Watch out, Appalachian Trail. Outdoorsy travelers ready to get their hands dirty are gravitating to help construct the next big East Coast backpacking path: the Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina.
The 1,150-mile Mountains to Sea Trail begins in the western corridor of the Tar Heel state at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains and continues horizontally, passing Asheville and Raleigh, culminating at Jockey’s Ridge in the town of Nags Head in the Outer Banks.
Volunteers have been an instrumental part of both trail creation and maintenance in these relative infancy years of the hiking path. Over six hundred miles of trail have been completed so far, with 300 of those being continuous in the mountains. (The MST has an alternate route on a few two lane county roads that bypasses uncompleted sections of trail, making the current distance 1,150 miles.)
Under the instruction of a crew leader, different groups of volunteers throughout the state have been focusing on blazing specific sections. For example, in the mountainous McDowell County, a dedicated group under the direction of leader Doug Veazey typically works twice a month on a 70-mile stretch that passes through four counties.
The geography of the region in the western part of the state makes this group’s effort particularly difficult, as volunteers often have to hike miles in to the trail carrying all their tools for the day. The work can include tasks such as making gravel, clearing fallen trees, fixing water erosion, and painting trail markers on the trees. The McDowell News reports that the eight to 12 mostly retired volunteers put in almost 1,500 hours last year alone.
That McDowell County group is one of many. The Great Outdoor Blog mentions more than 800 volunteers giving over 29,000 hours of their time to trail construction in 2014. Those hours have a financial impact as well; the MST organization estimates that volunteers have saved more than $615,000 in labor costs.
Building and maintaining the trail is just one of the many ways local and volunteer travelers have helped. Spreading the word about the trail at festivals, sharing information to friends and colleagues, and writing publications have been crucial to gaining supporters.
Howard Lee, a former North Carolina state senator, proposed the idea of a trail horizontally bisecting the state 38 years ago following years of trail advisory board meetings. In the 1980s, the public land on the coast was designated as a section, soon followed by the mountainous areas and swaths in between.
A $120,000 master plan for the full 1,000-miles is in the works for 2015, as is a comprehensive hiker’s guide. Executive Director Kate Dixon says approximately 15 miles of trail are added each year, making the estimated completion date years in the future.
The mid-Atlantic spring weather begs volunteer travelers to get outside and re-firm those muscles that may have been neglected during the long winter season. A list of volunteer workdays and an extensive list of ways to get involved can be found at the official Mountains to Sea Trail website.