Somehow I only recently learned about the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. Though a bit of an outdoors enthusiast, if not exactly a fitness nut (I’ve been thinking about walking some of the Appalachian Trail for years, to cite one example, but haven’t yet started), this is precisely the kind of thing I’m into reading about, sitting around and daydreaming about. A trail which as the name might suggest leads from the Smoky Mountains all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean, contained within and just about canvassing our entire fair state of North Carolina.
In the name of full disclosure, it’s true that, unlike its much more famous cousin the Appalachian Trail, this MST isn’t fully completed. There are still uncompleted stretches which will find a hiker traipsing along a town sidewalk, or beside some country route. Even so, in covering nearly 1200 miles, it crosses a lot of interesting and often iconic terrain, and I think it’s a little more worthy of praise from the outdoorsy masses. Without question, though, it certainly enjoys best-kept-secret type status.
After months of contemplation, I finally managed to tackle a tiny sliver of this trail one recent Saturday. It was an epiphany of sorts, realizing that the closest point of the trail is only about a half hour away from me, as it passes through Elkin, North Carolina. This also has an added advantage in that it’s one of the least strenuous stretches you could possibly hike – in other words, a perfect place for a newbie to start.
My plan is to begin at the Elkin Municipal Park and walk eastbound from here to I-77, then turn around and retrace my steps. This comes in at slightly less than six miles, which seems a very doable march in these conditions, even during one of this summer’s hottest days. And as I’m parking at the, uh, park, while the community swimming pool is fairly well attended, the tennis courts are ghost towns and there’s only one jogger running around the track. The MST runs directly through here, of course, sharing part of that track, so it doesn’t look like I’m going to run into a bunch of hardy mountain types, scoffing at the likes of me.
Elkin, North Carolina
For a small town like this, Elkin has done a remarkable job of sprucing up its downtown region. It helps that the picturesque Big Elkin Creek and Yadkin River course directly through the center of it, but even so, they’ve done what they can to revitalize and enhance seemingly every inch of land or building in sight. A number of other trails either piggybank onto or cross the MST, too, although if you’re worried about getting confused, the official website has some terrific and detailed directions explaining virtually every step of the way. Also, the trail’s designated blaze can be found in key places – a white circle of about three inches’ diameter – to further keep you moving along the right path.
As you begin walking along this trail, Big Elkin Creek will flow parallel to your strides on your right. And though you will encounter a couple of interesting sights just beyond the park’s edge – a wooden footbridge crossing the river, and a fishing platform above it – neither of these are part of the trail, but make for nice photo op viewpoints if you care to diverge for a second. Otherwise, you will continue forward, into downtown Elkin.
Crossroad of Trails, Elkin
At Market Street, you will cross the creek at last, in a zigzag motion, and it’s here that you also find the first visual evidence that the MST has intercepted an older, much shorter trail. This one is called the Overmountain Victory Trail, and it’s impossible to miss in that there are a handful of really cool looking symbols painted right on the road, bearing this trail’s insignia. These are rounded white triangles with a soldier in the middle, dotting a straight line across Market. (Side note: there’s a sign up ahead with a map of Elkin on it, showing that you should have just gone straight on Front, instead of crossing Market; this is shorter and more efficient, but less interesting. It also differs from what the MTS website says, and my own personal experience walking it, which you are reading here, though either way the divergence is brief).
Once on the other side of this, you will yourself back on a short, wilderness laced foot path for all of a block or so, although this happens to be one of the journey’s most beautiful stretches. With the water now on your left, there are a couple of neat signs and informative signs along the way, such as the one explaining that the first dam on Elkin Creek was built nearby. This is gone now, though you will soon encounter another, a stone’s throw ahead. Here, in front of a bench with the word PEACE carved into its backside, a short, more modern dam creates a beautiful little waterfall, with the surprisingly majestic, heavily windowed town library as a backdrop just beyond.
Just ahead, an even more impressive country church looms on a hill, with this charming little art piece in the foreground. It’s a slender white column with multiple faces, known as the Peace Tower, and displays this warm greeting in a number of different messages. At the adjacent road, you will bid adieu to your short acquaintance with the Overmountain Victory Trail, as it continues directly ahead. Instead, we will be turning left onto the sidewalk of Main Street, the route carrying us for the remainder of our hike.
Back into Downtown
You’ve already seen a lot in very short distance, and the scenery’s about to get even better – at least if you like the charming funkiness of revitalized little downtowns such as this. If your thing is more of a rural setting, then this wouldn’t be your favorite stretch the MST has to offer, although I’m guessing you could have figured that out from the beginning. Here, you will soon pass the likes of Blue Ridge Chocolates, Brushy Mountain Winery, and Fiddles Pub. There’s also a post office in case you feel like sending someone a postcard proudly trumpeting your Mountains To Sea Trail odyssey.
