The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Crosses All of North Carolina. Here’s What Travelers Learn Along the Way.

Text: Jason Frye | Photo: Visit North Carolina

Moments of discovery wait around every turn on a 1,175-mile hike across North Carolina. From the sky-scraping peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains to the sand dunes of the Outer Banks, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) provides countless opportunities to fall in love with the best of North Carolina: the food, the culture, the history, the landscapes, and the people.

You certainly don’t have to hike the whole thing to uncover the secrets it leads to. Instead, let the MST inspire your journey across the state. Tackle the sections that appeal to you, and spend the rest of your trip filling up on barbecue, sweet treats, history lessons, and only-in-NC experiences from every corner of the state. Get ready to explore your new favorite place.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Visit North Carolina.

The western end of the MST plants you on the summit of the highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Clingmans Dome, or Kuwohi, as it’s been known to the Cherokee for thousands of years. On a clear day, you can spy seven states from here, but look east to Waterrock Knob for the best sunsets and stargazing on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After skirting Asheville, the MST heads north, where Beacon Heights reveals North Carolina’s Piedmont region stretching away from the foothills, and a mile-high bridge on nearby Grandfather Mountain thrills those daring enough to cross. Further on, sharp peaks soften and Brinegar Cabin, part of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Doughton Park, holds hints of life before modernity.

Break for history and culture on Indigenous lands

On the Qualla Boundary, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians make their home on traditional Cherokee lands. In the town of Cherokee, a quartet of cultural offerings digs deep into human history and cultural legacy. At the Museum of Cherokee People, art and artifacts recount the Cherokee story from the 1800s to today; across the street, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual serves as a gallery and gift shop for folk art made by Cherokee hands. Just up the hill, the Oconaluftee Indian Village lets you walk though an 18th-century Cherokee settlement, and next door, the long-running outdoor drama Unto These Hills tells the tale of resistance and resilience in the face of the Trail of Tears. Before you leave Cherokee, stop by the 120-foot Mingo Falls and 50-foot Soco Falls, where the creek splits and two waterfalls spill over cliffs.

Make your way to Maggie Valley, over the hill from Cherokee, to visit the Wheels Through Time Museum, with its see-it-to-believe-it collection of motorcycles and motorized vehicles. Joey’s Pancake House has what you crave for breakfast, but it could also fuel your hike in nearby Sylva, where the town’s Pinnacle Park has North Carolina’s first certified Forest Therapy Trail. The hike leads to Waterrock Knob if you want to rejoin the MST.

Buckle up for your first bite of barbecue

As the MST continues along Blue Ridge peaks, rest your head at Pisgah Inn and gaze down from your balcony to Brevard, the mountain town where you’ll begin your state-spanning barbecue taste test. Stop 1: Hawg Wild Smokehouse & Taproom, at the edge of the Pisgah National Forest. Focus on the pulled pork (if you can resist the brisket) and a piquant sauce to see how they do barbecue in the mountains. Then grab dessert or an anytime treat from Dolly’s Dairy Bar.

Stop by Asheville for an afternoon at the Biltmore Estate, the country’s largest private home. The Vanderbilts once owned much of the route the MST has followed so far, and the family’s forestry legacy shows on the manicured drive in. Tour the gardens and chateau-like house, then head into downtown Asheville and follow the sound of music toward a huge drum circle at Pritchard Park and a legion of buskers performing across town. Before you travel north to Grandfather Mountain and Boone, grab some fine or folk art souvenirs in the River Arts District or at the Folk Art Center for traditional Appalachian crafts.

At Luella’s Bar-B-Que, pair local craft beer with a tangy Eastern-style barbecue sandwich, or go for ribs at 12 Bones (like the Obamas did in 2008). After, grab a traditional, vegan, or pup-friendly scoop from The Hop Ice Cream Shop or an unrivaled ice cream sandwich from Sunshine Sammies.

Wave goodbye to the mountains

Spend the night in Boone at Rhode’s Motor Lodge, a retro-hip motel with an exceptional restaurant, before visiting two iconic sights on the Blue Ridge Parkway: Grandfather Mountain and Doughton Park. On Grandfather Mountain, cross the swinging bridge to a rocky knob with million-dollar views and see native Appalachian wildlife — black bear, otter, deer, even cougars. Stretch your legs in Doughton Park where overlooks and spur trails lead to secret viewpoints. Sit down for lunch at The Bluffs Restaurant for ham biscuits, fried chicken, or other regional delicacies in this diner that originally opened in 1949.

