- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003


The Mountains to Sea Trail is a long walk, and a lot more — a 900-mile-long monument to the kaleidoscope of North Carolina’s landscape.

One day, the completed path will snake through 37 counties, from Clingman’s Dome in the mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the coast. Right now, it’s less than half established, but hikers still can find plenty to appreciate from the mountains to the Sandhills to the sandy beaches.

“You have the potential to see all of the spectacular resources of the state, from the coastal plains to some of the highest mountains — or will have,” says Phil McKnelly, director of the state Division of Natural Resources. “There’s going to be basically something for everybody.”

The trail has its genesis in the North Carolina Trails System Act, which aimed to stitch together a cross-state footpath using land culled from federal, state and local governments as well as private property easements.

The path grew by bits and pieces through the 1980s and ‘90s. The Cape Hatteras Beach Trail was designated a section in 1982, paths along Falls Lake near Raleigh were added in 1987 and 1991, and dozens of miles in the mountains were included between 1991 and 1997.

Right now, the trail is most complete in the mountains and is little more than a mapmaker’s dream in the east. To walk the entire route means taking a hodgepodge of footpaths, streets and backroad bike routes. Only five people have “through-hiked” — backwoods parlance for traversing the whole trail in one trip.

When it might be finished is anyone’s guess, according to Jeff Brewer, president of the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, a private group coordinating volunteer efforts to help build the route.

“It takes time, patience and a lot of red tape,” he says. “I think I’ll be real lucky if I see it complete in my lifetime, and I’m 26. It’s a slow-going process, dealing with all the land agencies, but we’re doing the best we can.”

In the meantime, there are plenty of finished sections to pique hikers’ interest and give a glimpse of what the trail may become one day.

Trails near Lakes Brandt and Townsend at Greensboro and Falls Lake north of Raleigh offer hikers several easygoing day hike options and are a good choice for families.

On a more strenuous level, the longest continuous section of designated trail — almost 230 miles — runs through the Pisgah National Forest, tracing the Blue Ridge Parkway from Balsam Gap to Blowing Rock.

The second-longest finished section — and the first to be designated part of the trail — is in the Outer Banks, running 112 miles from the Cedar Island Ferry to Jockey’s Ridge.

Other small designated segments cut through Cherokee, Ashe, Alleghany, Durham, Wayne, Craven, Pamlico and Carteret counties.

The most incomplete area is in the east. There, the project got a boost from the devastating floods of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and the decision to use land that formerly had been residential along the Neuse River for recreation.

Interest among outdoor enthusiasts has built since 2000, when Allen de Hart came out with his guidebook, “Hiking North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail,” which maps and describes the trail in painstaking detail.

“It’s amazing to me since the guidebook came out how many people have started section-hiking it, and even through-hiking it,” Mr. Brewer says.

“Without that book, people were totally clueless on where to go,” he says.

Mr. De Hart and Alan Householder were the first to through-hike the trail, in 1997.

This year, Asheville residents Nadja Miller and Katie Senechal became the fourth and fifth through-hikers, starting April 2 and reaching the Outer Banks June 28.

The two college students decided more than a year ago that they wanted to do a through-hike somewhere, Miss Miller says, but “the Appalachian Trail was too long for our schedule, with school and all. So we had heard of the MST, and it was a good length for us to hike.”

“We thought the change of terrain would be interesting, in the mountains, in the Piedmont and ending on the coast on the beach,” she says.

Though disappointed by the amount of walking that had to be done on the shoulder of backroads, Miss Miller says the route benefits from passing through scores of small towns.

Determined to stick to their hikers’ routine, Miss Miller and Miss Senechal foraged for places to sleep instead of renting hotel rooms.

“Every night we’d have no idea where we’d put up our tent. We’d knock on people’s doors if we didn’t find a secluded place to put up our tent,” Miss Miller says.

“We met farmers, people in towns, who let us sleep in their fields or gave us hay sheds to sleep in.”

At a roadside hot dog stand in Cove City, they met a group of workers from a trucking repair company in Trenton, near New Bern, who fed them, then let them use a shower in the shop and sleep on the floor “next to the semis,” she says. “They adopted us.”

“That’s the big thing about this trip for me. … People are still very hospitable and generous to travelers,” Miss Miller says. “It’s a good proof that you can still travel adventurously.”

Trail information: Visit the official Mountains to Sea Trail Web site, www.ils.unc.edu/parkproject/trails/m2c/home.html or the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail Web site, www.ncmst.org.

By phone, for coastal region trails, call 919/751-2792; central region trails, 919/846-9996; mountain region trails, 828/251-6784; state trails coordinator, 919/846-9995.

Visit North Carolina: For information on accommodations and other attractions, check out the state’s tourism Web site, www.visitnc.com, or call 800/VISIT-NC.

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