Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains
By Lynda McDaniel
The vision for a hiking trail stretching from the peaks of Western North Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean flowed as naturally as a leaf that washes downstream from the mountains to the sea. The foundation for such a vision was laid in 1973 when the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Trails System Act, both evidence of and a rallying point for the state's energetic trail community. A period of excitement and brainstorming followed, with individuals and groups exploring possibilities such as community greenways, canoe trails, and trail connections across the state. Not surprising, then, was the immediate and enthusiastic response in 1977 when Howard Lee, then-secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, challenged the participants at the Fourth National Trails Symposium at Lake Junaluska to undertake the establishment of a trail that would traverse and showcase the natural beauty of the entire state.
The idea took off, and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), as it came to be known, was under way, though the first trail segment was not dedicated until 1982. Currently, approximately 365.4 miles are completed, primarily in the mountains and on the Outer Banks. When completed, the MST will course 700 to 800 miles of footpaths, bike trails, horse trails, riverways, and backcountry roads on federal, state, and privately owned lands.
Like many national trails in the United States, the MST is constructed and maintained primarily by a cadre of dedicated volunteers made up of local, national, and even international trail enthusiasts. Project Raleigh, for example, brought 40 young volunteers from 13 countries for a summer of work on the trail in 1988. Made kin by a love of the outdoors, warm correspondences extolling the beauties of Western North Carolina continue today.
Twelve segments of the MST lie within Western North Carolina; nine of these segments are completed and another is well under way. They traverse virtually every habitat in the region, one of the most diverse in a temperate zone where robust plant and animal life thrives. Trails range in elevation from lofty Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest peak in the Great Smokies, and Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest point east of the Mississippi, down to Linville Gorge, considered to be the deepest gorge in the eastern United States. Blazes on the MST are 3-inch white circles; alternate routes are blazed with 3-inch blue circles. For detailed accounts of each segment, connecting trails, and natural features and attractions, refer to Allen de Hart's book, North Carolina Hiking Trails, third edition.
Before planning to hike any segment discussed here, please call ahead to learn if the trail is completed and officially open. For updates on trail development, contact the Mountain Region Trails Specialist, Division of Parks & Recreation, Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources Regional Office, 59 Woodfin Street, Asheville, NC 28802. Phone (704) 251-6208.
Approximately 25 miles long, this segment in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is still in the planning stages, but nearly 75 percent is already available for hiking because it will use many existing trails. The observation tower at the Clingmans Dome trailhead affords majestic views of the Smokies. The forest is lush in places, including virgin groves of spruce and American beech (Fagus grandifolia) that host birds such as the black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus), northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus), red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), and a variety of warblers. White-tailed deer and wild hogs are also evident.
Still in the planning stages, this segment will cross the Cherokee Reservation, paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway.
[Fig. 27(14)] This portion of the trail runs for approximately 35 miles from Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) Balsam Gap Ranger Station (milepost 442.9) to the intersection of the BRP with NC 215 (BRP milepost 423.2). Abundant wildflowers and shrubs such as rhododendron and azalea and a number of wild berry patchesblueberry (Vaccinium), strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), and blackberry (Rubus argutus)grow along this scenic section. It harbors northern hardwood and spruce-fir forest bird species including black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus), brown creeper (Certhia familiaris), wild turkey, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and black-capped chickadee. Grassy Ridge mine, an old mica mine, is visible off Grassy Ridge Overlook at BRP milepost 436.8. Spectacular views of the Great Balsam Mountains and the Tuckasegee River Valley are visible from Double Top Mountain Overlook (BRP milepost 435.3). This segment also offers excellent vantage points for watching the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) migration.
[Fig. 28(11)] Running from NC 215 (BRP milepost 423.2) to the BRP French Broad River Bridge (milepost 393.5) for approximately 39 miles (66 miles if following the alternative Art Loeb Trail, the only loop on the MST at this time), this high-elevation segment follows the Pisgah Ledge through the upper reaches of the Pigeon River watershed to spectacular vistas including views of Devil's Courthouse. The alternative route, Art Loeb Trail, drops down to the Davidson River before climbing back to Mount Pisgah through the Pink Beds (see Mount Pisgah, and Pink Beds). The trail courses past cascades and waterfalls, conifer groves, thickets of mountain laurel, and tunnels of rhododendrons that are breathtakingly beautiful when their blossoms open in May and June. Wild turkeys and northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) roam below as common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas), white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), several species of warblers, and even a few ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) fly above.
