 legs in his charge by noting that while “a lot of the route is on road,” much of it is “through very pretty, rural countryside.” So for those of you with an aversion to natural surfaces, Leg 1 here seems a logical option. Learn more and sign up here.

Hiking the Sauratown Trail in the shadow of its namesake mountain