Experience the diversity of North Carolina with these day hikes along nearby portions of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
by Jim Grode | photography by Geoff Wood
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) is exactly what its name implies—a 1,175-mile trail that crosses North Carolina from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the Tennessee line to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. Roughly 60 percent of the trail is on natural surface, greenway trail, unpaved forest roads or beach—much of it officially designated as MST by State Parks. In between, a series of connectors on back roads knits together finished sections to span the state.
The MST has roots in the 1973 North Carolina Trails System Act, which aimed to develop more publicly-accessible trails for people to enjoy nature. A 1977 speech by Howard N. Lee, then the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, proposed “establishing a state trail between the mountains and the seashore in North Carolina,” but the idea wasn’t officially incorporated into the North Carolina State Park System until 2000. Since then, a combination of regional, state and volunteer efforts—particularly by the Friends of the MST, which was formed in 1997—has grown the trail from a disjointed hodgepodge of trail sections into a complete, well-defined route across the state.
The MST passes through thirty-seven counties, four national parks, three national forests, two national wildlife refuges, ten state parks, four state game lands, one state forest, one state historic site, and numerous local parks and protected areas, and alongside several lakes and reservoirs. Unlike many other long-distance trails, the MST does not try to be exclusively a wilderness trail. In- stead, it traces the diversity that is North Carolina; from ancient mountains to small Piedmont farms, coastal swamps to colonial towns, barrier islands to changing textile villages, it is as much about the people and culture of the state as about the natural landscape.
In Great Day Hikes on North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, editor Jim Grode and the Friends of the MST traveled the length of the MST to find smaller segments that showcase the diversity of North Carolina’s topography and civilization. Here, we’re highlighting four hikes from the book, each within an hour or so of Raleigh.
THE HAW RIVER TRAIL: GREAT BEND PARK TO STONEY CREEK MARINA
Distance: 2.9 miles one-way; 5.8 miles round-trip
This trail captures a slice of one of the most important economic engines in the Piedmont of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: textiles. From the rapidly flowing, rocky river that provided the power, to the village where the mill workers lived, to the mills that produced the textiles, you will encounter the full range of the industry. In between, enjoy the beautiful woods, wildlife, and nature sounds along this diverse stretch.
From the Great Bend Park parking lot, the trail goes down into a field and turns left at a T-intersection. After a couple of hundred yards, it reaches the banks of the Haw River and begins heading downstream. The trail soon passes a paddle access and the half-mile-long Island Trail. The side trail here crosses over the head of an old mill race (which forms the island for which the trail is named) and overlooks the dam that provided water used by the Glencoe Cotton Mill, the three-story Italianate mill just down- stream, to generate power.
About 250 yards farther, the trail reaches the Glencoe Mill and Mill Village Historic District. Many of the historic mill buildings and homes in the village, which dates from the 1880s, have been painstakingly restored and have found new owners and modern uses. The main mill offices and company store are now the Textile Heritage Museum, which showcases life in Carolina mill towns from the late 1800s through the 1950s and includes artifacts such as a loom and knitting machines as well as mill and company store products.
After going through the streets of the village, the MST returns to the Haw River Trail, which takes on a more natural feel as it meanders through woods along the banks of the Haw. After a mile of serene walking with few signs of human development, it passes behind an old mill building, then crosses two roads in succession. A short but moderately steep climb here leads to the shores of Stoney Creek Reservoir. After another half mile meandering along the curves of the lake, the trail reaches the marina and the end of the hike.
Where to park: Great Bend Park (350 Greenwood Drive, Burlington) or Stony Creek Marina (1785 Faulkner Drive, Burlington)
HILLSBOROUGH’S RIVERWALK: GOLD PARK TO OCCONEECHEE SPEEDWAY
Distance: 2.1 miles one-way; 4.2 miles round-trip
Hillsborough is one of the most historic towns in North Carolina. At the heart of the 1765–71 Regulator uprising against the British leading up to the Revolutionary War, it was later home to the North Carolina legislature during the war itself. This hike passes along the Eno River to the center of this bustling town, then, turning to more recent history, the hike continues to the Occoneechee Speedway, one of the first two NASCAR racetracks to open in the inaugural 1949 season. Numerous informational panels along the trail provide a wealth of information about the area’s history and ecology.
The hike begins on the sidewalk through the open area of Gold Park. Just before reaching the Eno River (considered one of the most important ecological areas in the Triangle), the route turns left onto the MST and Hillsborough’s Riverwalk, a paved greenway. Leaving Gold Park, the path passes a pollinator garden, then crosses under the railroad tracks on a covered walkway. Just before reaching a bridge over the Eno, the path turns right. Turning left here instead leads to Calvin St., where another left turn leads to the restaurants of West End Hills- borough. Just past the bridge, the MST turns left; the trail straight ahead forms part of the Peggy Cates Bartow Loop, named for an early champion of the Riverwalk who donated some of the land for the trail.
The path continues meandering along the south bank of the Eno for about half a mile before crossing the Eno again and turning right on a boardwalk. Continuing straight ahead instead takes hikers to the shops, historic sites and restaurants of historic downtown Hillsborough. The MST crosses under Exchange Park Lane and Churton Street and through River Park, then continues past the Occaneechi Village Replica Site, a reconstructed seventeenth-century Native American village. At mile 1.5, the trail enters historic Ayr Mount Plantation, a Classical American Homes Preservation Trust property.