From the French Broad River Bridge (BRP milepost 393.5) to the Folk Art Center (BRP milepost 382.1), approximately 14 miles, this segment follows rolling terrain through forests of pine and hardwood. The understory includes ferns, orchids, wild ginger (Asarum canadense), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), as well as the ubiquitous rhododendron and mountain laurel. Along the river's edge, it is not uncommon to find great blue heron (Ardea herodias), green heron (Butorides virescens), and belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). This is also a good site for watching the spring migration of orioles and warblers, generally in April and May.
Approximately 24 miles long and beginning at the Folk Art Center (BRP milepost 282.1), this section parallels the BRP most of the way to Balsam Gap (milepost 359.8) and offers excellent bird-watching opportunities for species such as yellow-bellied sapsucker, golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera), scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), black-billed cuckoo, and brown creeper. At one point, the trail follows an old carriage trail to the remains of Rattlesnake Lodge, the former summer home of Asheville physician and outdoor activist Dr. C. P. Ambler. Farther north, The Craggies are considered by many to be the richest botanical area along the Parkway. The forest floor is thick with mosses and ferns, flame azalea, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), and dwarf iris (Iris verna), and the late-spring Catawba rhododendron displays near Craggy Gardens are spectacular.
High-country hiking is excellent along this stretch which runs approximately 14.5 miles from Balsam Gap Parking Overlook (BRP milepost 359.8) to U.S. Forest Service Black Mountain Campground. In these spruce-fir forests chances are good for sighting the northern saw-whet owl, pine siskin (Spinus pinus), red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), veery (Hylocichla fuscenscens), downy woodpecker (Dendrocopos pubsecens), golden-crowned kinglet, and a number of warblers. Small mammals and white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats (Felis rufus), and gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) roam this area. Some of the most spectacular scenery east of the Mississippi includes views of the Asheville Watershed, Potato Knob and Mount Mitchell in the Black Mountain range, and the nearby Great Craggy Mountains. This trail segment also includes a short side trail to the summit of Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest point east of the Mississippi River.
This is a particularly scenic segment running from U.S. Forest Service Black Mountain Campground to US 221 near Woodlawn, North Carolina, approximately 28 miles. This portion of the trail is under construction. Stunning vistas of Grand-father Mountain, Table Rock, Mount Mitchell, Green Knob, and Lake Tahoma surround. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and black bears live in the forests, where a thick understory of blueberry, galax, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and trailing arbutus thrives.
Still in the planning stages, this segment will follow the established Overmountain Victory Trail for part of its route.
Beginning at Kistler Memorial Highway (old NC 105), this section courses approximately 27 miles to NC 181. Breathtaking and rigorous, it travels from the western rim of Linville Gorge, descending to and fording (no bridge) the Linville River below (elevation 1,280 feet). The trail then ascends to the eastern rim (elevation 3,800 feet) as it heads up Shortoff Mountain and past a geological formation locally known as the Chimneys. This is an excellent area for viewing peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) and watching the autumn hawk migrations. Monarch butterflies also head through here in September on their annual migration to Mexico. Forests typical of the area feature Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), oaks, white pine, American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), red maple (Acer rubrum), yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) over an understory of dog-hobble (Viburnum alnifolium), chinquapin (Castanea pumila), Allegheny sand myrtle (Leiophyllum buxifolium prostatum), and blueberry.
Along this segment from NC 181 to Beacon Heights (BRP milepost 305.2), approximately 18 miles, there are many cascades and gorgeous waterfalls, especially along South Harper Creek and North Harper Creek and the Hunt-Fish Falls trails. Though views are limited where the trail ascends the back side of Beacon Heights, the sections near Harper Creek, Lost Cove Creek, and Gragg Prong are picturesque. North Harper Creek is noted for its excellent trout fishing and displays of wildflowers.
This biologically diverse segment runs its entire length along the BRP from Beacon Heights (BRP milepost 305.2) to Blowing Rock (BRP milepost 291.9), approximately 26 miles. It utilizes many trails such as the Rich Mountain Trail in the Moses Cone Estate, Boone Fork Trail, and the Tanawha Trail, where views of migrating hawks are excellent. (Tanawha is Cherokee for "fabulous hawk.") The Tanawha Trail also showcases the Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain.
Birds along this segment include the winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), peregrine falcon, black-capped chickadee, northern saw-whet owl, and numerous warblers. Migratory loons, grebes, and mergansers have been spotted near Julian Price Lake and Bass Lake at Cone Memorial Park. This area is also noted for its abundance of salamandersat least 16 species.
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