“I’d like to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), but where do I start? Is there a map to follow? When is the best time to hike? Are there dangers? Can I do it alone?” When we begin thinking about doing a 1,000-mile trail there are also a thousand questions we ask. And even if we’re only thinking of hiking a short section, we still have questions to resolve before we take the first step. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the MST, help familiarize you with others who have hiked the trail, and provide advice from previous hikers that will prove useful as you hit the trail.
The MST crosses North Carolina for 1,175 miles (occasionally mileage changes due to reroutes) from Clingmans Dome in Smoky Mountains National Park along the Tennessee border to the sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park along the Atlantic Ocean. It includes 680 miles of natural surface trail including 81 miles along the Outer Banks beaches; 495 miles of connecting roadways; and paddling alternates of 170 miles on the Neuse River from Smithfield boat launch to Pine Cliffs Recreation Area and 29 miles along the Yadkin River.
Let’s start with a few definitions: A thru-hiker is a person who starts at one end and hikes, with no significant interruptions, to the other end. A section-hiker is one who hikes sections of trail in no particular order or speed – often a piecemeal, intermittent fashion of day hikes, weekend hikes, or longer hikes – to eventually complete the entire trail. This information is somewhat focused on section hiking but will be beneficial for aspiring thru-hikers also.
Completion of the MST is defined as hiking the entire route from Clingmans Dome to Jockey’s Ridge. Because stretches of the MST are still on back roads, hikers have the option of hiking or biking the road sections. You also have the option of paddling the three river sections listed above. To qualify for the completion award, however, you must hike all trail sections of the MST unless you choose to paddle the alternate paddle route.
Who are the people who have hiked the entire MST?
Eighty-four people have reported completing the entire MST as of February 2018, and this is what we know about 62 of them:
• about 50% are from North Carolina and 50% from out-of-state
• 56% male and 44% female hikers
• 65% thru-hikers and 35% section-hikers
• average age is 45 years, though section-hikers are older at mean age of 56 years for men, women age 58, while thru-hiker females average 35.5 years
• youngest completer was 19 (Hannah Krueger from Boone) and the oldest 84 (Mary Ann Nissley from PA)
• Forty thru-hikers averaged 70 days to complete the trail; the fastest hike was 22 days, the slowest was 127 days; 90% took three months or less; 33% took two months or less.
• Section-hikers averaged 472 days (a year and 3 months) and 55% did the trail in less than a year. Time for “outliers” was not counted because their hikes took years to complete (7, 12, 12, 13, 18, 18, & 25 years.)
• The most popular month to begin hiking was May, followed by October, then April, August and September, with these five months having 80% of starts. The fewest starts were in November to February.
To initiate this conversation about section hiking, let me share some details of my section hike of the MST completed in March, 2017 at age 71. Most of my hikes occurred in two years (2015-16) but my completion covered over 25 years since I logged several MST hikes as far back as 1991 (I hiked 17 days on the MST, covering 193 miles between 1991 and 2014.) In 2015, I covered 235 miles over 13 days, five of those days paddling the Neuse River. In 2016 I hiked/biked 32 days covering 439 miles, and in the first three months of 2017, I hiked 157 miles in 12 days. Overall, I did 80% of the MST in a period of 18 months. My trek can also be broken into 84 miles of biking (34 miles on Neuse River Greenway, 50 miles between Neusiok Trail to Cedar Island Ferry); 160 miles of paddling; 200 miles road walking; 570 miles of trail hiking/beach walking; a total of 1,030 miles.
Brief History of Hiking the MST
Thru-hiker records show that Allen De Hart and Alan Householder were the first to complete the MST in 1997. Allen went on to found the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that same year, and in 2000 wrote the first guidebook, Hiking North Carolina’s Mountains-To-Sea Trail. Allen championed the planning, construction and promotion of the MST until his death in 2016 at 90 years of age.
A 1998 book by Donald E. Dossey and John I. Hillyer, The Mountains-to-Sea Trail: Western North Carolina’s Majestic Rival to the Appalachian Trail, traces the vision of the MST to Howard N. Lee and Arch Nichols. This book cites Lee Price as the first to hike and cycle across the state in 1982 on a fragmented MST corridor (not same route as done by De Hart and Householder in 1997), and Jeffrey Scott and Jarrett Franklin completed a cross-state trek in 1994.
