Mountains-to-Sea Trail goes south to blaze a new route to the coast

Meadows are commong along Sec. 17

Hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail near Durham.

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail wants you to celebrate Mountains-to-Sea Trail Month by hiking the statewide trail, a work in progress. Meanwhile, the hundreds of volunteers responsible for pushing the trail toward completion will keep doing just that, in the hopes you’ll have even more trail to celebrate next year.
“We have a little over 550 miles of the trail done,” says Kate Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit. That’s about half of the overall length of the trail (what isn’t currently natural surface hiking trail or, in some spots, paved greenway, temporarily follows mostly country roads).
Most of the MST’s mountain section is finished — though a crucial gap between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway remains to be figured out. Substantial sections of the Piedmont, especially in the Triangle, where more than 110 miles of continuous trail exist, are finished.
Meanwhile, in the coastal plain, only 50 miles is finished. But it’s here that the most exciting trail developments have occurred.
We caught up with Dixon last week to find out how the MST, which will one day link Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border with Jockey’s Ridge on the coast, is coming along.

Mountains

MST.Map1At its western end, the MST begins atop 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome, then piggybacks on existing National Park Service trail in the Great Smokies down to the junction of Deep Ridge, Newton Bald and Mingus Creek trails. The original plan was to continue down the Mingus Creek Trail to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where it would connect with the Blue Ridge Parkway, its escort for much of the remainder of its mountain run. A simple plan, except for the fact those next 15 miles of the Parkway runs through the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The right-of-way throughout isn’t wide enough to blaze a trail without Cherokee permission, which has been slow to come.
In the meantime, the MST has come up with two alternate routes.
The Great Smoky Mountain Route meanders northeast through the park, then south. It joins the parkway northwest of Soco Gap, at Heintooga Road.
The River Valley Route goes south on Smokies trails to Bryson City, where it follows the Tuckasegee River — or, more accurately, roads paralleling the Tuckasegee — into Sylva. From there, it picks up mostly existing trail (and some road) on a challenging climb up to the MST at Waterrock Knob.
Dixon says both alternative routes are in the 50- to 60-mile range.
“They’re not so different in mileage,” she says, “but in difficulty.” The Smokies route has continuous ups-and-downs; the River Valley Route is relatively flat until Sylva. “From there,” she says, “it’s a hellish six-mile climb.”
The good news is that from Heintooga Road east, the MST is uninterrupted for about 300 miles as it generally follows the Blue Ridge Parkway until it departs for Stone Mountain State Park and the Piedmont beyond at the Devil’s Garden Overlook.
Another option under consideration: a route that would emerge from the Smokies near Bryson City and follow the Little Tennessee River to Sylva.

Camping update: Overnight camping is a challenge along the MST’s length. That’s especially true in the high country, as the trail spends much of its time on National Park Service land. Dixon says the prospects for camping in the near term are good at both Beacon Heights and the Devil’s Garden Overlook along the northern run of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Piedmont

MST.Map2The main area for immediate trail expansion in the Piedmont is between Stone Mountain State Park and Elkin, says Dixon. That’s thanks in large part to the efforts of the Elkin Valley Trails Association, which could have seven additional miles of trail completed this year. Dixon says the group has been successful working with “30 or 40” landowners in the path to secure rights-for-passage.
From Stone Mountain, the trail follows Elkin Creek into downtown Elkin, where it will pick up the Yadkin River and follow it east to existing trail in Pilot Mountain State Park.
From Pilot Mountain, the MST follows about 40 miles of existing trail, mostly on the Sauratown Trail, into Hanging Rock State Park.
MST.Map2aFrom Hanging Rock, the MST follows temporary road routes into Greensboro, where it piggybacks existing hiking trail along the city’s northern watershed lakes. A new stretch of trail has been completed from the watershed lakes north to Haw River State Park. From there, the MST will trace the Haw River to Saxapahaw. Several miles of segmented trail are in place, though Dixon says recent land acquisitions will make it possible to soon create a continuous eight-mile stretch from just above the town of Glencoe, to the south.
There’s more good news in Hillsborough, where the town’s 3-mile Riverwalk Trail is essentially done (look for the grand opening this fall).
Meanwhile, downstream, above the Pleasant Green Access in Eno River State Park, negotiations continue on three tracts of land — two small, one not-so — to link Hillsborough with the 107 miles that connect the Pleasant Green Access with Clayton, three counties away.
Heading east from Clayton, things get interesting.

Camping update: The big news here, says Dixon, is the creation of camping along Falls Lake. “We’ve opened one campsite, provided by a private landowner adjacent to the trail … about one mile west of the trailhead at Red Mill Road.” And the Wildlife Resources Commission has approved a new campsite that will be near the Hickory Hill boat ramp. We will build and open that this fall.
“That means, adds Dixon, “that it will be fairly easy to camp/hike from Pleasant Green Road to Rollingview Recreation Area.”

Coastal plain

MST.Map3Originally, when the MST was conceived in the mid-1970s, the plan was to run the trail along the Neuse River from Raleigh east to New Bern. Once it came time to roll up the sleeves and start looking seriously at installing trail, a problem surfaced.
“A lot of where the trail would be would frequently be under water,” says Dixon. Once the Neuse passes I-95, the surrounding terrain flattens considerably and the river often escapes its banks. “It would have required a lot of boardwalk,” says Dixon. Plus, the land is mostly privately held, necessitating a lot of time-consuming negotiations.
When they started searching for alternate routes, they noticed a swath of public lands. They also discovered that some of the land that wasn’t public was of interest to the Wildlife Resources Commission and the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust.
“After we identified the route, I spent months and months going around and talking to people, seeing what they thought,” says Dixon. Turns out the locals she talked to — from private landowners, to business people to community leaders — thought hosting the MST was a great idea. As an added bonus, Dixon says the route includes about 50 miles of existing trail, including 19 miles in the Holly Shelter State Game Lands.

* * *

With the new, longer coastal plain route, the Mountains-t0-Sea Trail is longer than in previous iterations. In the early stages, it was billed as a thousand-mile trail. More recently, it was scaled back to 920 miles. The new reroute, which will be made official in the fall, bumps that total by almost 200 miles.
“We’re looking at about a 1,150-mile trail now, says Dixon.

For more information on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, visit ncmst.org.