From there, it’s on to a whole new section of the MST — and of the state.

Photo credits: Biltmore House photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company. All other images in this section by Visit North Carolina.

Stretching from the foothills to the coast, the Piedmont is packed with quaint towns, the state’s first designated wine region, big cities, and historic sites. A short hike to the top of Stone Mountain State Park’s namesake dome delivers lovely views of the foothills and beyond. But for a truly sweeping scene, drive or hike to Pilot Mountain’s ADA-compliant viewing deck and marvel as the Blue Ridge Mountains disappear into the horizon. Stroll along the E&A Rail Trail for a leg-stretching two miles and a peek at the town of Elkin. Hike beside the Haw and Eno Rivers and along Falls Lake to scope out kayaking spots before you get to the coast.

Raise a toast to rolling hills

Never heard of a sonker? Beeline it to the Surry Sonker Trail to sample the Depression-era cobbler meets crumble (Southern on Main has one of the best). Walk it off on Elkins’ E&A Rail Trail or roam the aisles of the town’s antique stores. In Danbury, J.E. Priddy’s General Store is an antique unto itself — opened in 1888 and a town fixture since. Don’t skip the pimento cheese sandwiches and dried-apple pies. Stay in nearby Mount Airy — Andy Griffith’s hometown and the inspiration for Mayberry — at Andy’s childhood home if you’re a fan.

The land around here is also great for grapes, proven by the Yadkin Valley AVA, the state’s first designated wine-growing region. Of the dozens of wineries nearby, prioritize tastings at Dynamis Estate Wines, JOLO Winery & Vineyards, and Shelton Vineyards (the one that birthed North Carolina’s modern wine industry).

Detour to historic towns and culture-packed cities

Head east to Greensboro, the town where the Battle of Guilford Court House saw Redcoats defeat Patriots in the Revolutionary War’s largest battle in the South. At Guilford County Northeast Park, wander trails, fish in the lake, picnic, or play a round of disc golf. In Hillsborough, take a woodsy walk to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway, one of the original two NASCAR tracks, and look for war relics on the way. Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center & Museum highlights a different conflict that touched the Piedmont — see the stools and counters where The Greensboro Four students staged the first lunch counter sit-in, quietly yet powerfully demanding equal treatment.

The Piedmont is also home to a pair of storied cities: Durham and Raleigh. In Durham, watch the Bulls play baseball in a stadium nestled in a former tobacco factory complex, then explore the town’s Black history on a guided tour. In Raleigh, the North Carolina Museum of Art has incredible exhibits and a wow-worthy collection of sculptures and interactive art pieces along the city’s extensive greenway system.

Double down on delicious eats

Cue more barbecue, both Western and Eastern style. Chapel Hill’s The Pig dishes up whole hogs, while Durham’s Lawrence Barbecue pushes traditional offerings in fun directions with sandwiches, chef-y sides, and a style-spanning menu. Raleigh’s The Pit delivers a cross-section, with smoked turkey and chicken; pulled pork, brisket, and ribs; and fun dishes like barbecue-smothered french fries. In Smithfield, four generations of pitmasters have been perfecting the menu at White Swan Bar-B-Q & Fried Chicken for 85+ years.

For sweets, grab a snow cone from Smithfield’s Hills of Snow or a hand-scooped shake from the Maple View Country Store outside of Chapel Hill. Raleigh’s Videri Chocolate Factory and Two Roosters vie for the city’s best ice cream, while Durham’s The Parlour impresses with traditional and vegan options (including a must-try Vietnamese coffee ice cream).

Spend the night in your kind of accommodation

Along the way are several exceptional places to stay. Opt for equal parts posh and eco-friendly at Greensboro’s certified LEED Platinum Proximity Hotel. Stay in a cool mid-century motel in the heart of Durham at the Unscripted Hotel (where you’ll be surrounded by nightlife and dining options). Chapel Hill’s Graduate Hotel is full of playful Easter eggs for fans of UNC’s Tar Heels. And in Raleigh, the chic Longleaf Hotel gives you a taste of Southern hospitality.

