Every state wants a long-distance hiking trail to show off the best of its natural features. North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail starts atop Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies, then weaves in and out of the Blue Ridge Parkway before heading east all the way to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks. Gov. Bev Perdue has proclaimed October MST Month.
I'm walking the trail in sections over a period of two years. Marked by white circles, it offers a unique trip of about 1,000 miles, reaching high peaks with outstanding views, green valleys, rushing streams, farmland and sand dunes. In its current form, the MST is half on trails and half on back roads that can also be done on a bike. But since the trail isn’t going to be finished in my lifetime, I might as well walk it now.
To date, only 18 hikers have completed the MST. At this stage of development, the challenge is comparable to hiking the Appalachian Trail in the 1930s. The actual walking is simple compared with the logistics. With no shelters and few legal camping areas, backpackers have to be creative in finding places to stay for the night. Almost no services cater to MST backpackers: no hostels, shuttle service or all-you-can-eat buffets. There are few forums, websites, blogs or published diaries and next to no mythology of walking the trail — all essentials for those planning a long-distance hike.
The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a nonprofit formed to make the vision a reality, organizes volunteers to build and maintain the MST statewide. They recently opened 25 new miles of trail east of Boone (see http://avl.mx/0m).
Even the Smokies section isn’t complete, and in fact, it’s the subject of much discussion. From Clingmans Dome, the trail currently heads north on the A.T., eventually reaching Mingus Mill on Newfound Gap Road. After that, it was supposed to go through the Qualla Boundary, but there haven't been serious negotiations with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee for years.
Instead, hikers intent on doing the whole trail have walked the Blue Ridge Parkway itself, including negotiating five tunnels — not the safest maneuver. The Park Service has suggested a route that follows the Benton MacKaye Trail and comes out at Polls Gap. Besides showing off the best of the North Carolina side of the Smokies, this route keeps hikers off the road awhile longer.
The MST continues along the Blue Ridge Parkway for about 300 miles, connecting parks and forests like a string of pearls. It climbs Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Eastern U.S. The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is considered the most difficult section, with little water and rugged climbs. I did it in September with two other experienced hikers, and we mistakenly veered off the MST onto an obscure trail without any blazes. Fortunately, we were dropping into the gorge so quickly that we realized our mistake before we’d descended all the way to the Linville River.
The MST keeps returning to the Parkway until the road leaves North Carolina north of Stone Mountain State Park. Finally, after many miles of road walking or biking through the Piedmont, the MST enters Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. A toll ferry ride delivers hikers to Ocracoke; after walking through the quaint town, they enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. From there, hikers simply follow the beach to Nags Head, where they enter Jockey's Ridge State Park.
In 1977, Howard Lee, then secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, proposed a long-distance trail for North Carolina. Recently, he reflected on his role in its development: “This trail embodies a vision which, little by little, comes more into focus each year. There is also a sense of pride, held by citizens and our leaders, of what is best about North Carolina.”
The original vision for the MST was not through-hiking or even walking the whole trail in sections. Rather, it was to be the trail in your backyard. But if there’s a line on a map, there’ll be hikers determined to pursue it.
— Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein blogs at hikertohiker.com/thishikinglife.