The N.C. Mountains-to-Sea Trail, allowing visitors to enjoy traverse a natural path across the state, is now scheduled to come through Sampson County — and would bring a growing amount of people with it.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a nearly 1,000-mile effort to link Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks, is the flagship project of the North Carolina State Trails Program.
Thousands of people enjoy the trail every day, with day and weekend hikers making up the vast majority., Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, told the Sampson Convention and Visitors Bureau at its meeting Tuesday.
Dixon is seeking to raise public awareness and support for a route change that would see Sampson added. The proposed route would enter near the Bentonville Battleground area near Newton Grove, passing through Pondberry Bay Nature Preserve between Salemburg and Roseboro, and exit at N.C. 242 at the Cumberland line toward the Bladen Lakes in Bladen County.
She presented proposed maps for the backroad route through Sampson, which she hoped would be the short-term accomplishment toward a long-term goal of seeing a permanent path built to tie in with the rest of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
“When the route was set up, the idea was to connect together a lot of different special natural features,” said Dixon. “As you go along the trail, you really see a whole diversity of North Carolina. You get to experience the beauty of nature but you also get to meet people, and that’s one of the things people really love.”
It’s not simply a wilderness trail. It is an experience that offers everything, said Dixon — an “extraordinary outdoor adventure” that takes people through the best of North Carolina, offering trees, mountains and the natural bodies of water, but also paths through small towns and on rural roads.
“We see it as sort of the backbone of North Carolina’s trail system, so that when it all comes together, then all other trail systems will be linking into it,” said Dixon. “For this group, interested in tourism, this trail really has huge potential as an economic force in North Carolina.”
Over 550 miles of the trail are now complete, and more and more people are starting to hike across the state using backroads to connect completed sections of trail. Dixon said the numbers of people completing the trail are climbing.
Where 10 people finished the trail last year, Dixon said she expects that to grow to 200-300 five years from now.
“It’s growing, and there’s a huge amount of interest in it,” Dixon said, citing a story about the trail in the March issue of “Our State” Magazine. “People get really excited about being part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. It’s amazing the amount of volunteer work that goes into it.”
Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (FMST) is the nonprofit citizen support group that organizes volunteers and communities to build, protect and promote the trail. While the state park system officially designates new sections of trail, FMST provides the backroad route that allows people to explore the entire state.
“Because the trail is not done yet, we provide a backroad route that lets people hike across the state,” Dixon said. “So they use the existing trail and they use backroads to make connections, and we just work to build support for the trail.”
That was the reason for Tuesday’s visit.
FMST is finalizing review of a new backroad route that will take hikers through the Cape Fear Arch, recognized as one of the most important natural areas in the United States. Although the new hiking route will initially be almost entirely on roads — both paved and unpaved — the route will take hikers directly through state forests and gamelands and to the front gates of state parks and federal historic sites.
“We’re really looking for input about that proposed route. How do we make it the best in your county?” Dixon asked. “In the longer term, we’re really hoping to be able to build trail here.”
After the backroad route is established, FMST will work with public land managers and with local governments to build a new trail to shift hikers off roads. Dixon said she is encouraged by the interest that public land managers, local governments and private citizens have shown in the route.
The reason for the proposed change is to offer an opportunity to really take in the Coastal Plain, where there has been limited progress in recent years.
“We have been focusing on two particular areas where there hasn’t been progress in building trail for years,” Dixon said, citing an area in the Great Smokies as well as the Coastal Plain, “where there hasn’t been any trail built beyond Smithfield in 34 years.”
‘One of the most extraordinary areas’
A plan for a trail to follow the Neuse River was completed back in 2004, but there has been no progress on the construction of that path. Dixon said it has been the goal of FMST to open up options to extend opportunities of the trail — that is where Sampson and others came in.
Last year, the FMST Board voted to accept paddling the Neuse River as an option for people who are seeking to complete the trail, routing travelers through Wake, Johnston, Wayne, Lenoir and Craven counties. In early 2014, FMST will publish directions for a new hiking route that will follow the Neuse River to Smithfield and then cut overland through the Cape Fear Arch, taking hikers through Wake, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, Bladen, Pender, Onslow and Craven counties.
“Our goal is to have this trail route in place early next year. This is what will bring hikers into Sampson County,” said Dixon. “This is a draft of the route we want to present to hikers to use.”
Attendees at Tuesday’s CVB meeting looked over an approximately 40-step turn-by-turn directions that will take travelers in Sampson from Bentonville Battlefield down to Clinton and onto the Roseboro-Salemburg area before exiting on N.C. 242 at the Sampson-Cumberland line.
Dixon said the route is “gorgeous.” Others who traveled the proposed path, including CVB director Vickie Crane, agreed.
“Our first goal is to get the backroad route approved,” Dixon said. “We’re not going to put this trail on anybody’s private land without their permission. We think people will be really excited about the places they’ll be able to see on this route.”
She noted the Pondberry Bay Plant Conservation Preserve, established in 2002 and covering more than 2,100 acres near Salemburg and Roseboro, as one of the more notable experiences on the proposed Sampson route.
Maybe unknown to many, the preserve is home to the larger of only two populations of federally endangered pondberry in the state and contains a few rare natural plant communities, including the mature longleaf pine, wiregrass savanna and streamhead pocosin with occasional large Atlantic white cedar. Additionally, the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker has been known to forage and breed at the preserve.
Dixon inquired about the possibility of acquiring additional land along the preserve as a permanent trail.
“What we’re really excited about is this is one of the most extraordinary natural areas in the entire country,” said Dixon. “It has been a hotbed of conservation over the years.”
It is hoped by Dixon and others that the proposed backroad path will ultimately give way to a permanent trail that would become a fixture in Sampson County, which would be able to show off its natural traits as part of the larger Mountains-to-Sea Trail effort while bringing people — and additional income — into the county.
“Our goal would be to build trail to transfer people 100 percent off roads,” said Dixon. “Right now that is totally a road route. The lands that we have trail on are public lands. We’re not crossing anybody’s private hunting-leased land unless they have given us permission to do that, and we’re not planning to.”
For more information, to make inquiries or offer comments, contact Kate Dixon at 919-698-9024 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website at ncmst.org.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.