About a dozen volunteers – tools in hand – worked to remove rocks, cut up roots and smooth out soil one recent Saturday morning at one of the most popular trails at Eno River State Park in Orange County.
They are more than halfway through rerouting the Cox Mountain Trail to avoid the steepest and wettest parts of the existing route to prevent future erosion. But while the new trail is important to serve local hikers, it also is part of a much larger picture.
The Cox Mountain Trail will one day help link Hillsborough to the state park via the Mountains-to-Sea Trail – a 1,175-mile trail from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head.
Conceived 40 years ago, the trail remains a patchwork of off-road trails and paths connected by long stretches on back roads which still account for about 500 miles of its length. In the Triangle, the trail follows a path of off-road natural and paved trail - like greenways - for 105 miles, from Eno River State Park along Falls Lake and the Neuse River to Clayton.
The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the nonprofit group that supports, promotes and raises money for the statewide trail, hopes to one day create a continuous off-road trail. In the Triangle, that means extending the trail west to Hillsborough and east to Smithfield in the coming years, creating a continuous off-road trail from one side of the metro area to the other.
But the timeline is unknown, said Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The organization does not have the power to acquire land through eminent domain and must work with willing landowners, whether through land purchases or easements.
The trail, which takes about 2.1 million steps to complete, winds through 37 counties, passing four national parks, two wildlife refuges, ten state parks, three national forests and three lighthouses along the way. It passes iconic places such as Mount Mitchell and Pilot Mountain, as well as the mundane, including a putt-putt golf course in the town of White Lake in Bladen County.
“It just sort of speaks to what North Carolina is,” Dixon said. “The diversity of it and how beautiful and unique it is.”
Dozens of people have walked the entire length of the trail, including Jeff Brewer, founding board president of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, who did it in 55 days in 2013. Sixteen people walked the length of the trail last year.
“It’s a great way to get off (Interstate) 440 and 540 and shut the cellphone off and enjoy nature,” Brewer said. “I got to see North Carolina in a unique way that only a handful of people ever have or ever will. Every day was an adventure.”
‘Labor of love’
The idea for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was proposed in a 1977 speech by Howard Lee, then secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development. He first heard the idea from Jim Hallsey, the former state parks administrator, Dixon said.
“Then a lot of planning started – figuring out what trails do we already have and how do we want to connect them together,” she said. “Essentially, with some variations, the route was envisioned at that time.”
About 700 Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail volunteers build 10 to 15 new miles of trail and maintain hundreds more per year. Dixon said she believes that in 10 to 15 years there will be another 150 to 200 miles of trail completed. The trail is an official part of the state parks system, but segments of it are managed by different agencies and local governments
“It’s a labor of love,” Brewer said.
Within the last 10 years, most of the 300 miles of the trail in the mountains has come together, with only one gap remaining near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A lot of that trail was built on the same land as the Blue Ridge Parkway, so less land acquisition was necessary.
The Friends group has recently focused its efforts on the coastal plain because it has not made as much progress there. Dixon said it is much more difficult to build trail in these areas because there are so many wetlands.
Money to build and maintain trail comes from fundraising by the nonprofit or the land manager, such as a county. This does not include land acquisition, which is generally handled by municipalities or other agencies.
Charlie Peek, a spokesman with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, said the state’s primary involvement in the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is land acquisition through methods such as easements or rerouting existing trails to help tie segments together.
“There’s no hard and fast rules,” Peek said. “We’ve got more tools now than we used to have, and we’re still open to ideas ... We try to be flexible, and we try to be creative in making this happen.”
Natural and paved segments of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail already exist in Hillsborough and Smithfield but are only connected to the rest of the Triangle by sections that use back roads.
The state still needs to purchase two pieces of property between Hillsborough’s Riverwalk greenway and Eno River State Park to extend the trail further west, Dixon said. But volunteers already are at work building new trail and designing a new, wider pedestrian bridge over the Eno River in preparation for the additional foot traffic that the connection to Hillsborough would bring.
“It’s just really exciting in this landlocked part of North Carolina,” said Bev Bell, the lead volunteer promoting the Hillsborough portion of the trail. “We don’t have the seashore, and we don’t have the mountains, but we are going to have this grand trail system.”
The Friends also has plans to connect Orange to Alamance County by adding a trail segment that would extend southeast from Burlington toward the unincorporated area of Saxapahaw before twisting back up to Hillsborough. Dixon said Alamance and Orange county officials are working to make it happen, but it will likely still be several years before the segment comes together.
Entities in Johnston County to the east also are working to complete the trail as soon as funding is available. The Town of Clayton has begun planning for the extension of the trail along the Neuse River to N.C. 42, where it would fall under county jurisdiction.
The county would pick up the project and continue the trail toward Smithfield. Clayton and the county are both seeking state and federal funding to make the extension possible.
“It takes a while for these things to happen based on funding,” Johnston County Manager Rick Hester said. “I don’t know what the time frame could be. It could take years, but you’ve got to get started.”
The extension of the trail through Johnston County would not only complete a portion of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail but also the East Coast Greenway, which extends from Maine to Florida through Durham, Cary and Raleigh.
“It’s kind of exciting to be in that area, to know that there’s that potential,” said Larry Bailey, Clayton’s parks and recreation department director. “I think we are going to see more and more through hikers.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon