2016 is a big year for the outdoor world. We celebrate both the National Park Service Centennial and the North Carolina State Park Centennial. Happy Anniversary to both of them. If you walk the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, you’ll visit almost all the national parks in North Carolina and many state parks.Let’s start your visit.
The MST starts on Clingmans Dome in the Smokies, the highest point in Tennessee. The trail can only go down from here.
Miles away, on Deep Creek Trail, you can stop for the night at Campsite #57, Horace Kephart’s last permanent camp. Horace Kephart (1862–1931) was a writer and activist who advocated for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kephart has been called the John Muir of the East and the savior of the Smokies. He moved to the Southern Appalachians in 1904, when he was 42, looking for a “back of beyond.” Several of Horace Kephart’s books have never been out of print since they were first published in the early 1900s. You may recognize “Camping and Woodcraft” and “Our Southern Highlanders”.”
A few months after his death, the local Boy Scouts formed the Horace Kephart Troop and set the millstone marker on Deep Creek. It reads: “On this spot Horace Kephart—Dean of American Campers and one of the Principal Founders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park pitched his last permanent camp.” Check out more about Horace Kephart at http://www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections/Kephart/
Whether you hike the Great Smoky Mountains route or the Valley route, you’ll pass the millstone. The guide to the Great Smoky Mountains route explains how to find the millstone.
Starting at Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the MST and the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) shares about three miles.
Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point on the A.T., though the MST will reach a higher altitude. Here the environment is more like that of Canada than the southeastern United States. It’s cold, wet, and foggy much of the time. Fraser firs and red spruce, informally known as balsams, dominate the landscape. Clingmans Dome is one of the few areas where Fraser firs grow wild, though they’re cultivated on Christmas tree farms at lower altitudes.
On Clingmans Dome, the forest looks like a ghost town instead of a green sea of trees. The balsam wooly adelgid, a non-native sucking insect, attacked Fraser firs, making them appear like giant matchsticks. The insects, which look like white fuzzy cotton candy, were first noticed in the late 1950s on trees perched on mountaintops. Within a few years, most Fraser firs were dead. The MST climbs Little Mount Collins and Mount Collins, both with wooded tops. A view spot was cut by the park, but mostly you walk between two sets of trees. At a trail intersection, the MST leaves the A.T., crosses Clingmans Dome Road, and heads down Fork Ridge Trail.
The Blue Ridge Parkway meanders through the Appalachian Mountains, from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia at milepost 0 to the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, North Carolina at milepost 469. It’s a “drive awhile, stop a while” scenic road which also incorporates about 300 MST miles.
On its western end, hikers climb to Waterrock Knob (MP 451.2) at 6,000 feet to see the majestic Blue Ridge scenery. The MST section, completed by Carolina Mountain Club at the end of 2015, is rugged, rocky, and wet.
Contrast this with a walk through Moses Cone Memorial Park (MP 294), the summer home of Moses and Bertha Cone. Moses Cone was the archetypal self-made German-Jewish businessman, who went from door to door salesman to the Denim King. He looked up to his social betters and tried to emulate their style. You can compare his mansion, Flat Top Manor, to a small Biltmore Estate. The carriage roads make for an easy stroll, a respite from the constant up and down hiking in the woods.
However, the Blue Ridge Parkway is not a commuter road. If the weather is bad or the road needs repairs, the park closes sections of the road. For the latest view on the status of the Blue Ridge Parkway, see this link.
As the MST moves east weaving in and out of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it takes a detour to Mt. Mitchell.
At 6,684 feet, Mt. Mitchell is the highest point east of Mississippi and therefore higher than Clingmans Dome in the Smokies.
Created in 1915, Mt. Mitchell State Park was the first state park in North Carolina and an inspiration to other states to protect their land.
The MST goes past the site of historic Camp Alice, a tourist camp, built at the end of a rail line to Mount Mitchell in 1914. Tourists boarded the Mt. Mitchell Railroad, which took three hours to go from Mt. Mitchell Station, in present-day Black Mountain, to Camp Alice, a half-mile below the summit of Mt. Mitchell. They then had to hike to the top of Mt. Mitchell. Camp Alice, with its dining hall and tents, was an overnight passenger destination. However, once logging stopped in 1922, the railroad was no longer profitable and closed down, along with Camp Alice. Unfortunately, nothing is left of the site other than a flat surface.
Now the average visitor drives to the top of the mountain and parks at the visitor center and enjoys a snack. To make it easier for people to get a great view, the state placed an observation deck, only a couple of hundred feet from the parking area. On a clear day, you can see forever. On a bad weather day, you go up just to say you’ve been to the top and move on through the spruce and fir forest. From here, the trail can only go down.