Continuing across Elizabeth Brady Road, the trail comes to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail. Parking and the trailhead are at the road, but it is worthwhile to continue another quarter mile or so to see the historic racetrack. Here, the forest becomes much thicker and noticeably quieter than it was previously. Although most of the speed- way area is now forested, the grandstands and much of the old dirt track are still visible, along with the remains of several other structures.
Where to park: Gold Park (415 Dimmocks Mill Road, Hillsborough) or Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail (320 Elizabeth Brady Road, Hillsborough)
RALEIGH’S NEUSE RIVER GREENWAY: BUFFALOE ROAD TO MILBURNIE PARK
Distance: 4.4 miles one-way; 8.8 miles round-trip
Raleigh’s Neuse River Trail stretches almost 28 miles from Falls Lake Dam to the Johnston County line, where it changes name and continues on into the town of Clayton. The paved greenway, as the name suggests, parallels the Neuse River for most of its length. It runs concurrently with the MST for its entire length. This hike includes one of the most scenic portions of the greenway.
Near the end of the hike is the former site of the Milburnie Dam. This 15-foot-high dam, built in 1900 (previous dams date back to the late 1700s), was the last remaining impoundment on the Neuse below Falls Lake. The dam was removed in 2017, allowing the Neuse to run unimpeded over 200 miles from Falls Lake to the Pamlico Sound.
Before its removal, the Milburnie Dam created a nearly seven-mile-long lake that stretched the entire length of this hike. Thus, hikers on this stretch have an opportunity to watch the progress of the river environment returning to its natural state: mudflats transforming into meadows, wetlands, and forests; native fish returning to their historic spawning grounds upstream; and riffles and rapids forming as the river channel returns to its original bed.
The hike begins downstream of the Buffaloe Road bridge over the Neuse, at
the Buffaloe Road boat access. A short spur leads to the MST proper, where hikers will turn right to continue downstream. Half a mile down, a trail on the right leads to Buffaloe Road Athletic Park, and just beyond, the trail crosses the Neuse River for the first time. Over the next two miles, the trail continues through woods close to the riverside, crossing several smaller creeks and wetlands, before crossing the Neuse again on the Skycrest Suspension Bridge. At 275 feet, this is one of the longest pedestrian suspension bridges in North Carolina.
Four miles in is the former Milburnie Dam site. Just below, this hike turns right from the MST onto a spur trail to the road and parking area, but if you go another tenth of a mile, there’s another bridge over the Neuse that provides good views back over the Milburnie Dam site.
Where to park: Buffaloe Road boat access (4901 Elizabeth Dr., Raleigh.) or Milburnie Park (5428 Allen Dr., Raleigh)
BENTONVILLE BATTLEFIELD: HARPER HOUSE TO COLE PLANTATION
Distance: 2.3 miles one-way; 4.6 miles round-trip
Bentonville Battlefield is the site of North Carolina’s largest Civil War battle, fought on March 19–21, 1865. The Battle of Bentonville was the last significant attempt to stop Gen. William T. Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, and marked the last time the Confederate army was able to mount a tactical offensive against the Union. The ensuing defeat considerably weakened the Confederacy’s last remaining armies. The Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site now includes more than 2,000 acres of the battlefield. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
This hike follows a recently opened trail that meanders through woods and
fields, along the 1865 battle lines, and across surviving remnants of earthworks built for the battle. It is well-marked with interpretive panels and plaques and historical displays that help hikers envision how the battle unfolded. The hike and surrounding areas also pro- vide a glimpse into why Friends of the MST calls this segment the “Agricultural Heartland.” Johnston County ranks fourth in North Carolina in crop production and eighth in agriculture overall, and much of the agricultural land is concentrated in the south of the county, where this hike is located.
The hike begins at the Bentonville Battlefield Visitor Center, which features an audiovisual program and a large fiber-optic map exhibit depicting the first day of the battle, as well as several other maps and exhibits. The neighboring Harper House is furnished as a Civil War field hospital. From the visitor center, the route crosses Mill Creek Church Road and continues through an open field to a gap in earthworks, next to a cannon, where it enters the woods and begins the self-guided historic trail. For the first mile, the route goes back and forth between woods and fields, finally coming out and staying mostly along the edges of agricultural fields for the last 1.2 miles. The hike ends at the Cole Plantation Loop Walking Trail parking lot, where another 1.5-mile loop trail explores more of the battlefield.
Where to park: Bentonville Battlefield (5466 Harper House Road, Four Oaks) or Cole Plantation Loop Walking Trail (5466 Harper House Road, Four Oaks)
About Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a growing community of members and volunteers who support the MST. The organization works statewide to build and maintain the trail, advocate for new sections, improve the existing route, create hiking resources and encourage individuals and businesses to financially support the trail. Learn more about Friends and the MST at mountainstoseatrail.org.
The hikes featured in this excerpt, along with the other hikes in Great Day Hikes on North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, are all part of Friends of the MST’s “40 Hike Challenge.” Visit mountainstoseatrail.org/challenges to learn more about how to complete the challenge and win a prize.