Monday — never an easy time for the outdoors enthusiast. After a weekend of adventure, returning to the humdrum work-a-day world can make one melancholy. To help ease the transition, every Monday we feature a 90 Second Escape — essentially, a 90-second video of a place you’d probably rather be: a trail, a park, a greenway, a lake … anywhere as long as it’s not under a fluorescent bulb.
My idea of a good time when I can’t be outdoors?
Sitting around a big conference table with the head of the state’s largest trail system and a newly minted map.
Wednesday, Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail attended a meeting in New Bern about the path the MST would take from New Bern to the Outer Banks. Thursday, she took a few minutes to update me the latest developments on the statewide trail, a 1,000-mile work in progress that will one day run from atop Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border across the Tar Heel state to Jockey’s Ridge at the lip of the Atlantic.
A little over half of the trail is done. There’s a 300-mile continuous stretch in the mountains, mostly along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and another good chunk through the Triangle. East of Clayton, though, there’s a long dry spell before you reach the MST’s exciting conclusion along the coast. It was that dry spell that Dixon wanted to talk about.
Specifically, the meeting a day earlier had been about routing the MST through the coastal Croatan National Forest, from New Bern east to the Outer Banks.
“The problem with the Croatan,” she said, “is that it’s wet.”
Indeed. You can’t go far in the 160,000-acre national forest before you run into a wet area known as a pocosin, or upland swamp. Dixon traced her index finger across a number of old roadbeds that seemed to penetrate the forest. Alas, her finger would stop in a pocosin or simply disappear into the mass of coastal jungle growth. Another option, which the FMST isn’t crazy about, is piggybacking on a US 70 bypass around Havelock. Not a lot of esthetic reward in hiking alongside a divided four-lane highway.
Dixon threw a curve ball, though, when she pointed out a sparsely used rail line that runs between the Cherry Point Marine facility near Havelock to Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, a path roughly perpendicular to a trail coming down the Neuse River. A trail paralleling the Neuse has long been considered the route the MST would take through the coastal plain. The rail line came nowhere close to the Neuse.
“How would that work?” I asked.
“We’re thinking about three types of routes to the coast,” Dixon said.
One would be a paddle route, down the Neuse, to New Bern. Another would be a bike route, following the Neuse as close as possible on less-traveled country roads and passing through the Neuse communities of Goldsboro, Kinston and New Bern. The hiking trail would follow a southerly route, parting ways with the Neuse at Smithfield.
Running a hiking trail along the coastal Neuse is proving problematic on several fronts, Dixon said. In spots, especially in the Let’Lones area below Smithfield, the land is perpetually wet. That’s a problem because the public corridor along the Neuse is only 50 feet wide and much of the surrounding land is privately owned,much of it by folks who have been slow to warm to a public trail running across their property.
So instead, the FMST is looking at dropping the hiking trail south of Smithfield to Bentonville and on to the Bladen Lakes area east of Fayetteville. There, it would make its way east to Jacksonville and pick up the aforementioned rail line, where they might be able to strike an access arrangement. The trail would then tap into the Croatan’s Neusiok Trail and head east to the Outer Banks. Another advantage to the southerly route: there’s more public land to run the trail through.
“It’s just something we’ve started looking at,” says Dixon.
New trail opens along the Eno River, there’s a hike on some of the state’s highest trail and there’s a run on battleships at the coast.
We don’t normally recommend ribbon cuttings, but when that ribbon cutting is part of a chance to hike 1.5 miles of virgin Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which connects with another 8 miles of what might be the sweetest hiking on the Eno River — coupled with what’s forecast to be a lovely fall weekend — well, we’ll make an exception.
I cringed when I picked up the July Outside magazineand saw that it had the Mountains-to-Sea Trail listed under “Best Through-Hikes You’ve Never Heard Of.” No mention was made of the fact that the roughly 1,000-mile MST is only a little over half done, meaning that roughly 500 miles of this best-trail-you’ve-never-heard-of actually is on pavement, often competing with cars. Not exactly the escape most of us seek when we hit the trail.
Usually when you think of taking an escape into the wild, you assume a long drive to an obscure trail that navigates rugged terrain, frequently loses its way through dense undergrowth, involves waist-deep stream crossings and surprises you with wild critters at every opportunity. With the Lower Haw River Trail, located on the outskirts of the booming Triangle, you get all of that without the long drive.