Jeff Brewer from Raleigh was the sixth MST completer (2003). Jeff served as the first president of Friends of Mountains-to-Sea Trail from 1997-2009 and is currently Task Force Leader for the wonderful Falls Lake portion of Segment 10. Jeff believes “the section of the MST from Black Mountain Campground to Beacon Heights is the most remote section to disconnect from the fast- paced world we live in.”
In 2003, Kathryn Nelson became the first woman to complete the trail (with three women and one male finishing that year.) In 2011, Danny Bernstein and Sharon McCarthy became the fourth & fifth women to complete the trail. In 2013, Danny shared her knowledge in her book The Mountains-To-Sea Trail Across North Carolina: Walking a Thousand Miles through Wildness, Culture and History. Danny writes in her acknowledgements: “No one does the MST completely alone. You need help of all kinds. The MST would not exist without dedicated trail builders and maintainers across the state.” Her motto is “No place is too far to hike if you have the time.” Heather Houskeeper, from Milford, PA, thru-hiked in 2011 and 2014. On her first hike she researched plants along the trail and published A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (2014). Many hikers have posted blogs as they hiked.
In 2011, Asheville ultra-runner Matt Kirk (30) completed the trail in the then fastest time of 25 days. (When there is a number after a hiker’s name, that is the age of the hiker when he or she finished hiking the trail. A hometown is listed if we know it, as is the year of completion.) In 2012, Diane Van Deren (52, Colorado), a world-renowned endurance runner, completed the MST in 22 days, 5 hours and 3 minutes, currently the speed record (when the trail was 938 miles, not following the Coastal Crescent route).
Scot “TABA” Ward (34, Lexington KY) has completed the MST five times (2008, 2009 (twice), 2011 and 2012) and used his knowledge to write the first detailed guidebook for the trail: The Thru-Hikers Manual for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (2009, 2014). Scot was the first to hike from the mountains (May 18) to the sea (August 7), then turn around and hike back to the mountains (October 18, 2009), called a “yo-yo” hike. He was first, and only so far, to skateboard the road sections in 2012. In 2016, Kimberly “Legs” Brookshire (Charlotte) became the first female to “yo-yo” thru-hike. Legally blind athlete Trevor Thomas and his guide dog Tennille completed their thru-hike in 2013. The MST has hosted three Warrior Expeditions treks to date and the first were Sharon “Mama Goose” Smith and Craig “JetLag” Smith in 2014.
Jim Hallsey (65, 2012) was first to paddle parts of the Yadkin, Dan and Neuse Rivers. Jim was also the State Parks trails director in 1977 when he counseled with Secretary Howard N. Lee — then NC Secretary of Natural Resources and Community Development. On September 9, 1977 Howard Lee delivered a speech to a National Trails Conference in North Carolina– to say North Carolina should create a “state trail from the mountains to the coast leading through communities as well as natural areas.” Jim also served on the board of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, serves as the MST Task Force Leader for the northern section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and has been an exemplary supporter of all things MST.
Jennifer Pharr Davis (33, Asheville), upon completing her hike of the MST in November 2017, wrote in her final blog: “The main purpose of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is not to walk across the state of North Carolina; that’s a fringe benefit. The path’s largest impact will be felt by individuals and families across the state who transform their bodies, think through their thoughts, and grapple honestly with their emotions on a section near their home. Long-distance hiking is a luxury but being able to recreate outdoors and enjoy natural areas is a necessity. It is what we were made to do. Regardless of whether you are walking across the state or hiking in your backyard, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail allows us to be who we are and discover who we can become.”
Many hikers have trail names but few are better than Mark “Stumpknocker” Suiters (59, Spring Hill, FL) and Cynthia “Mrs. Gorp” Taylor-Miller (55, Wallingford, VT) who completed the trail in 2012 and added the MST to the extensive list of long distance trails they have hiked. Melissa “Queen of the MST” Thompson (37, thru-hiker from Sugar Mountain, NC) said: “The central form of currency among people along the trail was kindness and respect.” Ian “Wolfpack” Fraher (23, Greensboro) completed in seven weeks in 2010, saying “I fell in love with North Carolina! The natural wonder, rich history and southern hospitality all contributed to the experience.” Jule Picton (23), a thru-hiker for three months in 2015, said “I brought a guitar with me that drew a lot of attention. Churches were our best friend the entire course.” Amy “Tender Foot” Fiddler (26, Sherrodsville, OH), a completer in 2014 and 2016, said “the kindness that people showed us restored our faith in humanity.” She told of people offering a dozen eggs, apples, string cheese, bags of chips, bottles of water and more. Thru-hiker Annie Porche’s (28) pup helped put an end to a string of car break-ins during her hike. The dog noticed some characters loitering in a parking lot off-trail, began barking persistently and the perpetrators were eventually arrested and charged with multiple crimes.
