Hiking with an Old Friend: Exploring the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, North Carolina's Long Distance Trail
It's always a surprise when I stumble across the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. This summer I will have lived in North Carolina for twenty years and through this whole time the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has been like an old friend who keeps popping up again - someone I knew and liked throughout my life but never got to know intimately even though we share interests and keep rubbing elbows over the years.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (frequently referred to as "MST") is a long-distance hiking trail in North Carolina that connects Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains on the western edge of the state to Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. The trail was proposed in 1977 by Howard Lee, who was then Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, and when work on the trail faltered in the mid-1990s the task of building the trail transitioned to the non-profit Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The trail officially became part of the North Carolina state park system in 2000. Over the past 40 years the trail has been slowly built across North Carolina and currently boasts 680 miles of trail and over 500 miles of connecting roads.
It is possible to thru-hike the MST - as the growing list of hikers who have completed the trail proves - although since the trail is still a work in progress it is changing every year. Officials with the state and the partner non-profit work to make the trail accessible through or around private lands and volunteers are building about 15 miles of trail per year, with the intent to eventually have a trail crossing the entirety of North Carolina that is completely away from roads.
For those not thru-hiking, the MST offers plenty of great section hikes and day hikes, often running alongside other established trails such as the Appalachian Trail, Art Loeb Trail, Neuse River Trail, and Neusiok Trail. It will surprise you as it winds along parks through Durham and Raleigh, always marked with a little white circle blaze.
Just as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is an old friend that I keep running into, I only started intentionally hiking the MST with an old friend. I reconnected with my friend Lisa at my NCSSM ten year reunion and she exclaimed that she was getting back into hiking and backpacking after doing outdoors activities as a Girl Scout before she gave it up in high school. One lunch date later and we were already planning all sorts of adventures!
Add in Ryder pup and Callie - a friend of Lisa's with a Golden Retriever with enough energy to put the craziest toddlers to shame - and a couple free days on the weekend and we were off on adventure! We've already tackled 20 miles or so and I can't wait to see what more adventures 2018 has in store for us.
Get there: The Mountains-to-Sea Trail spans North Carolina from the mountains to the sea (ha, duh). If you're thru-hiking the trail most people start at Clingmans Dome and hike east, though there's certainly nothing stopping you from starting at Jockey's Ridge and hiking west. Just know that if you do that you're hiking uphill instead of down. (Not that the trail is all downhill from west to east - mountaintops will make sure you've got plenty of elevation change to huff and puff over - but hey, at least you are starting from the highest points on the trail and working your way down - although fair warning: Mt. Mitchell is the tallest peak on the Eastern US and it's a nice little summit along the trail.)
Use the check boxes above to display interactive features on the map. Icons can be clicked for more information. Choose a segment to zoom to:
Start at western terminus (Clingmans Dome):
Start at eastern terminus (Jockey's Ridge):
Distance: There are over 680 miles of trail and about 500 miles of connecting paths via bike trails and roads.
Difficulty: Depends on what you're hiking. If you're thru-hiking this is difficult. Plan about 4 months on the trail with resupply drops. If you're section hiking or day hiking you could hit some very strenuous terrain in the mountains (including wilderness areas with minimal maintenance and blazing) to very easy terrain around towns.
Dog friendly? For the most part yes, but confirm that dogs are allowed in the area before you venture out to hike part of the trail.
Kid friendly? Technically anything is feasible (including thru-hiking a long distance trail with kids) but you have to know your kids and what they're capable of. There are plenty of easy day hikes through local parks that are extremely kid friendly if you want to explore day hikes near you.
What else can you do in the area? Explore all the wonderful things that North Carolina has to offer! We've got mountains, piedmont, coastal plains, and the Outer Banks - seriously, this trail sees it all!