While out with the kids in the mountains, specifically the rim of the Linville Gorge, we came across no less than seven distinct long distance hiking parties. The first thought from the kids were they were out looking for Pokemon characters along the trail leading away from Table Rock Mountain.
While the newest craze is getting people out in droves walking and wandering combining social media, smart phone apps and the outdoors (did we finally come up with something that gets kids outside again?), I knew Pokemon Go was not the reason for these groups hiking along with backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.
The Mountain to Sea Trail, commonly abbreviated to MST, was officially given status by North Carolina’s General Assembly nearly 16 years ago, August 2, 2000 to be exact. The trail has since been a popular destination and through-fare for hikers not only in North Carolina but the Southeastern United States.
Beginning at Clingman’s Dome on the North Carolina/Tennessee border and traversing in a zig zag fashion across the state ending at the highest sand dune in the Eastern United State, Jockey’s Ridge, the MST also boasts the distinction of being the highest trail east of the Mississippi as it crosses Mount Mitchell at 6684 feet above sea level.
The trail has some unique features that offer a variety of challenges and accomplishments. Specifically, it has alternate routes along the way.
Part of the trail runs roadside in various areas. Another alternate route runs along the Neuse river. Because of this, a different experience of traversing the whole of North Carolina can be had by biking the road sections and kayaking or canoeing the Neuse river portion. Consider it the ultimate triathlon.
What is really fascinating is what sections of the state the MST encompasses, though. Leading from Clingman’s Dome, a portion of the trail is also part of the Appalachian Trail, which is the most hiked US trail for long distance hikers. The trail weaves through the mountains towards the already mentioned Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain in the eastern United States. It then follows part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is and has been the most visited unit of the National Park System every year since 1946 except for two years.
Leaving the Parkway, the trail then meanders towards the Linville Gorge, also known as the Grand Canyon of the East, and runs along the western rim. It next encounters Grandfather Mountain State Park as it continues northward (as starting from the west and heading towards the east).
A few more unique landmarks occur along the way as it sends the hiker by Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock, with beautiful stone outcrops that make picturesque landscapes. At this point the MST begins a series of watershed hikes eventually leading to the Falls Lake area near the Triangle.
This also marks the first of alternate routes. The first alternate route leads around Wake Forest, through Wilson County, between Kinston and Goldsboro and eventually to New Bern before rejoining the common trail.
The second alternate route begins in Clayton with the Neuse River portion of the trail that is a paddler’s paradise. A paddle down the Neuse and eventually the Pamlico rejoins the main common trail at the same location as the other alternate trail.
The main trail however, takes you further south around White Lake and towards the first encounter with the Atlantic at Surf City and then northward towards North Topsail beach before breaking back inland to Jacksonville.
After rejoining the two alternate routes, the trail leads to the outer banks from Cedar Island to Ocracoke and along the entire expanse until terminating at Jockey’s Ridge.
Six people have reported completing the MST so far in 2016, and 68 have reported finishing the trail from start to finish since its inception. A full thru-hike, as it is called when attempting to hike the trail from start to finish in one trip, may take as long as three to four months, but sections can be hiked and stitched to complete the full trail as well.
And due to the nature of the nearly 1100 mile trek, it is easy to find at least a portion of the trail nearby to plan a day or weekend trip.
You can find out more about the Mountain to Sea trail at www.NCMST.org.