- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - One day, parks officials say hikers will be able to step on a trail near one of Appalachia’s highest peaks and follow an off-road path that ranges from leafy to sandy all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Next year, officials hope to make more headway on the 1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea State Trail by commissioning a master plan, and a nonprofit group is working on a comprehensive hiker’s guide. So far, 600 miles of trail has been completed, but it could take years to piece together the rest.

The nonprofit group Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail says as many as 10 hikers per year are already completing the journey by following country roads where trails haven’t been built.

“You see such a diversity of not only natural landscapes, but you go right through towns,” said executive director Kate Dixon.

The group plans to finish chapters of the guide covering for more than half the route by February. Key to the guide is identifying camp sites and other lodging at regular intervals along the route from Clingman’s Dome to the Outer Banks.

Heather Housekeeper, a 32-year-old Asheville resident, hiked the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail in 2011 and 2014 while she developed and promoted a book on edible plants, taking 12 weeks to complete it each time.

Housekeeper, who’s also completed the Appalachian Trail, said seeing towns and interacting with locals is one of the main draws of the newer trail.

“People see you walking down the road with your giant backpack and hiking sticks, and people want to ask what you’re doing,” she said. “There are so many people who invited me, let me spend the night, fed me.”

Dixon says about 15 miles of trail are added each year, and the group cited extensions in Burlington and Elkin planned for 2015. Existing trail has been pieced together by state and local governments, nonprofits, volunteers and private landowners.

“We’ve had to be more creative. To what extent can we use local government help? To what extent can we use land conservancy help? And how can we get people to buy into this project in more creative ways?” said Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The department announced this month that it hired a consultant to develop a master plan for $120,000 in 2015 and that it would seek public input at meetings.

The state has purchased parcels of land for the trail in recent years, but doesn’t have a set budget for the overall project, Peek said.

The trail’s origins date to the 1970s when the state created a trails advisory board, and the idea of a trail spanning the state was proposed in 1977. Sections were designated starting in the 1980s with public land on the coast, followed by mountain sections and patches in between.

North Carolina is already famous for the section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through several counties. Elsewhere, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio are among places that have developed statewide trails.

Philip Werner, an experienced hiker who edits the site http://sectionhiker.com , said such trails can be just as appealing as routes that stick to the mountains.

“You have to understand that hikers like hiking new trails (both new trails and places they’ve never been before) more than anything,” he said in an email. “The beauty of a trail that goes from the mountains to the sea is that you get to experience an evolving landscape and different ecosystems at a pace that your mind can absorb and connect with.”

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