You’ve walked over three hundred miles on or close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now the MST is near to the Virginia border, as far north as it will go. At Devils Garden Overlook (MP 235.7), the MST is at over 3,400 feet – you’ll never be as high on the trail as you are now. Then the MST plunges down and soon reaches Stone Mountain State Park.
Soon the view of Stone Mountain hits you. The mountain dome rises seven hundred feet from the valley floor. The rock, a granite pluton, was formed beneath the earth’s surface by molten lava. The MST doesn’t go up to the top, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a short diversion on a park trail to the top. Though you don’t have to scramble up, many rock climbers take the direct route to the summit, using the cracks in the rock to scale the mountain.
The park is proud of its moonshine past and the exhibits at the visitor center explain how to make whiskey. The area provided everything needed for quality moonshine whiskey including swift-flowing creeks with soft water, hardwood trees for fuel and good bottomland to grow corn. You’ll pass the visitor center, which displays all the paraphernalia including a still and barrels. Moonshiners used back roads through Stone Mountain State Park to bring their liquor to Sparta, the big town around here. However, you’ll walk out through the front entrance. You’re now in the Piedmont.
The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (OVVI) traces the route of a Revolutionary War militia as it made its way to Kings Mountain in 1780. Though it stretches over 330 miles over four states (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina), it only has 87 miles of path; the rest is on marked highways.
On the MST, the OVVI pops up in unexpected places. I encountered a small bit of trail on a pleasant forest road after descending Dobson Knob before Stone Mountain State Park. However, the major encounter is in Elkin, the start of the eastern leg of OVVI. The Surry County Patriot Militia left from Elkin on September 27, 1780 and marched to the McDowell House near Morganton to meet their western allies from Virginia. They then all gathered at Kings Mountain, South Carolina to fight the British – and win.
Elkin is destined to be a big player in the success of the MST in the area. But to me, the most amazing thing about Elkin is their people. I’ve met men who can trace their ancestry back to the American Revolution. Their great-great … I lost track of the number of greats … were Overmountain Victory men.
The MST is now squarely in the Piedmont, but the views keep coming. In Pilot Mountain State Park, it’s not just the absolute altitude that counts – it’s the difference between the mountain and valley floor. We’re going up to Little and Big Pinnacles with outstanding views. Big Pinnacle is the highest point of Pilot Mountain. Its wedding cake top can be seen for miles, as it rises 1,400 feet above the valley floor. Though you can’t walk to the top of Big Pinnacle, you can encircle it. As you slab down Little Pinnacle, you’re practically within kissing distance of the rock formations.
Weathering and erosion have produced the two prominent pinnacles of the park. The mountain is all that remains of the ancient Sauratown Mountains, along with the rocky escarpments of Hanging Rock, which we’ll be coming to soon. Big Pinnacle and Little Pinnacle are part of a monadnock that has survived for millions of years while the surrounding peaks have eroded down to a rolling plain.
The mountain was called Jomeokee by the Saura Indians, which means great guide or pilot. The mountain guided Native Americans and early European hunters along a north-south path. It will also guide you when you see it first appearing ahead of you on US 52.
As with so many parks (national and state), the land was privately owned. W.L. Spoon first commercialized the mountain by putting a wooden staircase to the top of Big Pinnacle in 1929, charging an entrance fee, 25 cents for pedestrians and 50 cents for motorists. J.W. Beasley, the next owner, put in a swimming pool and improved the road. When J.W. Beasley died, his widow sold the land to the state and it became a state park in 1968. The state removed the ladders from Big Pinnacle. Today, you can walk around it on the Jomeokee Trail or admire its top from Little Pinnacle.
After 21 miles on the Sauratown Trail, the MST enters Hanging Rock State Park, one of the highlights of the trail. A short side trail takes you to Tory’s Den, home of about a hundred British sympathizers who lost their property to American Patriots. I don’t know how a hundred men could have stayed in this cave. Maybe, they just stored their gunpowder here and camped out around the cave.
The park has all the amenities of a 1950s resort including a lake, beach house, and well-appointed cabins. As you climb Moore’s Wall, boulders and rock walls keep you from rushing through this section. Finally, you reach Moore’s Knob at 2,600 feet. An observation tower allows a 360-degree view: the Winston-Salem skyline, Big Pinnacle on Pilot Mountain and even the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. Again, the MST can only go down from here. Going east, this is the last place that you can call a mountain.
The trail comes down on beautifully crafted stone steps and skirts the lake. Take a dip in the lake (in season) before going into the visitor center. The MST leads to two waterfalls, Hidden Falls and Window Falls. The window is a small hole through the rock, created by water freezing and thawing. You may not want to miss these falls since they are the last true waterfalls on the MST. East of here, the land is just too flat.
When you reach Greensboro, take a short diversion off the MST, and go to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. A Revolutionary War battle occurred here, which technically was a victory for the British but at a high cost. The British Parliament asked, “How can we afford this war halfway around the world?”
