Exploring the Mountains-To-Sea Trail

On its way from Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks, North Carolina’s state trail runs along Jackson County’s northeast border.

The Mountains-To-Sea Trail meanders through the Balsams, the range that divides Jackson and Haywood counties, offering leafy glades as well as stunning vistas.

For even more hiking enjoyment, the MST now offers an alternate route in Jackson County that takes travelers along the Tuckasegee River, through the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro, before rejoining the original high elevation trail via the town of Sylva’s Pinnacle Park.

During these hot days of summer, we recommend Jackson County’s loftier route, which has the added advantage of being accessed from various points along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which the MST roughly parallels. Easy places to park and experience the MST, marked with white circles, include the Doubletop Overlook (Milepost 435.3), where the trail starts at the corner of the overlook parking area; Bearpen Gap (Milepost 427.6), where a short trail intersects with the MST; and the Rough Butt Bald Overlook (Milepost 425.4), where the trail begins on the opposite side of the Parkway from the parking area. Another easy access point is Haywood Gap (Milepost 426.2), where the MST crosses the Parkway; while there is no overlook here, hikers can park in a gravel pull-off near the sign marking Haywood Gap.

During late spring and early summer, we hiked short segments from the Bearpen and Rough Butt overlooks as well as from Haywood Gap. If you have two cars, a good option is to leave one vehicle at Haywood Gap and start your hike from Bearpen Gap. You’ll travel a little over four miles and experience both quiet woods and expansive views on the way to Haywood Gap. When we started from the Rough Butt Bald Overlook, we did an in-and-out hike, also about four miles, ending at a grassy ridge just off the MST that offered a stunning look back at some of Jackson County’s highest peaks.

Area hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as visitors, are invited to get excited about the MST on Saturday, Sept. 9, when participants will hike the entire length of the trail in one day. That date marks the 40th anniversary of a 1977 speech that proposed a “state trail from the mountains to the coast” and served as a catalyst for the trail that now stretches 1,175 miles through 36 counties. To join the effort, visit https://mountainstoseatrail.org and follow the instructions for taking part by signing up through Meetup’s (https://www.meetup.com/find/events) MST Hikers Segment 2 group. Hikers have their choice in Jackson County of walking the trail through the Balsam Mountains or traveling the new River Valley alternate.

Whether you hike on Sept. 9 or any other day, the Mountains-To-Sea Trail is a Jackson County treasure well worth exploring.

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