Back in January I got to thinking about where I haven’t been in too long and thus, where I would love to explore this summer.
I didn’t have to think long: the mountain portion of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Now, I hike the MST nearly every day, since I can pick it up a couple blocks from my front door in Hillsborough. And while I never tire of this stretch, nor of the other 120 miles I hike with some frequency through the Triangle, there’s something about the MST’s nearly 350-mile run through the mountains that’s especially enchanting — and diverse, capturing both the rugged beauty of the Southern Appalachians and its moments of intimate calm. Here’s a look at three favorite sections, all along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Waterrock Knob to Pisgah Inn
I fell in love with this stretch in an unexpected way: by getting lost. I was leading a hike here a decade ago where we inadvertently veered off the MST on its way through the Middle Prong Wilderness. Down, down, down, we went — and, subsequently, back up, up, up after encountering a foursome that assured us we were on the wrong trail. I loved the wild nature of this section, one of the rare untamed stretches of the MST as it passed through un-blazed wilderness. Then, magically, crossing into the Sam Knob/Black Balsam area, which was a bit more civilized, as it made its way through balsam woods on its way to Graveyard Fields and Yellowstone Prong, then escaped that popular area by crossing US 276 and dipping over the south side of the Blue Ridge escarpment above Pink Beds and on to Mount Pisgah. Great views and classic high mountain terrain, then long stretches of escape with no other hikers in sight.
Beacon Heights to Trout Lake
This is the glitzier stretch of the 90-mile run the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail refers to as The High Country. From Beacon Heights at Milepost 305.2 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the trail wastes no time delivering what you came for, passing through a dark evergreen forest, over a bridged waterfall, then under that engineering marvel, the Linn Cove Viaduct. You’re on the southeast flank of Grandfather Mountain, a tumble of rock and verdant hardwoods with a curious “Appa-tropics” feel. You’ll gain elevation and find yourself atop the Rough Ridge rock outcrop, with views and plenty of spots to stretch out and enjoy them. Descend to the Rough Ridge parking area, then head through an intimate forest of towering hemlock and hardwoods. Marvel at the quiet; “marvel,” because you’re not more than a half mile from the Parkway on this hike. You’ll emerge into small mountain meadows, you’ll follow rough-and-tumble Boone Fork, where you’ll need to navigate a ladder or two. Cross Boone Fork on a footbridge, make a steep climb, then descend to the dark green waters of Trout Lake.
Doughton Park area: South Laurel Fork Road to Devils Garden Overlook
Most folks would say the highlight of this stretch is the roughly 2 miles through mountaintop meadow at Doughton Park, where you can see in all directions, a rarity in North Carolina hiking. And it is pretty special, especially the view from the Wildcat Rocks Overlook just down from the old lodge. From it you can look nearly straight down the Blue Ridge Escarpment to the tiny Caudil Cabin below, further down the Basin Creek valley, and on to the Piedmont beyond. But it’s the more subtle, subdued stretches that I find especially appealing. You cross the Parkway several times, and there’s a run-in with minor civilization. But for the most part the trail makes its way through woods undisturbed for more than a half century. You may not come away with searing memories of specific scenery, but you’ll definitely find the sense of serenity that drives so many of us into the woods.
All 347.4 miles of the mountain MST are worthy of exploring this summer. But if you don’t have that kind of time, these three sections provide a worthy snapshot.
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Explore with us!
You didn’t think I’d explore these sections on my own and leave you behind, did you? This summer, our GetHiking! Weekend Escapes will focus on the three sections mentioned above. For each Weekend Escape, we’ll do a short hike Friday evening, spend the day on the trail Saturday, and do a short-ish hike Sunday before heading out around 1 p.m. Each Weekend Escape is camping based, but if you’re not a camper, worry not: each basecamp isn’t far from roof-over-head lodging. Each escape includes breakfast Saturday and Sunday morning, lunch Saturday and Sunday, and dinner Saturday night. Here’s a quick description of each hike; click the link for more info and to sign up.
- Summer on the MST Weekend Escape to Doughton Park, June 10-12, 18 miles of hiking. Go here.
- Summer on the MST Weekend Escape to Mount Pisgah, 22.5 miles of hiking, July 22-24, go here.
- Summer on the MST Weekend Escape to Price Lake, 20 miles of hiking, Sept. 9-11, go here.
Explore on your own
If you’re interested in exploring these sections on your own, you’ll find helpful information for planning your hike at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website. Click the appropriate link.