However, you don’t have to understand war tactics – the Red stood here, the Blue stood there – to appreciate the park. Just walk the 2.5 miles of trails to check out all the monuments.
Nathanael Greene on a horse is the largest sculpture but there’s a memorial to the British as well. After all, we’re all friends now.
Imagine the fighting and the dead on this peaceful piece of ground. It seems flat to a hiker but the hills and streams contributed to heavy British losses.
Outside the visitor center, you’ll find the No North, No South memorial. Erected in 1903, this monument was an attempt to heal the wounds of the Civil War. During the Revolution, Americans had set aside their sectional differences. George Washington from Virginia led mostly northern troops. Nathanael Greene, a northerner from Rhode Island headed southern troops.
I’d always assumed that the first Revolutionary War National Park battlefield would be somewhere up north. But no… Congress established Guilford Courthouse as the first national park to preserve a Revolutionary War battlefield. Definitely worth a short detour.
The MST follows the Eno River downstream through Eno River State Park. You’re in Durham County, part of the busy Triangle area but you’d never know it walking here.
An old quarry now offers pleasant swimming. Rocks from this area were used to build I-85. After construction ended, the quarry filled with water, creating a four-acre pond. Then the trail follows the slow-moving Eno River, full of rocks and vegetation. In some places, you might expect to see a crocodile sticking its head out of the water.
Over thirty flour, textile, and gristmills used the river from the middle 1700s to the early 1900s. Now ferns and vines cover crumbling walls and remnants of a holding tank for an old water supply.
Before you leave the area, you’ll pass through West Point on the Eno, a Durham city park. It’s used as a local play area. Even the “DO NOT DISTURB THE SNAKES” sign in large capital letters doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
The Hugh Mangum Photography Museum is housed in the old Mangum summer home. Mangum was an itinerant photographer, wandering the South taking pictures of children at play, field workers, and whoever else took his fancy. It’s difficult to figure out when the museum is open but I was able to find a park employee who opened the house for me. What a treasure!
When people first learn about the MST past the mountains, they’re puzzled.
“Do you walk through Raleigh?” They ask.
Though it might be an interesting route, the MST goes through Falls Lake State Recreation Area around the city. This area is also referred to as “Falls of the Neuse.”
The Army Corps of Engineers finished the dam on the Neuse River in 1981, creating Falls Lake. People living around the river had to move out and left many modern artifacts. While walking, you’ll come across bricks, modern barbecue grill, and even a washing machine. On other sections around Fall Lake, homes and tobacco barns have been left.
The land seemed to have restored itself. With just a cursory look at the scenery, you might call it scrub. But the woods are filled with ferns, oak, sweet gum trees, loblolly pines and even a few longleaf pines. The trail goes around fingers of the lake. At Little Lick Creek, Friends of the MST volunteers built a beautiful arched bridge.
We walk down to the tailrace of the Falls of the Neuse. But where are the falls? Before this dam was built by the Army Corps of Engineer, there was a concrete dam and a wooden dam before that. The dam sits on top of the falls. Once you put in a dam, any dam, the falls disappear. John Lawson, who canoed from the Eno to the Neuse in 1701, wrote about the falls but no one alive today has seen them.
The Falls Lake taskforce has done a marvelous of putting in several campsites along the MST route. Yes, definitely better than walking through downtown Raleigh.
Once you leave Falls Lake, you’ve definitely left the North Carolina Piedmont. The MST goes south where you can consider two options: paddle the Neuse River or walk the Coastal Crescent route. The Neuse is a slow, easygoing river where you can let your thoughts wander.
Should you decide to paddle – you, not me, mind you. I like my feet firmly on the ground – you’ll go past Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, located in Seven Springs, close to Goldsboro in the Coastal Plains. True to its name, the forces of erosion have chiseled cliffs in the south bank of the River. The cliffs rise 90 feet above the water and extend about a third of a mile. If you’re paddling, you can stop in the park, tie up your boat, and climb up to the banks to enjoy the amenities of the park including a picnic pavilion and a campground.
I spent a short afternoon exploring the park on foot. For a mountain hiker, it was a completely different terrain and fauna. I started on the Longleaf Trail, which actually has longleaf pines. These trees had such an important role in naval stores, tar, pitch, and turpentine needed for wooden sailing ships. Once steam engines came in, longleaf pines were cut down to make way for faster-growing loblolly pines.
I continued on the walking loop through flood plains and ravines to the cliffs. The park has built a wooden guardrail, so no one can scramble down to the river at this point. Eventually, I got to the lake with a nice sandy beach but I hadn’t taken a bathing suit. Maybe next time.
On my way to Wilmington, North Carolina, I visited two state parks: Jones Lake State Park and Singletary Lake State Park. Those from other parts of the state may be unfamiliar with these lakes, but since they’re now included on the Coastal Crescent route of the MST, it is high time to explore them.