I decide that in the name of motivation, it’s probably best not to venture into these shops on the front leg of my journey. On the return trip, however, anything is fair game. In the meantime, there are many compelling sights to keep a traveler entertained. The Reeves Theatre is a can’t miss wonder right along your path, a restored Art Deco style venue which now hosts live music on a regular basis, and has a charming café inside overlooking the action. Tuesday nights, I am told, are the weekly highlight here, where they host an open-stage jam night, one which draws acts from as far away as Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Moving onward, you begin to observe some of the other, nifty little artistic touches which have transformed this downtown. At the western edge of downtown, this includes a handpainted column of arrows pointing the way to various nearby highlights, and an impressive old-timey mural along with a little historical blurb on the Bank Of Elkin’s exterior. Other examples abound, however, from a series of bike racks shaped like grapes, to additional murals, and even the continued existence, you could argue, of many vintage looking buildings, most of which remain in regular use today. Bookending this little downtown sampler, meanwhile, is an even more colorful set of arrows at the eastern end, pointing the way in miles to many more famous locations, both real (Great Smoky Mountains, Pilot Mountain, Tokyo) and fantastical (Hogwarts, Oz).
If in need of supplies, you will have by now passed a pharmacy, among others, and a general store lies just ahead to the right. The backside of a Habitat For Humanity location is also visible from this route, though you would need to venture one block north to actually enter it. But now that we’ve reached the proper end of downtown, it’s time to begin the most arduous – such as it is, for this still an extremely mild hike – and least exciting stretch of our journey.
Into the Country Surrounding Elkin
For the next mile and a half, you will be walking alongside the road, into the country along State Route 268. I’m not really sure about the easement situation around here, but there is also a set of railroad tracks running parallel for much of this, which I used for variety’s sake without anyone yelling at me to get off their property. The Yadkin River also flows in the same direction just beyond, offering an “official” alternate version of the Mountain To Sea trail should you choose to kayak this stretch (and beyond) instead.
So while this is the least picturesque section of this hike, it does help to balance things out a little bit, and make you feel as though you’re getting a tiny bit of a rustic adventure here. I walk it during one of the hottest days of the summer, though, without thinking to bring any water, and still don’t find it all that terribly exerting. As far as the landscape out here is concerned, it’s mostly trees and a number of creepy and mostly abandoned warehouses/factories which look like set pieces from old Columbo episodes. If you’re a nerd about this kind of stuff as I am, however, even these sites can make for some really cool looking photos.
Soon enough, you have reached the point where the four lanes of I-77 thunder overhead, and it’s time to turn around. The sign for Elkin corporation limits is found directly underneath the interstate, which makes for a good symbolic stopping point, to take a picture and begin the return voyage.
After spotting that arrow for Angry Troll Brewing earlier, I’d planned on making a pitstop here my reward, for nearly completing the journey. Unbeknownst to me, however, I had actually snapped a shot of the building earlier, this massive beige structure named The Liberty which houses it. And while suspecting that a cold draft beer might represent a highlight of this mini-odyssey, a chance encounter here helps bring the outing full circle, and make this random choice seem like destiny.
As it turns out, the late middle-aged fellow slinging drinks here, Bob, is not only co-owner of the bar, but he’s also what is known as a “trail angel.” This means that he and his wife allow hikers to stay on their property overnight, if nearby Crater Park is full or even if someone doesn’t wish to camp there. He’s even gone as far as to drive to the next stop on the Yadkin to retrieve kayaks and return them here, as he has just done this morning. Seated at the bar with a tasty draft IPA, I listen as he fills me in on town history, current local happenings, but more importantly logistical details pertaining to the MST. I’ve always wondered how people manage the kayak angle, if attacking some of the trail in that fashion, but it turns out many places have arrangements with others to where you can just leave your rented vessels at a point up ahead.
End of the Elkin Piece of the MST
Following this drink, I thank him and continue the short distance up the road to my car. As someone who as at least visited Elkin a few times before (the legendary 100 Mile Yard Sale passes through here each summer, during which my wife and I have eaten at the excellent Southern On Main restaurant, conveniently located at the intersection of that bargain hunter’s “trail” and this Mountains-To-Sea one), I already knew it to be a charming village. Yet whether choosing to attack this cross-state hike in a bite sized piece at a time, as I have done, or in search of key checkpoints for a much longer odyssey, Elkin has you covered either way. Supplies and sights at the ready, camping and kayak rentals an arm’s length away, and an impressive mix of terrain within a very short distance – much like our state of North Carolina as a whole, there’s deceptively quite a bit on offer here, most of which you’ve never even heard about before.
When You Go
Official website: www. trails.nc.gov/state-trails/mountains-sea-state-trail
Written by: Jason McGathey
Jason McGathey has written for numerous publications, both online and in traditional print, covering a wide range of categories and styles. He has also published four books, with a fifth slated for a December 2019 release. Follow his progress and read more of his work at