MST.SignImagine a transportation corridor running 1,150 miles across North Carolina, yet existing in anonymity to most residents of the state.
“The Mountains-to-Sea Trail still remains the best-kept secret in North Carolina,” according to Howard Lee, the man who, as a state senator, launched the trail with a speech some 38 years ago.
Lee was speaking to the 17th Annual Meeting of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail held Saturday at Elon University. His comments came as part of a panel discussion advising the assembled on how to better advocate for the trail.
His comments are true — at least they were as of Saturday. But the tide is quickly changing, as evidenced by the 229 who registered for the annual gathering, “by far the biggest attendance we’ve ever had,” said Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The Friends is a nearly all volunteer group that’s driving the trail across the state.
For those of you not familiar with the MST, a quick primer. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is an ambitious effort to bridge the coast and the mountains of North Carolina with a foot trail. At present, 640 miles of the trail are complete; the current route for the trail calls for it to run about 1,000 miles, from Clingman’s Dome atop the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee line, to Jockey’s Ridge on the lip of the Atlantic. (For the portions that aren’t complete, the MST has an alternate route on mostly two-lane country roads; including that route, the trail currently runs 1,150 miles).

The MST blossoms

IMG_6720The notion of the MST remained just that for the first couple decades after Lee proposed the statewide trail. In the mid-1990s, trail guru Allen deHart revived the concept creating the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. In 2008, the Friends hired its first employee, Kate Dixon, as its executive director. Dixon came to the position after helping to launch the Triangle Land Conservancy in the 1980s.
That the trail remains something of a secret has more to do with the lag time of public awareness catching up to reality. Consider how far the trail has come in just the past few years:

  • Since 2008, 150 miles have been converted from road to trail.
  • Three hundred miles of continuous trail now exist in the mountains.
  • Long stretches of the MST now run through two of the state’s metropolitan areas: about 100 miles in the Triangle and 20 along Greensboro’s Watershed Lakes.
  • More camping spots (the trail is intended to be backpackable) are beginning to appear along the trail. Two spots were added along Falls Lake last year ,and five are in the process of opening along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Boone and one along a greenway stretch of the MST in Raleigh.
  • Just the sheer number of volunteers helping to build the trail assures that the MST will soon be a poorly kept secret. In 2014, more than 800 volunteers logged over 29,000 hours building and maintaining trail. (That, according to the MST, saved the trail some $615,315 dollars in labor costs, a figure Mike Murphy, the new director of North Carolina State Parks of which the MST is a part, called low.)
  • Towns along the MST are beginning to compete for a “Trail Town” designation that doesn’t yet exist.

The MST: Eastward ho!

Saturday's annual meeting was the largest in the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail's 17-year history.
Saturday’s annual meeting was the largest in the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail’s 17-year history.

Another big breakthrough in 2014: creation of an alternate route from Raleigh to the coast. For years, the trail was seen traveling along the Neuse River to New Bern, then on through the Croatan National Forest (via the Neusiok Trail) to the Outer Banks. That route has been stymied by land access issues (much of the land bordering the river is privately owned).
In 2014, a new land route was proposed. Dubbed the Cape Fear Crescent, the new route takes advantage of state game lands (Suggs Mill Pond, Whitehall Plantation, Angola Bay, Holly Shelter), Bladin Lakes State Forest, and lands held by local land trusts. (The Neuse path would still be available as a paddle option, and there would be a bike option as well.) See a map of the MST from Clayton east, here.
Further helping to expose the trail: Ten hikers completed the entire MST in 2014.
Their stories, shared in an afternoon panel discussion, underscore why the MST’s secret status is soon to fall.

MST selling points
Earlier in the meeting, keynote speaker Tom Earnhardt, writer and host of UNC-TV’s “Exploring North Carolina,” described the biodiversity of North Carolina — from its 450 species of trees and 8,000 mushrooms to its temperate rain forests and northern boreal forests — as “a diversity everyone else dreams about.”
While the hikers all spoke of numerous moments when they were struck by the trail’s beauty, that’s not what left the most lasting impression.
“The people,” said Heather Housekeeper, who hiked the trail for a second time, to promote the book she wrote on her first crossing, “A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.” “That’s a large part of what makes this hike.”
“You don’t realize how great walking on roads is until you meet the people who will give everything to you,” said Ben Banick, who completed the trail with Hannah Krureger.
“People will buy you lunch, they’ll give you a ride,” added Sharon “Mama Goose: Smith, an Iraq war veteran who hiked on behalf of the Warrior Hike program.
“It restores your faith in humanity,”
Scenery and serenity: traits of a path everyone will want to take.

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For more on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, visit its website, here.