MST at 40: 5 of our favorite mountain hikes
As the Mountains-to-Sea Trail celebrates its 40th anniversary, we celebrate the trail by looking at five of our favorite segments in the mountains. We start with the mountains knowing there’s still a chance that weather might make a visit hard: four of these hikes are along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which closes when there’s ice or snow (if in doubt, check this BRP site for road closings) But spring is around the corner and the opportunity to catch it unfolding at some of these lower locations is too tempting. We’ll get to the Piedmont and Coast, but for now, let’s pay a visit to the high country.
Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 375
1 to 2.8 miles
This hike takes you away twice: into mature woods and to a bygone era, to the old Rattlesnake Lodge on its namesake trail. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, it’s a short, steep, half-mile hike (another route, up Ox Creek Road, is a more mellow 1.4 miles) to the lodge, which from 1904 until 1918 was the summer home of Dr. Chase P. Ambler and family. Check out the remnants of this one-time special mountain retreat, including the swimming pool, tennis court, stables and lodge, the ceiling of which was covered with rattlesnake skins, which fetched a $5 bounty (about a week’s wages at the time). It was the family’s summer retreat until Mrs. Ambler’s death in 1918. The family never returned and sold the lodge in 1920. It was destroyed by fire in 1926.
2. Folk Art Center
Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 382
This is a good spot to try the MST, before it begins its 30-mile, 4,500-foot vertical climb to Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest point east of South Dakota’s Black Hills. You’ll find friendly hiking in either direction from the Folk Art Center. For 2.5 miles, hike 30 minutes out, 30 minutes back. Leave time to visit the Folk Art Center, home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild. The center showcases the finest in traditional and contemporary crafts of the Southern Appalachians.
3. Beacon Heights to the Boone Fork Parking Area
Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 305.2
This stretch of the MST piggybacks on the well-known Tanawha Trail, which explores 13 miles of the southeast-facing flank of Grandfather Mountain. It’s rocky and rugged at first (the climbs, however, are short), passing under the Linn Cove Viaduct, through tight tunnels of rhododendron and over mountain creeks on artfully-designed bridges. The highlight: views from atop Rough Ridge, a rocky knob poking out from a slope dominated by high-ground heath. This is one of the best hikes to experience the dizzying Blue Ridge escarpment, in part because the elevation gains and losses on the trail itself are small. Still, the rockiness makes for challenging hiking. You’ll find easy access and shuttling along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
4. Middle Prong Wilderness to Graveyard Fields
NC 215 at the Blue Ridge Parkway to MP 418.8
This hike begins just outside the eastern border of Middle Prong, from a gravel roadside parking area off NC 215. Heading east, the MST passes rock outcrops, penetrates a spruce forest, passes through a clearing with expansive views, tags alongside creeks. For all the ecological variety, there’s surprisingly little elevation change (unless you opt for a side trip up to 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob). The finish is in the Graveyard Fields area, where severe fires a century ago have left the terrain largely devoid of trees. Check out Yellowstone Prong and Falls just before climbing to the Graveyard Fields parking area.
More info here.
5. Linville Gorge
3.2 miles up the mostly gravel Wolf Pit Road, off NC 126 East
8 miles (or less)
Moderate to strenuous
The hard work is at the beginning of this hike: from the gravel end-of-the-line parking area, you’ll climb a mile or so up to Shortoff Mountain on the east rim of Linville Gorge. There, enjoy the best views of the gorge and a western landscape of rock and scrub for another three miles. It’s an unusual flat plateau with ongoing views and, because it’s a steep climb from the popular Table Rock Access, it’s surprisingly quiet.