All hikers who have completed the entire MST are recognized here.
Section-Hiking Through the Years
Section hikers who have completed the entire trail make up about 35% of all MST completers. Getting to know more about these hikers might motivate others to hit the trail. For 11 months, Brad Beavers (29, Cedar Bluff, VA) hiked and biked, and paddled the Neuse, finishing in October 2017. His favorite places were Linville Gorge, scenic and enjoyable Lake Brandt in Greensboro, and the mountains in general.
John Lanman (69, 2016, Blowing Rock) explained that due to his age, physical condition and aversion to camping, a thru-hike was out of the question. “Section hiking allows you to adjust timing and effort to any level; allows hiking at different times of the year to reflect weather (e.g. summer in the mountains, winter on the coast; spring and fall in the Piedmont); makes the hike a series of enjoyable outings rather than one big project; requires less planning effort per hike (although probably more planning time overall); can take advantage of short notice hikes and/or adjustments based on previous experiences. Possible disadvantages: never getting your ‘hiking legs;’ less bragging rights; longer commitment of time.”
John hiked from 2003 to 2016 (13 years) and approximately 150 hiking days. John “hiked” the 16-mile section along the Blue Ridge Parkway from US 321 to US 421 probably a hundred times as a volunteer during the construction phase. “I really didn’t focus on the goal of hiking the entire trail until 2012 and the great majority of my hiking was after that. I first hiked the local trails, then decided to complete the northern mountain sections south to Mt. Mitchell, then expanded that to the entire Parkway section. Once that was completed, I decided it was possible to hike in the Smoky Mountains and then continue east to the Outer Banks. When I finished I was 69, a slower and less agile hiker than when I started. My favorite locations were looking down the street in Sylva to the courthouse on the hill; passing the waterfalls on the Buck Springs Trail south of the Pisgah Inn; viewing the remains of the doctor’s summer residence at Rattlesnake Lodge; enjoying the views and wading in Linville Gorge; chatting with the ‘town historian’ (whose wife ran the general store) in Rockford; admiring the wilderness experience generated in Greensboro and along the Falls Lake Trail, even when civilization was just over the hill; visiting Bentonville and Moore’s Creek Battlegrounds; the Neusiok Trail with its swamps and boardwalk; and hikes along the beach on the Outer Banks.”
Carla Gardner completed section hiking in 2017 (she resides on Emerald Isle.) “I did not think it was a wise choice for this 65-year-old granny body to take on carrying all my necessities in a backpack for the first time in my life. Also I have a rich life as granny nanny and I wanted to hike but keep up with my regular life. By section hiking you have an automobile in case anything happens and you can go out to dinner at night sometimes. But segment hiking takes serious planning.” Carla first hiked the Neusiok Trail, got hooked, and then hiked from October 2016 to conclude on August 25, 2017, taking a total of 83 days (biked 20 miles of segment 5, at least 40 miles of Segment 9, all 180 miles of Segments 11-16B, and a lot of Segments 17 and 18.)
Carla thinks the Neusiok is one of the most mysterious and beautiful places. “We hiked in early spring without insects but with flowers and lush swamp vegetation. I also loved Hanging Rock, Stone Mountain and Pilot Mountain so much that I will be taking the grandchildren camping there. We were there during the early spring and late summer, and weekdays we had the campgrounds to ourselves.”
Carla’s brother Roger Holland resides in Texas and is almost finished hiking the MST. “Due to my age (61) and physical limitations, I did not think that I could backpack for very long, so section hiking was the only practical method of completing the trail. To make hiking even easier, I ‘leap-frogged’ small (three-to-five mile) sections using my bicycle and van (i.e., lock a bike at one end, drive to the other end, park vehicle, hike back to bike, pedal back to vehicle; repeat.) Leap-frogging allowed me to day-hike with a pack that weighed less than 10 pounds. Sometimes I teamed up with friends or my sister Carla. Some segments were not conducive to leap-frogging, so I had to backpack. The longest hike was between NC 226 and NC 181 in Segment 4, which took me four days and three nights. At the end of that hike, I was pretty bushed and convinced that leap-frogging was the best way for me to complete the MST.”
