By Adam Orr
It’s fair to say that anything done for three decades can be called a labor of love, perhaps even an obsession.
For more than 30 years, the Mountains to Sea trail has inspired armies of volunteers to take to the woods with shovels, mattocks, and weedeaters to carve a hiking trail out of Eastern America’s most majestic scenery. For their efforts, 500 miles of pristine hiking trails link up with another 450 miles of meandering backcountry road to complete North Carolina’s only state-wide hiking route. Luckily, a small slice of the trail runs through Ashe County.
“I’m a little biased, but I think the southern Ashe section has the prettiest vistas, most unique vegetation, and some of the largest stretches of mature hardwood forest along the entire route of the trail,” said James Hallsey, southern Ashe coordinator.
Stretching from the U.S. 421 at Deep Gap, and running to N.C. 16 as it heads down the mountain to Wilkesboro, Hallsey’s southern Ashe group was resonsible for building, and now maintaining, the 16 miles of trail that was completed in 2010. “It’s been a fun four-and-a-half or five years,” said Hallsey. “Trail layout and construction began in 2006, and we finished up last year. We’re now in maintainance mode.”
Initially conceived in the 1970s by Howard Lee, the Secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, as a way to link Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Jockey’s Ridge, the Mountains-to-Sea trail is now over 50 percent completed, and hikers can, utilizing a series of backroads and bicycle path connectors, complete the entire length of the trail.
“You can complete the entire length more or less as it was envisioned 30 years ago,” said Hallsey. “The backroads are an imperfect solution, but the hikers who are determined to hike the entire length haven’t been put off that the entire route isn’t a dedicated hiking trail.”
From Clingman’s Dome in the West, the route roughly parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway until it reaches Doughton Park in Alleghany County. From there the route turns southeast towards Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and the Raleigh/Durham area where it merges with the Neuse River corridor to Morehead City. Thru-hikers can hop the Cedar Island Ferry to Cape Hatteras where they can follow the seashore to Nags Head and Jockey’s Ridge, the trail’s termination point.
Hallsey said the western section of the trail between the Smoky’s and Doughton Park is almost 100 percent completed, but the eastern sections of the MST remain a work in progress.
“Gaining permission to work on the trail in the Piedmont has been a challenge. There’s usually multiple stakeholders involved along the proposed trail, and there’s a constant give and take to move forward,” said Hallsey. “We have to balance the needs and desires of various state and federal agencies, and private land-owners.”
Still, Hallsey has hope the entire length of trail will be completed one day. He holds the Sauratown stretch of trail as the shining example of the way everything can fall into place when the community rallies around the project.
“Sauratown just came together beautifully. There were a number of public figures in Stokes County that got behind the effort and made it a reality,” said Hallsey. “Liability was a big issue with private owners in that area. ‘If somebody gets hurt on my land, they’ll sue me for it,’ was the common complaint. To calm those fears, leaders actually put together a liability relief for private property owners.”
To date, 23 hikers have completed the trail 26 times; ironman Scot Ward has trekked the 1,000 miles four times. Not to be outdone, 30 year old speed hiker Matt Kirk, a teacher from Marion completed the entire length in 24 days earlier this summer, the fastest time yet recorded.
Whether attempting a record setting thru-hike, taking the proverbial walk through the woods, Hallsey just wants to see people on the trail. “It’s an incredible natural resource. We hope to see more people out on the trail,” said Hallsey.
If you’d like to volunteer with trail maintainance or the completion of the Watauga stretch of the MST, contact Hallsey at email@example.com or call 336-877-8831. Trail workday schedules are also available at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website, http://www.ncmst.org/.