Jones and Singletary Lakes differ from mountain lakes like Fontana Lake outside of Bryson City or Lake Lure near Chimney Rock. These lakes, known as Carolina Bays, are shallow oval depressions, with Jones only 8.7 feet deep. How they were formed is a big mystery as there are thousands and thousands of them up and down the eastern seaboard with particularly large concentrations in North and South Carolina. The bays provide habitat for many rare and endangered species. The bays are named for the bay tree which grows in many of them. Because they aren’t fed by streams or springs but depend on rain for fresh water, the water is often tea colored.
Jones Lake was quite busy -visitors were fishing, swimming, picnicking, and boating. Ranger Lane Garner knew all about the MST and told me that it followed part of their Bay Trail. So in the summer sun, I walked the four-mile trail around the lake.
Singletary Lake State Park was easy to find. Like Jones Lake, it is nestled within the much larger Bladen Lakes State Forest, and MST hikers follow a route that takes them through the forest as well as the parks.
When I visited Singletary, my visit coincided with nonprofit groups camping on the lake, which closes that part of the park to the public.
The MST enters Moores Creek National Battlefield, one of two Revolutionary War National Park units in North Carolina. The Battle of Moores Creek was to the southern colonies what Lexington and Concord had been to the north.
The Loyalists gave the Patriots an ultimatum. Lay down your arms and swear allegiance to the British Crown. Instead, the Patriots partially destroyed the bridge across Moores Creek and hid in earthworks. In the early hours of February 27, 1776, Loyalists, Scottish Highlanders wielding broadswords, charged across the creek.
The Loyalists expected a small force but they faced nearly a thousand North Carolina Patriots. The battle lasted three minutes. North Carolina became the first colony to instruct its Continental Congress delegates to vote for independence from British rule.
Today, the MST takes you over the historic Moores Creek Bridge. You can walk along Moores Creek, a black water creek or through the pine Savanna, a far cry from the clear spring waters of the Western section of the MST.
My favorite activity in a battlefield is strolling through the war monuments to see who was commemorated and why. In this park, I also found the Loyalist memorial.
An interesting note. The Moores Creek Monument Association, founded in 1899, protected the battlefield, until the US War Department and then the National Park Service took it over. The association has the distinction of being the oldest continuing operating Friends group in the National Park Service.
We all need friends.
The ferry ride from Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island signals the beginning of the end of your MST walk.
If I should die think only this of me that there’s some forever corner of a foreign field that is forever England. –Rupert Brooke
The ferry ride from Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island signals the beginning of the end of your MST trek. Although you have still some splendid walking left to do, the two and a half hour sailing allows you to process the MST experience or to just stare at the waves.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the country’s first national seashore, stretches over 80 miles from the town of Ocracoke to the end of the MST. Side trips and surprises fill your beach walk. Three lighthouses stand on Cape Hatteras, each unique which makes them easy to differentiate in photographs.
Two British cemeteries lie on this stretch of the MST, one in Ocracoke and the second close to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. These aren’t relics from the Revolutionary War but from World War II.
When German submarines attacked U.S. Navy boats, Great Britain sent trawlers to patrol shipping lanes off the coast of North Carolina. The HMT Bedfordshire was torpedoed in 1942 with no survivors. The few bodies that washed up to shore were buried the two tiny cemeteries. Read more about this fascinating bit of history.
You’ll see some people and off-road vehicles on the beach. However, when you reach Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge within the seashore, there’s almost no one since visitors would have to walk to get here. Pelicans, sanderlings, and oystercatchers rule. I even saw a small shark.
It’s been mostly quiet. After a few miles of empty beach, buildings start to appear. Are you ready for Nags Head?
Savor Jockey’s Ridge State Park, your last park. You only have a few miles on the MST.
A small MST sign stands at the entrance to Jockey’s Ridge State Park but only walkers are going to see it. In 2015, Jockey’s Ridge had the third largest number of visitors of all the NC state parks, most attracted by the tallest sand dune in the East. It’s also one of the best places on the Outer Banks to fly kites.
The end of the MST is not at sea level, as Mountains-to-Sea might imply, but rather about 90 to 120 feet, depending on the shifting sand. The last climb starts on a boardwalk. You’ll walk up to the sand dunes, the biggest climb since you left Hanging Rock State Park, miles back.
I found the walk surprisingly steep, doing two steps forward and one step back. The wind and sand are blowing hard, so hold on to your hat. Don’t expect to find an MST sign at the end because a sign would blow away. Besides the end point changes with the wind and position of the sand.
The top of the dune looks like the Sahara Desert with Roanoke Sound on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Though you’re only about 100 feet above sea level, you’re on top of the world. This might be the biggest sandbox ever.
Congratulations! You’re now an MST completer.