Jockey’s Ridge ceremony to mark terminus of Mountains-to-Sea Trail

By on September 15, 2023

Sunset from the trail in the western mountains of NC. (Courtesy of Jeff and Debra Rezeli)

In 1977, Howard Lee, then Secretary of the NC Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, was invited to give a speech at a trails conference at Lake Junaluska. In that speech, he proposed that there should be a trail that runs from one end of the state of North Carolina to the other.

“It’s time for North Carolina to actually commit itself to developing a trail that will stretch across the state of North Carolina, starting at Mount Mitchell and ending at the sand dunes of Manteo,” he said. “And that this trail someday could become the second most important trail to the Appalachian Trail.”

“It was incredibly well received,” recalled Betsy Brown, Associate Director of the Friends of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail, a non-profit formed in 1997 to bring together communities and volunteers to build, maintain and advocate for the trail. In fact, he received a standing ovation.

According to Brown, when Lee he got back to Raleigh, Governor Jim Hunt told him he was free to act on his idea, but he wasn’t going to fund it. “And so that’s when they started working on the trail,” said Brown. “There were folks in state parks who started working on a route, and then volunteers started getting involved in local communities.”

That effort turned into what is now referred to as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a simple footpath stretching almost 1,200 miles across North Carolina from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. It highlights the state’s landscapes, history and culture as it winds its way through ancient mountains and small piedmont farms, coastal swamps and colonial towns, changing textile villages and barrier islands.

According to Brown, the stretch of trail along the Outer Banks was one of the first sections designated as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. “That was fairly easy to designate because you’re walking on the beach there, so the terminus at Jockey’s Ridge was established early on,” she noted.

This month, the terminus will be getting an update with the unveiling and ribbon cutting ceremony on Sept. 29 for a new Eastern Terminus Monument marking the end of the trail at Jockey’s Ridge. The event is organized by the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in partnership with Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Friends of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Roanoke Island Woman’s Club and Outer Banks Woman’s Club.

Designed by the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail’s resident landscape architect Ben Jones, the structure will be a large, interactive, wooden structure. Jones says he took many factors into consideration when designing the monument, which is made up of over 30 timber pilings the height of telephone poles, which he somehow managed to construct in his home garage over the past few months. According to Jones, it was important to him to use something that was representative of the area.

“And that’s why we decided to use timber pilings, the same kind of timber pilings you would see that support docks on the coast, and boardwalks or piers,” he said, adding that they wanted to make something big so that it would fit in with the expansive landscape of the park. He also cut a circle out of it, which represents the white circle that marks the trail across the state. Passersby can sit, stand, lean against, and climb on the structure.

Ben Jones, the Friends of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail’s landscape architect and a crew of students from Elizabeth City State University installing the first section of the Eastern Terminus Monument at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. (Photo courtesy Ben Jones)

Recently, a few of the hikers who have completed the trail end-to-end got together in a webinar hosted by the Friends of the Mountain-to-Sea trail to educate other individuals with hopes and plans to traverse the complete trail themselves one day. (During the webinar, it was reported that 185 people had completed the full trail as of this year.)

Benjamin “Doc” Brown, an eighth-grade teacher, has completed the trail twice through section hiking—multiple separate trips focusing on day trips and overnight trips to different sections of the trail across the state by hiking, canoeing, and biking. He got the nickname “Doc” because he loves to document his journey through pictures, which he uses to teach his eighth-grade history class. When asked to describe the trail in one word, Brown uses the word “adventure.”

“I think it’s always an adventure—getting there, planning and organizing it—and then most definitely when it happens. Mostly the adventure comes from what happens when your plans change,” says Brown, referring to unanticipated events, like pouring rain.

Sandy “Add-On” Padden also completed the hike through section hiking after her second child left for college in 2018, looking for a new adventure and a new challenge for herself. She completed the trail in 2022 as a solo hiker and biker.

For Brown and Padden, one of the big appeals of the trail is there are so many additional stops and detours that they can choose to explore. In fact, that is how Padden got her name “Add-On,” because she added on detours that she added over 700 extra miles onto the 1,200-mile hike. One other treat is ending a long hike in one of the many historical towns and enjoying whatever delicious southern food that town has to offer.

“So that kind of made it fun…I remember one…it was near Elkin I think, but they had this Nehi orange soda, and a fried egg sandwich. And I’d been biking all day. It was like the best food I’d ever had in my life,” said Padden. “And that was my reward. And it just kind of gets you all geared up for the next section you’re going to.”

Others complete the trail all at one time, like Jeff and Debra Rezeli, who took a sabbatical to conquer the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, finishing in October 2018 after 77 days of hiking, biking and paddling. Their experience was recreated in a short film called So Far. While happy that they completed the thru hike, their advice is to complete it as a section hike to really be able to explore everything the trail has to offer.

“And really…it has to do with picking your weather and being able to take the side trips and do it at a more leisurely pace,” said Jeff Rezeli. “And enjoy the experience a little more, I think. It was, you know, life changing for us.”

All the trail completers say they could never have done it without the trail angels across the state who are designated helpers they can call upon for help.

“They are people that oftentimes will help shuttle hikers or will host them in their homes and help them make their experience on the trail just a whole lot more enjoyable. They’ll do their laundry, they’ll feed them,” said Betsy Brown, adding that many firehouses and fire chiefs across the state are trail angels. On the Outer Banks, there is Allen Poole, an avid hiker himself, who also serves as task force leader for the Outer Banks section of the trail, making sure the trail is maintained and the markers don’t get buried in the sand.

“I’m glad I’ve been able to contribute in some way,” said Poole. “I think I’m just trying to give back to the trail community what it has given to me, which has been a lifetime of enjoyment, being out there hiking on the trails.”

According to Brown, after 46 years of constant work by volunteers, parks, and the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea, almost 730 miles of the trail are on a natural surface footpath, a greenway, or an unpaved forest road, But the many of the remaining miles require hikers to hike or bike along roads. Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail just received $5 million dollars in state funds to help them complete the trail by hiring trail builders and buying property to get the trail away from busy roads.

“It’s kind of indescribable, in a way, just when you slow down and you take the time to walk,” added Brown, summing up the experience. “And the things you see when you slow down—it’s not just seeing beautiful stuff, but it’s understanding the state in a very, very different way.”



See what people are saying:

  • Billy Griggs

    I was happy to discover the Trail and have hiked the Frisco to Buxton several times. It’s beautiful in there.
    I had plans to hike the entire length also more in the NC mountains
    when I had a severe stroke. So I enjoy reading about the adventures that other hikers are enjoying. I’d love to be contacted by the folks who are out there living the dream at a slow pace.
    My Email is Billygriggs1954@yahoo.com

    Monday, Sep 18 @ 10:39 am