It took a year for Danelle Hallenbeck, a 51-year-old mother of three, to cross the entire state on foot — a 1,175-mile trek from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.
She braved the icy path down from Clingman’s Dome. She navigated the steep drop down Linville Gorge, the “Grand Canyon” of North Carolina. She stared down a black bear. She walked miles of lonely asphalt.
“I feel so much more connected to this state,” said Hallenbeck, who lives in Guilford County. “I did get chased by a couple of dogs.”
In the last 10 years, only 81 people have walked the whole Mountains-to-Sea Trail — Hallenbeck’s chosen path. It has existed for more than 40 years, passing through or near every big city in the state except Charlotte. But to the state’s huge flock of newcomers, the trail remains a mysterious rumor.
One of those transplants, Libby Meiners, wrote Curious NC asking for a guide. “It just popped into my head,” she wrote in an email. “Is it finished? How long is it? How long would it take to hike it end to end? Do people hike it like they do the AT?”
A Trail Guide
The late hiking enthusiast Allen de Hart, one of the trail’s architects, walked its whole length in two months and 11 days.
But most people, including Hallenbeck, tackle the trail in sections — a few days at a time.
“I tried to finish it by the time I was 50,” she said. “It didn’t work out because I had kids and a life.”
But there’s no pressure to plunk a hiking boot on every hill. The trail ducks in and out of woods between Asheville and Morehead City, making easy day hikes.
To start, pick a spot to begin your journey, either the top of Clingman’s Dome in the far west or on Jockey’s Ridge at the coast. Or a million white-dot trail blazes in between.
For Triangle walkers, consider section 11b, a 68.5-mile jaunt that starts at Falls Dam in Raleigh and follows the Neuse River Greenway into Johnston County, crossing two suspension bridges and — repeatedly — the Neuse River.
Work in Progress
Most people don’t realize the trail isn’t all a dirt footpath in the woods.
Out of its 1,200-mile entirety, only about 700 miles of the MST can be called a true trail, and most of that covers its course through the western mountains.
Much of the section running east of Raleigh involves walking on roadways — as rural and quiet as can be found, but still asphalt.
Every year, the MST adds about 10 or 15 miles of new trail, said Kate Dixon, executive director of Friends of the MST. That means the trail often is adjusted to connect with a new off-road section.
The largest of these happened in 2017 when the MST officially swung south to add in the Neuse River greenways in Raleigh, Clayton and Smithfield. When Hallenbeck made her crossing, she took a kayak down the Neuse River past New Bern, thanks to the nonprofit paddling group Hope Floats.
The trail is still being built through a partnership between nonprofit trail groups, federal and state agencies and several land trusts. Eventually, they all hope, the MST will stretch across the state without any help from roads, Dixon said. Adding a section through the Cherokee reservation will soon knock out the last paved stretch in the mountains, but much land remains to be added.
“Everyone agrees it’s a very, very long way away,” Dixon said.
Not a step-trail
The MST may lack the national reputation of the Appalachian Trail, but Dixon said its profile keeps growing.
The Friends of the MST note that an average of 20 people walk the whole length each year compared to the handful that went the distance a decade ago. Hundreds of volunteers keep the trail in shape, and a long list of “trail angels” provide lodging and food to hikers who pass by.
Each year, the trail and its signature white dot blazes become more familiar.
“There’s some tipping point where the average person thinks, ‘I can do that,’ “ said Dixon. “That’s what we’re shooting for.”
As for Libby Meiners, whose curiosity brought us here, she’s right on that tipping point, considering few feasible spots.