From Clingman’s Dome in the west to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the east, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail or MST is expected to travel about 1,000 miles through the state of North Carolina. At present, 680 miles of the trail have been completed, including bike paths as well as walking paths with a few sections running with rivers for canoeing. Getting this far was a challenge that was overcome through the efforts of persistent individuals as well as more than a little help from the Friends.
Celebrating the 40th year of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at the Gathering in Elkin on March 24-26, hikers from all across the state will join for fellowship, planning and learning including hearing from some of those involved in getting the trail started.
In the 1970s, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provided matching funds for municipalities to create parks. In 1973, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed the State Trails Act directing the Secretary of Natural Resources and Community Development to create a Trails Committee for the state.
At that time Jim Hallsey was charged with the organizational responsibilities of the trail. “I was the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources in 1977,” said Howard Lee, who had been appointed by Governor James Hunt due to Lee’s aggressive greenspace projects as mayor of Chapel Hill. “Jim Halsey convinced me that he was not feeling very supported by the Department of Natural Resources.”
Doris Hammett of the State Trails Committee and the American Trails Association Board had been able to get the National Trails Symposium to come to Lake Junaluska in Haywood County where Lee gave a memorable speech that changed the trail system in North Carolina forever.
“Jim talked me into putting a line in my speech giving [the MST] more attention and get people more serious about developing the trails,” explained Lee. “Governor Hunt said, ‘I’ll support it, but I’m not putting anything in the budget for it,’ so I went forward with it.”
On Sept. 9, 1977, Lee spoke about creating a trail that “could draw people together and help us know a little more about ourselves and help us understand our neighbors a little better.” He also encouraged other states to follow suit suggesting, “these state trails could be linked together to establish a national trail.”
This model served well as the MST winds its way across many pre-existing parks and trails. Hallsey and the Trails Committee prepared an MST feasibility report in 1978 that incorporated federal, state and local greenspaces and plans making the best use of land and funds for the proposed MST.
Not only were the practical concerns of space and money considered, but Hallsey also recognized the potential attractions near the proposed route incorporating local cultural, historical and natural features. The MST at Elkin Municipal Park is a great example of this where the historic national Overmountain Victory Trail, playgrounds and other recreational activities complement the state path.
Although the initial excitement led to the creation of the MST in the 1990s, the momentum had begun to slow, instigating Allen DeHart to found the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The FMST is an organization of primarily volunteers who promote and maintain the trail as well as aid hikers. Structured into smaller groups with designated sections each group schedules trail workdays to get together and do whatever work their section of the trail needs done from cleaning up trash to new trail construction.
The Elkin Valley Trails Association is one such group though its interest extends beyond the MST including economic and community development of Elkin and the wellness of its citizens. “I’m so proud of the EVTA and their leadership in bringing this part of the trail corridor to life,” declared Hallsey.
Started in the college dorm room of first president Jeff Brewer in 1997, the FMST began with 10 task forces spread throughout the state who were charged with developing and maintaining the trail. In 2008, Executive Director Kate Dixon became the first staff member which now includes two full-time and two part-time employees serving nearly 1,000 members from the office in Raleigh.
The goals of the FMST also have expanded. Originally a parent group to organize the various task forces the FMST is, “the source of information for how to hike the trail and the overall advocate [for the MST],” described Dixon.
With a mile of trail for each member there is still more work to do than time and resources permit, however, those involved with this long-term project have been reasonable in their expectations. “Typically have about 700 people who volunteer [to work on the MST],” explained Dixon. “Some of them give hundreds of hours and some of them just give a couple. We have about 30,000 hours put in by volunteers in a given year.”
“I didn’t really even think it would ever really come into being, but the person who took my place was as committed to it as I was, “said Lee. “I’m really just elated and flattered to have it take on a life of its own. I feel more blessed today to be a part of this than I did when we started.”
For more information on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail or their Gathering in Elkin, go to mountainstoseatrail.org.
Beanie Taylor can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Twitter @TBeanieTaylor.