Connecting all the dots on a thousand-mile journey

Matt Windsor, superintendent of Pilot Mountain State Park, welcomes volunteers from several groups working on the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.

Volunteers from three organizations are working with the state parks system to forge the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail through the rolling hills of the northern piedmont. They celebrated their successes last week with a vat of hot chicken stew, music, pep talks and formal designation of the trail’s route along the 12 miles of footpaths in Pilot Mountain State Park.

“With this announcement, we are that much closer to having a hiking trail that will connect and showcase the beauty of three unique state parks that on a clear day are within sight of each other,” said Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. “We think that will attract additional outdoor tourists from across the country, giving an economic boost to communities and counties along the trail.”

The 1,000-mile, cross-state project has often been described as a connect-the-dots exercise, with efforts to create a true trail experience between public lands that include state parks and federal forests and parklands. To date, more than half the route has been designated as such with back roads acting as links. In the northern piedmont, Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks are the obvious dots of the route from the mountains to the Triad. The Sauratown Trails Association (with Friends of the Sauratown Mountains) has worked for decades to create and maintain the Sauratown Trail from Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock, depending on the good graces of private landowners willing to grant easements for footpath. Meanwhile, on the western side of Pilot Mountain, the younger Elkin Valley Trail Association has worked to devise a backroad route for that link and is searching for footpath opportunities.

For its part, the state parks system has pledged to direct federal and state trail funds whenever possible to local communities active in the effort, to help with landowner negotiations along the route and to create new paddle trail accesses along the Dan River. Spur trails connecting the main route to the towns of Pilot Mountain and Danbury are another goal that would broaden the trail’s appeal and boost ecotourism.

Lewis Ledford, state parks director, told the gathering of volunteers that such advocacy is considered truly a bipartisan effort in North Carolina with its strong links between conservation, tourism and economic development. The Mountains-to-Sea State Trail is a symbol of unity, he said. “It’s about citizens such as yourselves. It’s about you as volunteers and the important work you do.”

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