It is hard to believe that the route of the Mountains-to-Sea
Trail through the Western North Carolina Mountains still isn’t settled after 35
years. The MST starts at Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and
goes to Mingus Mill – and then what? It’s a long history of trying several
routes that didn’t work for various reasons.
The original route was going to take hikers from the Smokies
through the Qualla Boundary and the town of Cherokee. If one of the goals of
the MST is to show off what is unique about North Carolina, the Cherokee nation
is right on top there. But that was not to be. The Cherokee never responded to
any overture from the state to discuss the MST. That door closed.
So hikers walked the Blue Ridge Parkway and went through
five tunnels – not the safest thing to do. Recently the Parkway declared that
you shouldn’t walk through the tunnels and Friends of the MST had to come up
with alternate route. They did the best they could in a short amount of time
but it’s not pretty. This road walk is not a permanent solution.
To start the conversation on a permanent route, Kate Dixon,
Executive Director of Friends of the MST, and Board member Don Walton held a
series of meetings in Sylva. The photo above is of Jim Hallsey, retired Chief Ranger of NC State Parks who first suggested the idea of the MST, Don Walton and Kate Dixon.
They wanted to engage hikers on how the MST should
traverse through the far west of WNC before it reaches the 140 miles that the
Carolina Mountain Club section maintains.
After a couple of meetings, eight alternatives were
discussed, driven, and mapped.
The first two routes stay in the Smokies until
Heintooga Road. They’re a variation of what Sharon and I hiked when we did the
MST. Easy, peasy with all the comforts of the Smokies.
For some reason, Friends of the MST
thinks it’s too difficult for the average hiker. But even these routes are not
a sure thing. Officials in the Smokies made it clear that to approve the route,
there would have to be dedicated volunteers to maintain the trails and campsites
and eliminate illegal camping in the National Park on the path of the MST.
Most of the other routes leave the Smokies at Deep Creek
entrance – just one night of backpacking for the average hiker. You’d walk
through Bryson City, a cool town, and walk on back roads and on a future
greenway to Dillsboro and Sylva. That would allow hikers to interact with
townspeople and let them know about the MST. They could resupply, get a shower
and a beer. And we know how important that is.
But then what? You might walk through Pinnacle Park, site of the old Sylva watershed, and now protected. Look at a hike description in Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Then you’d go up
to Waterrock Knob, hooking up with the CMC section. Or you might stay low and
not go back up to the Parkway until MST east of Balsam Gap.
What!! That would
invalidate all the trail building that CMC has done for years to get to
A group of CMC maintainers met with Kate, Don and Darrell
McBane of the State Trails Program (shown to the left) to let them know that they’ve been working
for over 15 years through very difficult terrain. Should they stop now and walk
Of course not. How could anyone face a group of men and
women with an average age of 70 who know how to wield a Pulaski? Most 30 year
olds are in poorer condition than these trail builders and don’t know what a
Still, it’s a long, long way from Asheville to Heintooga
Road and CMC is not going any further west. Friends of the MST needs
maintainers in Jackson, Swain, and Haywood counties to pick up the load. Can