It's an epic route worthy of Inman, the central character in Charles Frazier's best-seller Cold Mountain: a trail across North Carolina stretching from the shores of Cape Hatteras to rugged Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though the ambitious, 700-mile Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) is a work in progress, 260 miles are open in Pisgah National Forest, where you'll find Cold Mountain.
In Pisgah, the MST splits at Silvermine Bald, with the main branch hewing to the crest of the Blue Ridge while an alternate branch arcs southward, sharing the treadway with the Art Loeb Trail to Davidson River Campground before rejoining east of Wagon Road Gap. Together, the two trails create a perfect week-long, 53-mile loop packed with ridge walks, lung-busting climbs, and tremendous vistas.
On Black Balsam Knob, a high, open meadow rippling with waves of grass (a 1-mile side trip), all of Shining Rock Wilderness lies before you. For even more drama, check out the sheer granite cliffs that drop off Looking Glass Rock and Cedar Rock Mountain. Elsewhere, pure white quartz gleams atop Shining Rock, and the rhododendrons are so thick along the Upper Mills River that the area is called the Pink Beds.
Like all of the Blue Ridge, the Pisgah Ranger District is popular, but with more than 300 miles of trail, it's easy to dodge the crowds, if not the night-riding Home Guard, as Inman tried to do. To evoke his fictional route, detour north on the Art Loeb Trail over Shining Rock to now-famous Cold Mountain.
Hike the Mountains To Sea Trail
Where: 184 miles (3 hours) northeast of Atlanta and 130 miles (2 hours) west of Charlotte. Davidson River Campground is 1 mile north of Brevard on US 276.
Maps: Pick up Pisgah Ranger District ($9.95, Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643) and North Carolina Hiking Trails ($18.95, Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association, 828-884-4734).
Trail Info: Pisgah Ranger District, (828) 877-3265.