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The aptly named Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs from Nags Head in the Outer Banks to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Thru-hikers experience the diversity of North Carolina landscapes, from the Atlantic coastline and Piedmont meadows, to pine forests and the peaks of the Appalachians. Some of North Carolina’s most dramatic features are passed along the way, including Jockey’s Ridge State Park (home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast), the beachfront of Hatteras, the Croaton National Forest, Hanging Rock State Park, Pilot Mountain, Nantahala National Forest, Clingman’s Dome, and more.
But this trail is unique, especially for a thru-hike. Mountains-to-Sea Trail hikers aren’t traversing remote wilderness for 1,175 miles. Instead, they’ll discover all kinds of North Carolina, including roads and small towns, along the way.
Get to Know North Carolina on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
Th Mountains-to-Sea Trail was developed as a means of connecting many pre-existing trails throughout the state, meaning some parts follow rural roads rather than backcountry forest paths.
It was first conceived of in 1977 by Howard Lee, the North Carolina Secretary of Natural Resources and Community Development. However, work by Allen de Hart in the late 1990s helped propel the project forward, and volunteers are still putting in thousands of hours a year to bring Lee’s dream of the MST to life.
Whether you prefer to go east to west or vice versa, it’s interesting to see not only the dramatic differences in geography across North Carolina, but to stop and appreciate how the food, accents, and character of the small towns change from the coastal South to the Appalachian mountains. You’ll travel from catfish to cornbread country and discover barbecue, beer, and biscuits along the way.
Day Hiking or Thru Hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
The MST’s accessibility to major cities like Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Asheville means you’ll have opportunities to give your feet a break and enjoy some cultural offerings. Put a pair of recovery shoes in your pack so you can escape the weight of hiking boots and help your feet heal while exploring restaurants, museums, and breweries.
While it’s possible to do a traditional thru-hike and crash at the many campsites along the way, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail can be enjoyed on shorter day hikes, too.
One stretch of the MST extends from the end of the Neusiok Trail in the Pine Cliff Recreation Area all the way to Raleigh. From there, you can continue hiking (but you’ll frequently find yourself on roads instead of trails) or you can cover 216 miles of the MST by boat, via the Neuse River.
The Neuse River Paddle Route is ranked moderate with plenty of campsites, small towns, and natural wonders along the way, including the 90-foot-tall Cliffs of the Neuse.
However you choose to tackle the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, you’re embarking on a journey beloved by North Carolinians. Trail angels, volunteers, and MST enthusiasts have the same degree of passion for their state’s thru hike that others do for the better-known PCT, ACT, and Continental Divide Trails. (It’s worth noting that the MST packs comparable mileage into just one state.)
On the 40th anniversary of the speech in which Lee recommended the MST be built, hundreds of North Carolinians took to the trail so that every mile of it would be hiked in one day. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail really inspires a lot of home-state pride.
Use The Dyrt to Plan Your Journey
The Dyrt makes planning your MST hike easier with our list of campgrounds along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
If you need to resupply near Asheville, swing by Roanline‘s new brick and mortar storefront. They stock apparel from some very cool, smaller brands, so you can grab a hat or a t-shirt to commemorate your trip!