This month marks the 45th birthday of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Now a 1,175-mile trail from Clingmans Dome, or Kuwohi, in the Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks, the idea for the trail was introduced in Sept. 9, 1977.
Howard Lee, then secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, proposed, “establishing a state trail between the mountains and the seashore in North Carolina,” according to the Friends of the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail, or MST, a nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for the trail.
In celebration of the trail’s 45 years, the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has planned an online celebration 6:30-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, with special guests Lee, state Division of State Parks and Recreation Director Dwayne Patterson, volunteers Julie “Jester” Gayheart and Austin DuFresne who wrote and produced a five-part video and podcast mini-series called “I Am the MST,” and other names from the trail’s history. The Zoom is free and open to the public.
“We’re excited to be celebrating 45 years of the MST this year and to look back on how far the trail has come since it was first proposed in 1977,” Brent Laurenz, executive director with the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, told Coastal Review. “While the route has shifted and changed over time, the overall goal of connecting the mountains and the sea with a simple footpath has never changed.”
There are several short-distance group hikes planned around the state from Thursday to Saturday as part of the birthday weekend, including a few on the coast.
A Croatan Forest hike and cookout with Roger Mays is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, leaving from the North Carolina Coastal Federation office, 3609 NC 24, in Newport. The hike will be along forest service roads and a visit to Patsy Pond. After the hike, there will be a cookout at the federation office. To make sure there is enough food, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 252 723-1612.
In Pender County, there will be a Surf City Bridge Hike at 9 a.m. Thursday, starting at Soundside Park. The hike along Osgood Canal Greenway is to start at 9 a.m. Friday at Hankins Park, 310 North Walker St., in Burgaw. Also at 9 a.m. Saturday, there will be an informative and historic hike around Moores Creek National Battlefield leaving from the visitor center in Currie. Reserve a spot online for these hikes, call 910-259-1536 or email Tammy Proctor with Pender County at email@example.com.
The birthday Zoom celebration Friday should be fun, Laurenz said, and the Friends group is encouraging folks to simply get out for a hike on the trail Saturday or anytime during the month.
He also extended a thank you “to the hard work and vision of some amazing volunteers a video series titled ‘I Am the MST’ will be rolled out during the birthday month” on the MST website.
The Friends group issued a 45-mile challenge during the birthday month. Anyone who completes 45 or more miles by foot anywhere on the trail in September and logs it on the website will be entered to win prizes from Ripstop by the Roll, REI and other supporters. The participant with the highest total mileage at the end of September receives an MST flag.
Laurenz explained that after Lee proposed establishing the state trail in a 1977 speech, volunteer efforts were launched to start building the trail, but that work began to languish in the early 1990s.
“In an effort to revitalize MST efforts, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was formed in 1997. Soon after, the trail was officially incorporated into the North Carolina State Park System in 2000,” Laurenz continued. “In the 25 years since its formation, Friends of the MST has helped the trail grow from a disjointed hodgepodge of trail sections totaling about 325 miles with ill-defined road connections to its current status as a complete, well-defined route across the state with over 700 miles of off-road trail.”
In 2017, the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail took a step forward when the Coastal Crescent Trail was officially made part of the trail. The Coastal Crescent Trail winds through the southeastern counties of Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, Bladen, Pender and Onslow counties.
“This route, an alternate to the originally proposed corridor along the Neuse River, was conceived and promoted by Friends of the MST. It strings together several areas of public lands, giving people opportunities to get off the roads for several significant stretches while work is underway to create a more complete off-road route,” he said.
The importance of outdoor spaces like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was made evident during the height of the pandemic, when people across the state turned to the outdoors for safe recreational activities, Laurenz said.
“Whether they were discovering the joy of being in nature for the first time or rekindling an old passion, North Carolinians showed up at state parks, national parks and trails in every corner of the state to find safe ways to gather together or enjoy time alone outdoors,” he said. “We haven’t seen that interest level wane either, so trails like the MST are so important to provide opportunities for residents and visitors to get outside and enjoy the beauty of North Carolina.”
As for the bigger picture, for those that wish to tackle the entire Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the trail provides an opportunity to see firsthand both the beauty of our state’s natural places and to connect with communities and people along the way, he said.
Laurenz said 2023 is poised to be a big year for new additions and changes to the MST.
“With a significant investment in state trails included in the 2021 budget, we’ll be able to build new sections of trail, open new bridges and so much more that will have a major impact on the trail,” he explained. “That will be especially true for the southeastern and coastal parts of the state where there is currently less off-road MST and fewer outdoor recreation opportunities in general compared to other parts of the state.”
Also, 2023 will be the Year of the Trail across North Carolina. Laurenz said all trails, from the community park to the urban greenway to the MST, are to come together to celebrate all that trails have to offer and hopefully inspire North Carolinians to get outside and explore our unique trails across the state.
“While the route has shifted and changed over the past 45 years, we’re still inspired by that original vision from Howard Lee to create a trail from the mountains to the sea that is not only a wilderness trail, but also tries to capture the diversity of North Carolina and give walkers “a real feel for the sights, sounds, and people of the state,” Laurenz said.
Those who support the trail with a financial donation of $45 or more during September are to receive MST buttons. Those who raise $450 or more through peer-to-peer fundraising get a personalized pottery mug.
Supporters can also lend a hand during a volunteer workday. Locations and dates are listed on the event calendar.