It costs an estimated $4 million to $6 million to build a mile of four-lane highway in a rural area.  How much does it cost to build a mile of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina?  Next to nothing when you’ve got nearly 700 volunteers donating more than 30,000 hours — a savings of nearly $650,000 in labor costs — to build the statewide trail that will one day run more than 1,000 miles across the state, linking 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee line with Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic. About 672 miles of the trail are officially designated.

That efficiency with which the MST is coming together was one of the key telling points to emerge from Saturday’s Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail annual meeting at Elon University.  “This trail wouldn’t happen without you, the volunteers,” incoming Friends President Steve Metcalf told the crowd of 245, a record for the annual gathering. “Give yourselves a hand.”
Through this volunteer-driven effort (in addition to 696 volunteers, the Friends has two paid employees), the group reported a productive year in 2015.

2015 highlights
Among the more notable MST accomplishments:

  • 13 miles of new trail were officially designated part of the MST. That number doesn’t include trail built but awaiting the state’s blessing. (The MST is technically a State Park; before a section is officially designated MST, it must receive the state’s imprimatur.)
  • Four miles of new trail were added in Alamance County, bringing to 8 the number of continuous miles of MST along the Haw River above Interstate 40, and 12 miles total along the Haw.
  • The National Park Service granted permission for primitive campsites along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is significant: the MST spends roughly 300 miles along the Parkway. Currently, legal camping options along the way are spotty at best, nearly non-existent in winter. Campsites are crucial to the trail’s mission as a backpacking destination.
  • More trail was added in the Elkin Valley, bringing to 11 the number of miles opened in the past 3 years. This is part of a stretch that will link Stone Mountain State Park with Pilot Mountain State Park.
  • The Friends completed its series of 18 hiking guides for the trail.

Of all the trail’s 2015 achievements, two bode particularly well for the trail and its future.

Private landowner support increasing

As is the case with any long trail, it’s near impossible to build it entirely on public land. In the mountains, the MST spends nearly all its time on National Park Service land (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway) or National Forest Service (Pisgah) lands. That’s largely why the high country contains the highest percentage of completed trail.  Move into the Piedmont, however, and the land makeup changes. Here, too, the sections that are completed are largely on public land: Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock and Eno River state parks; Falls Lake State Recreation Area; the City of Raleigh. To bridge those gaps the trail must cross private land. Private landowners tend to be understandably skeptical about letting strangers tromp across their land. Often, what earns their trust is a friendly and enthusiastic point person who can put their concerns to rest.

Enter Bill Blackley.  Blackley is a retired physician and Governing Group Chairperson for the Elkin Valley Trails Association. His group has the challenge of linking the MST at Stone Mountain to the west with Pilot Mountain on land that is mostly private. In three years, the group has built 11 miles of trail, plus a number of sizable bridges. Blackley is every economic development agency’s dream: someone not only with vision but with the energy and salesmanship to get it done. In a 5-minute appeal bearing 45 minutes worth of information, he not only covered every mile of new trail built, but range of facts, from the fact that Budget Travel named Elkin one of the Top 10 Coolest Towns in America, to the fact the trail passes a winery and an ice cream shop, and that his home town would host the 2017 MST annual meeting.
“There’s huge progress being made with private landowners in the Elkin Valley, Friends of the MST President Steve Metcalf told the gathering.  As more private landowners embrace the trail, an increasing number are likely to follow.

More camping areas
One of two standing ovations at Saturday’s meeting was reserved for a surprised Jim Ward. Ward owns land along Falls Lake, along the trail. He was approached by the Friends about building a small, primitive campsite on his property. At the time, there were just two places to camp along the 60-mile stretch of trail. (Ideally, there would be 5 or 6, roughly one every 10 or 12 miles.)
Sure, said Ward, a campsite sounds fine.  After being presented with a plaque by Jeff Brewer, the Friends’ founding board president, he was asked to say a few words.  Sill appearing surprised by the fuss, he thought a moment, then said, “Hope you enjoy it. Come on out sometime.”  Just as hard a campsite sell have been public land agencies.

“I don’t know if you remember,” said Chris Baranski with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission after also receiving a plaque, “but when you first presented the idea of building a campsite I said there was no way.”  Last year, the WRC allowed a primitive site to open on its land on Falls Lake near the Hickory Hill Boat Ramp. A second site is being planned near Possum Track Road.  Perhaps the biggest breakthrough is with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Currently, camping is allowed only at a handful of seasonal campgrounds along the MST. Kate Dixon, the Friends Executive Director, told the group that Parkway officials have now granted permission for campsites along the way.

The curative powers of a long walk

Most folks familiar with the MST appreciate the restorative values of hiking a long trail. But possibly not as much as one particular group.  “Years ago, soldiers returning home from battle did so by taking a long march, which could take a month or more,” Sharon Smith, the event’s keynote speaker, told the group. “That gave them time to process what they’d been through.
“Today,” she said, “there’s no transition time. You could be on the battlefield one day, watching your buddy get killed next to you, then be on a plane and back home with your kids 48 hours later.”  That transitional time, she said, is what the Warrior Hike  project is about. (In fact, it’s what drove the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, to hike the trail after returning home from World War II.)

In the first Gulf War, Smith was a combat medic in the Marines. She later served in Iraq. She developed a keen appreciation for transitional time, participating with Warrior Hike on its first hike, on the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with the group last year. In 2014, she joined the elite list of 62 hikers who have completed the trail since Allen de Hart and Alan Householder became the first in 1997. On the trail, Smith is known as MamaGoose.  MamaGoose was taken by her hike of the MST, especially with the fact that through the coastal plain it touches four military bases. So taken that she convinced WarriorHike founder Sean Gobin to add it to WarriorHike’s list of seven trail venues. The first WarriorHike on the MST is expected to start in September and take participants three months to complete.  “Twenty-two vets commit suicide daily,” Smith said, underscoring the need for WarriorHike. “Earl and Sean discovered one of the alternatives.”
A long walk in the woods.