From Waterrock Knob east to Stone Mountain State Park, a distance of more than 300 miles, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is complete. From Waterrock Knob west to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the trail is missing a link of roughly 50 to 60 miles.
For the past several years, the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has been working on three possible links:
- Great Smoky Mountain Route, heading northeast through the park, then south. It would join the parkway northwest of Soco Gap, at Heintooga Road.
- River Valley Route, heading south on Smokies trails to Bryson City, where it would then follow the Tuckasegee River on roads paralleling the Tuck into Sylva. From there, it picks up mostly existing trail (and some road) on a challenging but rewarding climb up to the MST at Waterrock Knob.
- Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waterrock Knob to its conclusion in Cherokee, where it would pick up existing trail in the Smokies.
It’s original plan called for the MST to follow the Parkway into Cherokee. But, says Friends Executive Director Kate Dixon, there have been two problems with that plan. One, it would require hiking through five tunnels, which the National Park Service wasn’t crazy about, and two, it would cross land owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. In the past, the Cherokee were ambivalent about the trail. But Dixon says Chief Michael Hicks appears interested in the MST, and both the Friends and North Carolina State Parks (the MST is, technically, a state park) are optimistic.
Of the two other options, the Great Smoky Mountains route is, says Dixon, much more physically challenging, with lots of ups-and-downs. The River Route, as its name suggests, is, for the most part, less challenging as it follows the Tuckasegee River. (Less challenging, save for the last 6.2 miles as it climbs through Sylva’s Pinnacle Park to Waterrock Knob.) Both are in the 50- to 60-mile range, the Blue Ridge Route less than half that.
Even if the shorter Blue Ridge Parkway route comes to be, it won’t happen overnight. Trail building in that stretch will be some of the most daunting yet faced by trail volunteers, says Dixon.
As evidence, she points to the recent 2.2-mile connection from the Scotts Creek Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Waterrock Knob, a stretch built by volunteers from the Carolina Mountain Club.
“It is truly the most challenging trail built to date on the MST,” says Dixon. “You just can’t believe they moved some of those boulders.”
Stone Mountain to Elkin
Expect major additions this year on the MST between Stone Mountain State Park and the town of Elkin. Last year, says Dixon, the Elkin Valley Trails Association added 3.5 miles of trail, plus a pedestrian bridge in Elkin, and Dixon says they could add another 7-8 miles by the end of 2015.
“They’re just an amazing group,” says Dixon.
Expect the run of MST along the Haw in the Glencoe area to more than double within the year, says Dixon. Currently, about 3.5 miles of MST exists, starting about a mile above Glencoe. MST volunteers are in the process of adding more than four additional miles downstream (they held a workday weekend in early spring), which Dixon says should be done “hopefully next year.
“And,” she adds, “they’ll have a campsite.”
* * *
For more information on the route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, both existing and planned, visit the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website, here.