A Look At How North Carolina's Mountains-To-Sea Trail Gets Made

Feb 27, 2019

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is North Carolina’s longest hiking path, running 1,200 miles from the Tennessee border to the Atlantic Ocean — but it’s still a work in progress. A little more than half of the trail is actually trail.

The rest of it follows roadways, and there’s a constant effort to build new parts of the trail — to get it off of the side of the road and on to the ground.

Our State magazine’s Jeremy Markovich wanted to see how a new section of trail is created. So he went out with some trail builders who explained that it can take years to create a new place for people to hike.

He produced this story as part of WFAE’s ongoing collaboration with the magazine.

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The Mountains-to-Sea Trail follows the Blue Ridge Parkway and winds its way toward its highest point at Mount Mitchell.
Credit Tommy White / Our State Magazine

A few months ago, I went on a walk through the woods just west of Elkin, and one of the first things I heard was a really big tree crashing down nearby.

I’m out hiking with Bob Hillyer and Bill Blackley — both are from the Elkin Valley Trails Association. The ground we’re walking on is soggy and rough, there’s a lot of undergrowth to push away in spots.

The slope is steep in spots, so we’re all treading lightly. You don’t want to go falling down the hillside or go twisting an ankle. There is no trail through these woods — yet.

And so today, Bob and Bill are starting to do the work to build one. It works kind of like this: Bob walks through the woods and feels the slope with his feet. He figures out the drainage, works out where the switchbacks should go and so on. And every so often, he pulls a bit of orange ribbon off of a roll and ties it to a tree.

“You can see the ribbons on the trees going up that way,” Bob said, pointing to the path ahead.

For Bob, it’s all about feel. He’ll come back and tweak that route again, and again, and probably again a few days later. Then, he’ll do it again a week later. It’s a very slow process, but this is the way that every inch, every foot and eventually, every new mile of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail gets built. Doing this requires patience.

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“That’s why you never take a trail builder on a hike with you,” Bob told me. “He’s always stopping and throwing stuff off the trail.”

Now, before we go on, some context here. The Mountains-to-Sea trail is nearly 1,200 miles long. It runs from the top of Clingmans Dome in western North Carolina down into the Piedmont, around Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh, then heads south into the sand hills and the coastal plain.  

It requires two ferry rides to get to the outer banks and from there, the trail follows the beach up to Kill Devil Hills — where it ends on top of the state’s largest sand dune.

But here’s the thing. A little more than half of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is actually trail. The rest, about 500 or so miles, runs along the sides of roads. The reason? All of the easy parts of the trail — the parts that utilize public land — have pretty much already been built. Running it across private land? That is much, much harder.

And that is what Bob and Bill are doing today in the woods, just west of Elkin.

“From Elkin to here… is mostly hiking,” Bill said. “And we’d love for it to be biking, but hiking first.”

First, Bob and Bill have to go out, knock on doors, write letters or make phone calls, and then ask people for an easement to run the trail across their land. Bob and Bill don’t have any money to pay, so landowners have to do this for free.

Once enough of them say yes, Bob and Bill go out, plot out the path and then get volunteers to actually build it. That’s the way that, on average, about 15 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail are moved off of roadways every year in North Carolina. But once a new section of trail opens up, the results come quickly.

Bob and Bill show me one new section of trail that had opened just recently. And already, there are people out enjoying it, even though it hadn’t really been publicized yet. About a quarter mile into the woods, we all meet some folks who are curious about what it is that they’re hiking on. They’re surprised to learn that the land they’re on is part of the Mountain to Sea Trail.

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Past these woods, the trail runs down a hill and the sound of rushing water gets louder and louder. And then, we step out onto the banks of a creek and to our right is a big sloping rock formation. It’s 60 feet high with white frothy water running down it. It’s called Carter Falls, and for years, this place was inaccessible to almost everybody. Some people in Elkin didn’t even know it existed.

Jockeys Ridge is home to some of the state's largest sand dunes. Once the Moutains-to-State Trail reaches the Outer Banks, it runs along beaches and bridges for 81 miles before ending at this sandy spot in Nags Head.
Credit Tommy White / Our State Magazine

“It was in private hands for decades,” Bob said.

Eventually, Bob and Bill will raise money for a bridge that’ll cross right in front of the falls and then the trail will run up into the woods on the other side, past the spots that Bob has already marked with orange ribbon.

All of this was made possible because Bob and Bill had been asking the landowners for permission to run the trail here for a very long time. After years of saying no, the owner had a change of heart. He wanted other people to enjoy the land like he had.

So, about two years ago, he said yes. A private waterfall was made public, the locals had a new spot to explore and a few more miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail are born.

This story was produced in partnership with Our State magazine. You can read more about the trail, and see pictures from its most beautiful spots in the March issue of Our State, which is available on newsstands now.