Up at 6 a.m., out at 7 and at the trailhead at Greybeard Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway an hour later. It’s a foggy and windy day as Sharon and I start another section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). This section of the trail has not yet been mowed and the wet grass laps at our feet. We get up to Lunch Rocks quickly but there are no views of the surrounding mountains. A Gray’s lily, one lonely stalk with two flowers, flutter in the breeze. What is it doing there? The plant is considered globally rare, seen only in the high mountains of North Carolina, most famously on Roan Mountain in mid-June.
I’m wearing a bright red splint on my arm, protecting a broken wrist. I can only handle one hiking pole but I was not going to give up these few days of hiking. We had it planned for weeks. The hand specialist said I need to wear the splint when I did “perilous” activities. I never thought of hiking as perilous but I’ll follow doctors’ orders.
Just around the corner, we discover a patch of purple-fringed orchids. These are also rare plants though here they’re blooming abundantly. With this rich plant life, I’m no longer complaining about the lack of view. I’ve been here on clear, sunny days but Sharon, who lives in Charlotte, is just going to have to come back in better weather.
In North Carolina, the MST starts on top of Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It weaves in and out of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then traverses the state to Jockey’s Ridge State Park just north of Cape Hatteras National Recreational Area on the Outer Banks. However, that does not mean that the trail is a downhill walk from west to east.
The trail, marked by white circles, offers a unique trip of about 1,000 miles, reaching high peaks with outstanding views, green valleys, rushing streams, farm land, and sand dunes. Currently, the MST is about half on footpaths and half on backcountry roads. The trail may not be finished for years or even decades so there’s no point waiting for its completion.
The next stretch from Glassmine to Balsam Gap starts with wet, wobbly steps. I go down sideways, like an old man. Sharon takes my picture and I ask her to delete it. She thinks it would show how bad the stairs are but it shows how poor my balance is. Yes, I could blame my splint but I don’t want my slow, halting walk to be recorded.
By now we’re at over 5,000 feet and the foliage is a mixture of spring and summer flowers. Rue anemones are still blooming and even one abandoned spring beauty. Talk about late bloomers!
At Balsam Gap, we cross the Parkway and start our long climb up to Blackstock Knob, about 900 feet in less than two miles. The thick spruces have blocked out all the light and there’s little undergrowth except for ferns. The trail, carpeted with needles, is soft and springy and the footing is excellent. After all the concern about slippery rocks in the last sections, I don’t mind the climb. Blackstock Knob is one of the 40 mountains over 6000 feet in the Southern Appalachians. It’s a new mountain for Sharon; she now has summitted 21 on the list; I finished all 40 several years ago. The top offers no view or fantastic flowers. If it wasn’t on the 6,000 footer list, the mountain would have been ignored. We celebrate the top with a break and a piece of chocolate.
It should have been down, down, down from here but the trail has several climbs punctuated by rocky, wobbly sections. Finally we reach Sharon’s car on the Mt. Mitchell road – we’ve now done over 300 miles of the MST. She shuttles me back to my car and we say goodbye. This is the last stretch we’re going to do while staying at my house in Asheville. From now on, it will be camping, backpacking and motelling.
This past April, President and Mrs. Obama visited Asheville on a private vacation. During his weekend trip, the President spent hours on the golf course but the first couple walked on the MST for an hour. It brought national, though admittedly short-lived attention, to the MST. “He is the first sitting president to ever visit the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said. Hikers were thrilled.
Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage In North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the landscape is more than a scenic backdrop – it literally shapes the culture. Danny Bernstein’s newest guidebook, Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage, lists 66 day hikes, with all the directions and maps you need to get out on the trail. Bernstein discusses the unique history of specific trails, from moonshining and the origins of NASCAR in Stone Mountain State Park to Moses H. Cone’s Flat Top Manor on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She tells hikers how they can follow the path of the Overmountain Men during the Revolutionary War, visit the fragile environment of Bat Cave Preserve in Hickory Nut Gorge, and walk beneath the monumental and controversial Linn Cove Viaduct.
Follow Danny’s adventures on the trail at www.hikertohiker.com/thishikinglife
Danny Bernstein is a hiker, hike leader for the Carolina Mountain Club, and outdoor writer. Her two guidebooks Hiking the Carolina Mountains (2007) and Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage (2009) were published by Milestone Press. She writes for regional magazines including Mountain Xpress and Smoky Mountain Living and blogs about the outdoors at www.hikertohiker.com. Danny has hiked the whole Appalachian Trail, all the trails in the Smokies and the South Beyond 6000. Her mission is to get people out of their cars and hiking.