When asked “Why the MST?” Roger answered: “In 2014, I had a blockage in my heart, received two stents, and my Cardiologist recommended more cardiac exercise. My sister suggested the MST as a healthy way to combine cardiac exercise, have a great adventure, and explore North Carolina. At first, it seemed like an overwhelming task. My engineering mind took over and created a plan for converting a cargo van into an RV, which I used to leap-frog with my road bike.” Roger started the trail at Jockey’s Ridge on April 6, 2016. When he was 86 miles from finishing, he had shoulder surgery and an 18-month recovery, and now anticipates finishing in October 2018. “I will have spent 92 days hiking the MST, spread out over two and a half years, and every step of it was very memorable. At home in Texas I would plan my start and stop points, where I would camp, how I would break down difficult leap-frogging sections, all in an effort to maximize my progress on the trail. After an initial drive to NC, I kept my van at a relative’s house near Charlotte, which was a good central point to attack Segments 1-10. I would fly into Charlotte, Uber over to pick up my van, load up supplies and drive to the MST. After 10-12 days of hiking, I would return to Charlotte, clean up my van and fly home to rest and plan my next trip.”
Roger cited these pros and cons: “Resupply was never an issue, because I carried all of my clothes, equipment, food, and water in my van. When I needed to resupply, it was just a matter of driving to a store, instead of having to hike to a very limited number of resupply points. And at the end of the day, instead of pitching a tent and sleeping on the ground, I had a comfortable van in which to cook and sleep. Section hiking allowed me to hike a section when the temperature was more favorable. Negatives were: Section hiking is much more expensive than thru hiking. To complete the MST, I made ten trips from Texas to NC, each requiring an airline ticket, Uber fees, van and gas expenses, campground fees, etc.”
In 2012, Jim Hallsey, the 32nd person to hike the entire MST, shared these comments about section hiking. “I chose section hiking because it best fit my schedule of family and other commitments. I did set a general time frame of six months to complete it so as to still experience the state’s geography and seasons in a reasonably condensed time frame. It may be difficult for people with jobs to take months to complete a thru-hike of the MST. In my younger days I was familiar with the benefits/necessity of section hiking several hundred miles of the AT 3-10 days at a time. Logistics of resupply on a thru-hike can be problematic.” Jim continued: “I turned 65 during my section hike and completed the trek within about six months, March 9 to September 3. I hiked 62 days (561.5 miles), paddled 16 days (251.2 miles) and biked 10 days (226.1 miles), a total of 1,038.8 miles during 84 days on the trail. I averaged 9.1 mi. per day hiking, 15.7 miles per day paddling and 22.6 miles per day biking.”
Jim pointed out a few things he most enjoyed on the MST. “Trekking from east to west beginning in the spring allowed me to experience early spring to late summer at the coolest, least buggy times. Section hiking required a lot of shuttle assistance which eventually involved 40 friends and family members. Many hiked, canoed or biked with me providing memorable fellowship and encouragement. One break in my trek allowed me to welcome a grandson into the world, who now enjoys hiking and exploring the MST with Grampa and his parents! The final three days of my trek were shared with my (family) and Gramma provided the final shuttle and celebration upon completion.”
Susan “Patch” and Scott “Pepper” Carpenter (41) completed their section hike in 2015 (May 2014-December 2015). “Our home is centrally located to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the High Country, at Milepost 313 on the BRP, so that is really how it all began. We started walking on the weekends following the MST near our home, then the Western part of the state past Asheville. We camped at state parks in a tent, a few private campgrounds, and a two night free stay with a friend in Greensboro, as well as a few Airbnb stays. We never stayed in a hotel. I do remember our very first backpack trip starting from Beacon Heights on the BRP for two nights through Wilson Creek, another backcountry trip from Clingmans Dome in the Smokies to Deep Creek near Bryson City.
We literally leap-frogged with two cars between Mt. Mitchell and Stone Mountain past Elkin towards Greensboro; past Asheville west towards the Smokies; in the Sauratown mountains & Hanging Rock area. We loved the Plott Balsams, and rural backroads of Surry County. As we approached Durham and Research Triangle Park we could rely on my parents’ home to stay. I remember going there for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and hiking during those breaks. Dad was a true trail angel and picked us up and transported us wherever in the Falls Lake area. Our walking inspired my 70- year-old parents that they too started walking sections of Falls Lake and were intentional to get outside and stay in shape.”
