Correction: This article incorrectly said one of the races was 50 meters. The race distance was 50 kilometers.
This may be a watershed year for the trail spanning the state to connect mountains on the Tennessee border all the way to the Outer Banks.
Development of eastern sections of the 900-plus mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which the state has wanted to run along the Neuse River, has been at almost a standstill for decades, said Kate Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The organization is planning to promote a new route through eastern North Carolina this summer.
The trail has been building support not only from its own nonprofit, but also from the state Parks Division, which is commissioning a master plan for the trail, and from individuals and volunteer groups.
Suzanne Young, a runner from Durham, was one of hundreds who competed in a benefit race Sunday morning through Falls Lake sections of the trail.
“I’m a big supporter,” Young said of the organization’s efforts to complete the trail.
Young had hiked sections of the trail near Grandfather Mountain but this was her first time at the Falls Lake section.
Unlike the better developed western sections, which plot long courses through national forests and state parks, there’s not as much public land in the east and plenty of swamp and water to plan around, Dixon said.
Hikers do make it across the state. But beyond Smithfield that means walking back roads for the most part.
This summer, the nonprofit will publicize the new route to the coast, one that moves away from the Neuse, through Sampson and Bladen counties, Burgaw in Pender County, state game lands and the Croatan National Forest, using 50 to 60 miles of existing trail and forest roads.
“It’s a great experience,” Dixon said. “We feel like it’s so important for people to use it to build momentum for the trail.”
‘It’s real challenging’
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is an official state park, but multitudes of volunteers, local clubs and local governments build and maintain long stretches of its 620 miles.
The MST was first proposed in 1977. Getting all the pieces together has been a step-by-step endeavor. Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail formed in the late 1990s to push the trail along. In 2000, the legislature designated the MST a state park.
The state Parks Division is going to commission a master plan for trail this year. “We have many partners across the state,” said Carol Tingley, acting director of state parks. The MST is largely a connection of trails through national and state parks and municipal greenways. “Part of the purpose of the master plan is for us to coordinate the work of the partners.”
Grants to build and maintain trails have become scarce in recent years. A federal grant for recreational trails programs that used to be a steady source of money now favors paved greenway projects, said Dixon.
“It’s real challenging to cover basic trail maintenance and all the other things we’re trying to do,” she said.
Individual and corporate donations, and fundraisers such as the races Sunday sponsored by the Bull City Running Co. have become more important to the nonprofit as government grants have dried up.
Hundreds of hearty athletes, some jumping in place or rubbing their hands together to keep warm, gathered near the starting line Sunday morning for a run that would take them 12 miles around one of the crooked fingers of Falls Lake.
Participants in the 12-mile applauded those who jogged past in the 50-kilometer race. Both races raised money for Friends of Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
“MST is one of the best-kept secrets in the area,” said store co-owner Kim Page. “It’s nice that it’s only 30 minutes from home.”
Even some trail planning depends on volunteer efforts. Extending the MST has become a community affair in Elkin with the formation a few years ago of the Elkin Valley Trails Association.
The MST runs through Elkin, a town in Wilkes and Surry counties, but no one thought much about it for years, said Bill Blackley, a retired doctor and trails association chairman.
When the local trails association started nearly three years ago, the first thought was to work on a section a few miles long. But then the group decided on a more ambitious goal, building the trail from Stone Mountain State Park through Elkin to Pilot Mountain State Park.
“We’re like a bunch of kids having a blast,” Blackley said.
In a few years, the association has coordinated trail-building, negotiated what Blackley called “handshake easements” with private landowners, and helped raise money for a bridge.
“Our actual mission is to improve the economy,” he said. “We want to do something to promote our community.”