A key eight-mile section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) was recently completed, offering backpackers a 350-mile-long trail experience in and near North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is the Tarheel State’s longest trail, spanning 1,175 miles from the state’s mountainous western border to the Atlantic Ocean. The trail boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes in the state, crossing 6,000-foot-tall peaks, massive granite domes and tall sand dunes as it winds its way west to east. Work on the trail began 41 years ago and continues today with nearly 500 miles still to be constructed. The eight-mile “missing link,” part of a 47-mile section known as Segment 1, was completed this past August, allowing thru-hikers to now hike between Clingmans Dome and Stone Mountain State Park.
The Mountain-to-Sea Trail begins on Clingmans Dome, inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the Tennessee border, heads south through the park, then follows the Blue Ridge Parkway as it heads northeast. But the missing link required hikers to follow several miles of roads, navigating around the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Qualla Boundary as the trail exited the national park.
Development of the missing link took decades to complete because of the difficulty of finding a route through the Qualla Boundary on Cherokee land and along the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kate Dixon, executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said that completion of the trail came about through decades of negotiations with the Cherokee and route-surveying along the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway conducted by the National Park Service. Now, thru-hikers can avoid several miles of road walking. “It’s exciting to have the route all linked in the mountains,” she said. “We’re hoping people start hiking the mountains section as a thru-hike all unto itself, and we’re working to increase the camping opportunities along that 350-mile stretch to make thru-hiking easier.”
Jennifer Pharr Davis, a record-setting long-distance hiker, author and speaker, thinks the mountainous portion of the MST is ripe for thru-hikers. “With this new section of trail complete, the mountain section of the MST will be established as one of the preeminent hiking trails in the country,” she said.
As the Mountains-to-Sea Trail makes its way across the mountains, it encounters Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet), the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, and Linville Gorge, one of the deepest and most dramatic canyons in the eastern United States. The new section of trail begins on the southern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and passes through the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Qualla Boundary on a gravel road for three miles, then follows the Blue Ridge Parkway, traversing two parkway tunnels and brief but scenic parkway road walks. The new section completes Segment 1 of the MST, which goes past Mingus Mill, a historic corn mill that’s still in operation; Waterrock Knob, a rocky outcropping that represents the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway; and the Mile High Campground inside Qualla Boundary, which is known to be frequented by elk.
“It’s a beautiful section of the trail,” said thru-hiker Mary Turner, who recently completed the MST in a little more than two years of section hikes. “Even the short sections that follow the Blue Ridge Parkway are amazing because the road is so quiet on the southern end, and so scenic with all of the overlooks.”
The new section of trail passes through the Balsam Mountains, high-elevation peaks known for their alpine ecosystem full of large granite boulders and dense evergreen forests. The trail now represents the longest contiguous stretch of the MST in the state, followed by 105 miles of contiguous trail in the Triangle area near Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, and 80 miles of trail along the Outer Banks on the coast. So far, 101 thru-hikers have walked the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from end to end.
REI has partnered with Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail since 2006 when the nonprofit was awarded with a Stewards for the Environment Award of $20,000. Since then, REI has contributed an additional $105,000 in support of the development of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.