The trail climbs a surprising bluff then, briefly, joins forces with an old roadbed. But I’m not aware of the “briefly” part, and it would be easy to miss where the trail darts back into the woods. Easy, but for two things. One, this new 4.2-mile stretch of trail along the Eno River is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and even freshly minted segments of the MST are hard to get lost on. The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the non-profit volunteer group blazing this 1,000-mile foot passage across North Carolina, from Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic, are thorough in their trail construction, and that includes blazing the way with the MST’s distinctive three-inch diameter white dots. Even though the trail was essentially completed at the Friends’ November workday, some pink surveyors flags remain, further helping with directions.
I’m lucky, too, in that I’m hiking with Arthur Kelley, who has been hiking, plotting and mapping the MST, about 500 miles of which is completed, for the past four years. Shortly after the first of the year, Kelley plans to offer a map of the Falls Lake section of the MST. That’s roughly 60 miles, from the Falls Lake dam at Falls of Neuse Road in Raleigh, northwest along the lake’s southern shore to Pennys Bend Nature Preserve in Durham County. Our objective today is the northernmost 4.2 miles of that stretch, from Red Mill Road west to Pennys Bend.
The bluff we’ve just climbed is surprising because it rises perhaps 75 feet above the Eno. In the global scheme of bluffs, 75 feet is a trifle. In the Piedmont, it offers a rarity: a view.
“We hardly have any places where you can get a view,” says Kelley, an engineer when he’s not making maps. “Up here, we’ve got some good ones.” With the leaves stripped for the season, we hit a handful of spots that afford miles-long views to the north.
At the Red Mill Road trailhead (a gravel pullout accommodating three cars), the trail heads through a young Piedmont forest. It’s a quieter stretch than some of the newer MST downstream that bumps up against the likes of I-85. The only bumping here is with farmland abutting the Corps of Engineers land on which the Falls Lake section of the MST treads. About midway, the trail climbs the bluff, where it remains until just before Pennys Bend.
This is the third time Kelley has run his GPS over this stretch. The first was not long after it was scouted, the second about a year ago, after it was initially flagged. Every so often Kelley makes note of where the finished trail deviates from the flagged version, sometimes to avoid an area deemed perpetually wet, sometimes to avoid plant communities sensitive to the human traffic the trail will bring. Features such as the latter won’t be a part of Kelleys’ map.
“My maps are pretty straightforward,” says Kelley. Trailhead, parking, mileages, the trail itself — about the only extra he’ll have on this section of trail is a camera icon indicating one of the better views from atop the bluff. “There’s no pretty pictures of the wildflowers or wildlife.”
A straightforward trail map is what the Falls Lake MST has long needed. Though the trail dates to the 1980s, the available maps — through N.C. State Parks and the Corps of Engineers — have been large in scale and marginally useful. They’ve also been out of date, which isn’t surprising considering the trail’s rapid development. Until 2007, about 26 miles of the Falls Lake MST existed, from the dam northwest to NC 50/Creedmoor Road. Since 2007, the Friends of the MST have opened 33 miles of new trail, extending it from NC 50 to Pennys Bend off Old Oxford Highway. (Additional trail development upstream will extend the MST along the Eno into Hillsborough.)
Kelley plans to make the map available free of charge, either via download from his Web site — Art’s Hiking Maps — or by sending him a self-addressed stamped envelope.
“We built all this trail,” he says of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, of which he is a member, “there’s no sense in us not being able to find it.”
As for making the map available for free, he says, “I’m not in this to make money. My biggest reward would be to be on the trail and see someone walking from the other direction holding my map. That would make me happy.”
Happiness, it turns out, is awaiting Kelley at the end of our hike. Laura Thomasson and Stephen Kirkpatrick, both of Durham, along with their assorted dogs, have just finished hiking at Pennys Bend. Kirkpatrick hikes here regularly, though on the trails upstream. Our appearance from downstream intrigues him.
“Is there trail in that direction?” he asks. “Do you know where it goes?”
Does he. Kelley takes the prototype map he’d given me — hey, our hike is over — and gives it to Kirkpatrick and Thomasson. He gives them a quick overview of the emerging trail system in their own backyard.
The two are delighted to learn of their new options. Kelley is delighted to fill them in.
For a quick slideshow of the new, 4.2-mile stretch of Mountains-to-Sea Trail between Red Mill Road and Pennys Bend, click the photo at top.