Last week was a bit of a disaster on the trails of North Carolina. An ironic perfect storm of great weather and minimal entertainment options in these stay-at-home (soon-to-be safer-at-home) times meant hordes of hikers inhabiting our trails, especially those in our state parks. As we reported Wednesday, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock, Eno River, Stone Mountain and Raven Rock all had to close their gates Saturday morning because they had reached capacity. Hanging Rock reported 1,000 more visitors than it had ever recorded.
With another weekend of great weather forecast, we’d like to help avoid a repeat of last weekend. Our advice: hike the state’s best-known trail.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Granted, the statewide, 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through the very state parks that had to be closed. Much of the MST, though, eschews the popular and well-known in favor of surreptitious passage through some of the state’s gorgeous, but lesser traveled terrain.
Solitude at Shallowford
Last Saturday, for instance, one of our hike leaders, fueled by “cheap gas and wanting to explore other options,” discovered a stretch of the MST that runs through the Shallowford Natural Area in Alamance County. The MST through this 190-acre preserve is part of a 5-mile trail network that includes rolling Piedmont hills, meadows and passage along a wide and rocky stretch of the Haw River. A sign recommending hiking in a counterclockwise direction helped minimize exposure to fellow hikers.
“Very green and not too crowded, even on a Saturday,” she reported.
The Shallowford segment is part of an 8-mile run of the MST along the Haw with good exposure to a particularly rambunctious stretch of the river, as well as the history of the Haw’s fabled mill past.
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Another possibility: this week, the stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Craggy Gardens to Mount Mitchell reopened, easing access to the MST paralleling the parkway. The hiking here is challenging — and spectacular. The terrain is rugged and rocky, the views frequent and spectacular. You can access the trail at numerous points along the way.
In fact, that’s what makes the MST so attractive on it’s long run along the parkway, from just outside of Cherokee to the west, to where the trail descends into the Piedmont above Stone Mountain State Park. Overlooks and pullouts along the parkway give frequent access to the MST, all of which captures the Southern Appalachian experience in its entirety, from bold rocky exposures to intimate passage through heath balds and deciduous forest.
And the true beauty in these times of distancing on the trail? Sure, some of the access points will be crowded. But if you swing by an access crowded with cars, keep driving — you’ll soon find one that isn’t.
Piedmont, coastal plain
Other places where you may find solitude on the MST:
- Sauratown Trail, between Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks. Much of the MST piggybacks on other trail on its run across the state. Between Pilot and Hanging Rock, it doubles up with the Sauratown Trail. Originally built as a horse trail, the Sauratown passes through rolling terrain that takes in horse pastures, dirt roads and a waterfall or two.
- Jones Lake State Park/Turnbull Creek State Educational Forest, near Elizabethtown. With Jones Lake State Park as your base, you can either hike west on the MST along it’s namesake lake, a Carolina bay, and through a pine savanna, or east, into the dense woods of Turnbull Creek, which also boasts some cool historic nods to forest firefighting efforts.
- Holly Shelter Game Land, between Burgaw and Surf City. If you’re looking to put in some miles, miles where you can hike flat, foot-friendly terrain and let your mind drift, the 19-miles of dirt-road walking through “vast expanses of pocosin recovering from a major peat fire in 2011, as well as savannas of lush grasses and native plants flourishing under towering longleaf pines” (that’s the guidebook talking) is hard to beat.
- Neusiok Trail in the Croatan National Forest near Havelock. This is more of a winter hike, but if the temperature isn’t much above 70 (the point at which the forest’s snake and annoying flying pest populations get activated) this is an awesome hike through coastal forest, wetlands (made passable by ample boardwalks) and pine savanna.
If you’re unfamiliar with the MST, or would like to get to know the nearly 43-year-old trail better, this is a good weekend to start.
mountainstoseatrail.org. Everything you need to know to explore the MST, from end to end, you’ll find here on the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website. Most helpful are the trail guides for the MST, broken down by Coast, Piedmont, Mountains. Not only will you get a good overview of the trail, you’ll find detailed instructions for finding access points and hiking every step of the trail.