NORTH CAROLINA — A hiking trail that stretches from one side of the Tarheel state to the other is turning 42 next month.
The Mountains to Sea Trail will be celebrating its anniversary Sept. 6-8 with Birthday Hike that will feature 33 guided hikes and connects 27 trail towns for the anniversary event.
The MST is an official part of the North Carolina Parks system which covers 1,175 miles of trail from the Great Smoky Mountains to the sandy beaches of the Outer Banks. But this trail is more than just mileage, it’s also about people.
“There are so few trails like ours where you have the mountains and you’re hiking up the Outer Banks and you’re hiking up Topsail Island. We are such a beautiful diverse state just to have all those experiences in one trail is pretty phenomenal,” Brown said.
“Something different about this trail is that you’re going into communities and meeting people in towns along the trail through North Carolina,” said Betsy Brown, Outreach Coordinator for MST. “It’s more of a cultural introduction to places that they might have not spent time in before.”
NCSU Vice Chancellor Emeritus Jerry Barker can vouch that the MST indeed is different, having hiked the entire stretch over the course of a few years.
Barker said that during that time, he racked up an average of 14 miles a day during “62 days of hiking, biking and paddling” by the point he had completed over 80% of the entire trail.
“I definitely saw more of North Carolina than ever before, and in a different way than speeding down a highway,” Barker told NSJ. “I biked about 100 miles, walked 200 miles along rural roadways, paddled about 160 miles and was on almost 600 miles of beautiful natural trail.”
The trail is broken into 18 segments, each with a guide, mileage, tips and difficulty ranking that can be found on the MST website. Barker utilized the segments to complete his hike.
“At age 65 I knew it would be very challenging to thru-hike the trail, carrying a pack and being gone from home for extended periods, so I started a section-hike,” Barker said. “Section hiking allowed me to hit the trail when convenient in my schedule, when the weather was pleasant, and when friends could join me.”
Trail updates are also available for free on the MST website as well as a Google interactive map of the trail.
Barker said that some of his favorite spots included treks near the Blue Ridge Parkway, rock-hopping along rugged Harper Creek, and walking the beach at Ocracoke with lots of sea birds and dolphins in the breakers.
According to Brown, MST has a partnership with REI and their app called the “Hiking Project Online” which helps hikers stay on the trail. In addition to trail guides and online maps, people called Trail Angels are out there along the way to help.
“They can help in so many ways,” said Brown. “They could help shuttle you places, they can help you by letting you camp in their yard, they can help you do your laundry, they’ll feed you, they’ll do whatever it takes to help you get on that trail.”
“The great thing about it is they love doing it, they love the hikers, they have great experiences, and we just have some lovely amazing folks who love supporting hikers,” Brown said. “For whatever reason Trail Angels just love being supportive and we hear great stories of interactions with them.”
The trail was first proposed in 1977, and in 1997 Alan de Hart founded the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The MST coordinated with over 70 different land managers across the state and works alongside state agencies like the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation to maintain the trail.
Friends of the Mountain to Sea Trail is member-funded 501(c)3 organization, so donations are the main source of revenue and the organization relies on and credits their volunteers for much of the hands-on work of maintaining the trail.
“We have about 1,200 members so far and we’re constantly growing with people who support the trail,” said Brown. “Obviously, we need financial support but people also give their time as a volunteer and they’ll put in their voice when we are starting to build Trail in new areas.”
Brown said they’re credibly fortunate to have received a grant from Duke Energy to help with the new crescent section of the trail they are trying to build in the southeastern area of the state near the Neuse River.