North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail

To get to Hanging Rock, the MST follows the Sauratown Trail, one of North Carolina’s oldest long-distance trails. It passes farmland and is surprisingly isolated from towns.


By Laurie Paolicelli

The North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) is 1,175 miles long (that’s the distance from Portland, Maine to Atlanta). It runs from Clingmans Dome on the Tennessee border all the way to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks, ending on top of whatever sand dune happens to be the tallest that day.

The path in the western part of the state is almost exclusively trail, running across mountains and through forests on public land, winding over and around peaks until it reaches Stone Mountain State Park, 300 miles from the trailhead.

Then, things get complicated – the MST is sometimes on trails and sometimes on roads where a route has not been built yet. “We continue to seek landowners who would be willing to allow the trail to cross their land in this area,” said Kate Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. “We build the trail where the landowner wants it – the landowner is in charge.” A trail through rural areas is just two-and-a-half feet wide.

In the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, the MST runs through towns, over sidewalks, back into woods, and then down asphalt shoulders, weaving its way along lakeshores north of Greensboro, on a riverwalk in Hillsborough, along the Eno River and Falls Lake, and onto greenways around Raleigh, Clayton and Smithfield. From there, you can choose two routes – paddle the Neuse River or walk and bike through farms and forests in southeastern North Carolina.

The last 81 miles or so are a combination of ferry rides, bridge crossings, and walks along the pale, sloped beaches of the Outer Banks.

Hillsborough River Walk

Hillsborough’s Riverwalk is a part of the MST and one of the highlights. In fact, it’s included as one of the hikes in the new book published by UNC Press called 40 Great Day Hikes on the MST.

Hillsborough, Orange County and North Carolina State Parks are making good progress to extend the Riverwalk west so you can walk directly to State Park’s Occoneechee Natural Area and on to Moorefields and Orange County’s Seven Mile Creek Natural Area. This connection is expected to open in the next two years.

To the east, Wake and Durham counties have completed their parts of the trail, but there is a gap between US 70 in Hillsborough and the Pleasant Green Road trail head in Eno River State Park just inside the Orange County line.

Dixon said Alamance County has also been building its section with a particular recent focus on Saxapahaw where they have opened a 1.75 mile trail along the river.

“Orange County’s goal is to build the trail from the Hillsborough area to connect to the trail in Saxapahaw. A number of landowners in this area have offered to donate easements to the county, and we would love to hear from others who are interested,” says Dixon.

More than 100 people have walked the entire trail to date. Local businessman Mark Zimmerman’s son, Graham, was one of them.

Graham Zimmerman

“Walking the Mountains to Sea Trail has been the experience of my lifetime,” said Graham. “Reflecting on the trail has become a daily meditation for me. I think back on everything that made my trek a deeply human experience, from seeing the natural beauty of our state to the sudden reset of my personal priorities and ease of feeling gratitude after miles of physical pain and mental challenges. Most of all, I come back to the people I met along the way.”

Graham says that having more trails would enhance the experience for all walkers.

Dixon and a large group of stakeholders are working hard to convince local landowners to dedicate a portion of their land to the state trail. They are offering interested landowners a chance to be a part of something bigger, a trail that goes from the mountains to the sea.

Friends of the MST is installing small road signs to show the trail’s route along North Carolina’s back roads and byways. The words “Current Route” appear at the bottom, indicating that the road is a temporary solution.

In towns, the MST can have significant economic impact. Hillsborough’s Riverwalk is a great example. Visitors to Hillsborough have discovered the trail and come to town to use it and then go to restaurants, shop, or even stay overnight.

But the most important benefits of the trail are the enjoyment it brings to users and the community it builds. Walking outdoors is the most popular form of exercise, and the impact it has on physical and mental health has never been more obvious than during this pandemic. When complete, the MST will be a wonderful asset for people throughout Orange County and the world.

See OUR STATE MAGAZINE’s take on the most beautiful trail sites.

Kate Dixon, Executive Director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

For more information about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, contact Kate Dixon at (919) 698-9024 or email

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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