Make Smithfield your last Piedmont stop. Visit a museum dedicated to Ava Gardner, famed Golden Age Hollywood actress, and the Buffalo Creek Greenway for access to Neuse River kayaking. Spend the night at Becky’s Log Cabin Motel for a quaint yesteryear stay.

Photo credits: Visit North Carolina.

This stretch of the MST enters North Carolina’s agriculture center. Start with a visit to Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, which commemorates the largest Civil War battle in North Carolina. This part of the trail also protects several important ecosystems — Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, Pondberry Bay Preserve, Singletary Park, and Croatan National Forest conserve everything from the Carolina Bays to maritime forests and the piney woods in between. At Harmony Hall, one of the oldest homes in the state, and Moores Creek Battlefield, elements of Revolutionary War history play out, including a battle fought with broadsword and musket. Finally, a ferry ride to Ocracoke Island puts you on the barrier islands that form the Outer Banks; from Ocracoke, a second ferry delivers you to Hatteras Village and the Outer Banks proper, not far from Jockey’s Ridge and the eastern terminus of the MST.

Explore the coast by land…

Be amazed by the Carolina Bays (like the ponds at Suggs Mill Pond Game Land, Jones Lake State Park, and Singletary Lake State Park), which have left scientists scratching their heads as to how these circular ponds form. Even more mysterious is why carnivorous plants, including Venus flytraps, love the nearby wetlands. Set up camp at Cape Fear Vineyard & Winery to dive deep into the area, detouring to Lake Waccamaw, one of the biggest Carolina Bays.

Stop by Moore Creek Battlefield to walk the woods, swamp, and forest where Patriots held off Loyalist reinforcements in a wintry conflict. Plan a summer visit to enjoy a post-battlefield treat at the North Carolina Blueberry Festival in Burgaw. Antique shopping is a must here, as is a visit to the historic train depot (the oldest in North Carolina) where you’ll likely park for the festival. As you head east from Burgaw, pass through Holly Shelter Game Land to see piney woods, marsh, and pocosins.

Next up is Jacksonville, home of Camp Lejune, a huge USMC complex, and the International Food Trail, featuring more than two dozen stops serving Filipino, Puerto Rican, Thai, Latin, and other cuisines. Opportunities to honor the US military abound in Jacksonville, but the moving story of the undertrained and mistreated Black Marines who brought honor to themselves and the USMC during World War II is one to note at the Montford Point Marine Museum.

…and by sea…

Before you follow the MST up the coast, hop on a boat for a shelling excursion and marsh tour with Pogie’s Charters and Rentals. To the north, in Beaufort, the barrier islands across from downtown are home to Banker ponies, feral horses who’ve lived there for nearly 500 years — kayak and powerboat tours will give you the closest look. Off Beaufort’s coast, climb to the top of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and check out the huge national seashore on the uninhabited Cape Lookout, where you can camp for the ultimate in stargazing and shell hunting.

The Neusiok Trail — the longest continuous trail on the North Carolina coast — threads through the swampy Croatan National Forest. Learn about Blackbeard’s ties to Beaufort and Ocracoke Island, which you’ll reach by ferry, on ghost walks and history tours in both towns. Stay at the Pony Island Inn amid Ocracoke’s wooded interior (or on the harbor at Captain’s Landing Waterfront Inn) before ferrying to Hatteras Island.

Visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum to learn about the 300+ shipwrecks that pepper the coastline. Next, make your way to Buxton — stay at the Inn on Pamlico Sound, climb to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and grab a fritter-like Apple Ugly from Orange Blossom Bakery & Café. An important piece of national parks history, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the first of its kind, instrumental in protecting coastlines and watersheds for generations to come. At the northern end, the climbable Bodie Island Lighthouse guards the inlet.

…then get one last glimpse at the epic MST

From here, the MST’s end is in sight. Jockey’s Ridge, a state park dominated by a series of sand dune ridges rising more than 100 feet, serves as the eastern terminus to the trail. North is Kill Devil Hills and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, site of the first powered airplane flight. West is the vast complex of sounds and marshes that protect the mainland. Roanoke Island sits in the middle; here, The Lost Colony story unfolded when the first group of European colonists settled at the Fort Raleigh State Historic Site and disappeared — it’s a tale told well in a summer outdoor drama (the longest running in the nation) of the same name. One last fascinating lesson among many learned along and around North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Photo credits: Visit North Carolina.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Visit North Carolina.