Greg and Germaine Yahn (Greensboro) were fully employed when they started and could not have taken the time off needed to thru hike. “You can section hike while fully employed. You can begin close to where you live, practice shuttling, preparing yourself, and developing a plan for hiking the entire trail. You can choose when (time of year, day of week, & time of day) to do a certain section. But it requires a lot of shuttling – planning, driving, staging.” Greg hiked between June 2011 and September 2014, one month shy of being 67 when finished. Germaine (68) hiked June 2011 to October 2015.
The Yahns described things they most enjoyed about the trail. Greg said his favorite places are in the mountains – Linville Gorge, Wilson Creek, Doughton Park. “I surprisingly enjoyed hiking the Outer Banks (I’m not much of a beach person), but mostly I enjoyed meeting and talking to people along the way in small towns and convenience stores along the route. And there was all I learned about North Carolina as we threaded our way across the state.” Germaine said ditto, and added that bicycling in the Western part of the state was challenging.
Jason Nieuwsma (36) took 23 months to complete his section-hike in 2017. “I had long imagined someday tackling a major long distance trail. I was thrilled to find out the MST could be accessed for long weekend hikes from where my family lived in Chapel Hill.” Jason started October 9, 2015, recorded 1289 miles (total hike, bike and “lost”) and 100,000’ of elevation over 40 days on the trail, to finish on August 25, 2017. He was charmed by the fundamentally decent and kind people along the trail. “I now have a new and overwhelmingly positive sense of thinking of myself as a North Carolinian.”
At the time of this writing, Boone resident Lou McLean was early in her segment hike. She said: “I had no choice in the matter with a full-time job. Factors in favor of section-hiking: choosing the times and dates to run (can adjust based on weather, illness, etc.); not having to carry camping gear; focus on the trails that are completed and save some road sections for later; use supported events for some of the sections; I can do sections in any order and in any direction; convenience in being able to fit it into your already busy life as circumstances allow; skipping sections to allow for trail repairs, construction or flooding.” Lou also cited negative factors of section hiking: easy to get side-tracked with other interests when it is drawn out over such a long time; no guarantees that health, opportunity, etc., will last for that duration; not having the continuity of the thru-hike; not having the satisfaction of self-sufficiency that I would think would come from thru-hiking.”
As of January 2018, Lou had completed 187 miles. “I began on October 15, 2016 with the first steps off Clingmans Dome. My goal is to finish by my 60th birthday, September 24, 2023. No matter the time frame I will save the last few miles at Jockey’s Ridge so that I ‘finish’ there. (As a runner) I am currently training for a 100-mile event this fall so I will be doing much longer runs this spring and summer (on the MST).”
Yvonne “Princess Doah” Entingh (57, Bellbrook, OH) is a section-hiker with an unusual start. She started hiking June 15, 2014 in Georgia at Amicalola Falls State Park, hiked the entire Benton MacKaye Trail, followed the AT in the Smokies to Clingmans Dome (342 miles total), then started the MST July 13. At Pilot Mountain State Park, she left the trail for medical care on a leg, and then returned to finish at Jockey’s Ridge on May 30, 2015. She summarized “The journey was well worth it.”
Mary Ann “MA from PA” Nissley, from Chalfont, PA, started her MST hike May 29, 1992 and 25 years later finished on October 6, 2017, at age 84. No, she wasn’t that slow but was busy hiking 32 other trails, including the AT twice. She was the first woman to complete the Florida Trail and the Long Path. To complete the MST she made five trips to NC, one with her “grandboys” hiking with her. Her highlights included “the mountains, the Outer Banks, the people I met and talking to a church group where I spent the night.” Why the MST? “I thought what fun that would be.” Mary Ann started hiking in 1984 and “after my husband died, I really started hiking in earnest and it got in my blood. He was so proud of me that I could hike like that. He couldn’t hike with me but he shuttled me when I did the section hike. I am working on the Buckeye Trail now.” We are honored that “MA from PA,” who at age 84 is currently our oldest completer, has added the MST to the growing list of trails she’s hiked.
We’ll soon share Section Hiking the MST (Part 2). This will include suggestions and tips for hikers, shared by MST completers. And remember, “No place is too far to hike if you have the time.” (Danny Bernstein)