When I look down a trail and can’t see where it’s going, with the softness of the orange pine needles and fallen leaves underfoot, something draws me deeper down the trail’s passage. There is something about moving over the actual earth, with no concrete or other flooring covering it, which makes movement healing and the body suddenly strong and healthy.
The constantly changing contours of roots, rocks, animals, rhododendrons, ferns and fresh air make each hike into a new ecosystem like the discovery of a new world.
The process of patient and gentle exploration brings a sense of belonging whenever you enter a new space, and this has become especially apparent during my first year living in the mountains of western North Carolina.
To sit and listen to flowing water as it occurs in nature, calmly heals me. Some of my earliest hikes brought me an intuitive sense of great peace, and this experience has been so often affirmed by scientific studies showing the positive mental, emotional and physical effects of being in nature.
As in so many examples of literature as well as science, nature brings joy to my heart, a smile to my face, and peace to my churning, thinking mind.
From Flatland to Mountain Land
Before I moved here, I had been hiking for many years on mostly flat lands. But the Appalachian Mountains have brought a whole new set of challenges, with more ups and downs on the terrain, more rocks, and more rushing streams through which I have learned to wade.
When I first arrived at my new home, I would drive on the scenic road known as the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), and noticed many small wooden markers along the way. Each marker has a symbol of a hiker, the letters MST, a small white circle and an arrow pointing straight ahead or indicating a turn to the right or left.
Seeing these markers repeatedly brought me the exploration bug, a strong longing for discovery of unfamiliar areas hidden from view.
These signs pointed me towards the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), leading from the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee border to the west, along the BRP headed northeast from Asheville, and continuing all the way down to the Atlantic shoreline on the eastern border.
I decided to walk as much of this trail as possible while on short excursions close to home and the retreat center. Piece by piece, I have lately been using my free time to see mile after mile of the MST, often during sunset hours in daylight savings time.
Going both south and north, not very far from the Bamboo Road exit, are small trails through woods and pastureland, along paved and unpaved roads. The section of the MST between the Aho Gap exit and the Goshen Creek viaduct gave me my first glimpse of the hidden beauty missing from my view for several months.
How to find the Mountain to Sea Trail
To find this wondrous place that may be sitting in your blindspot, here are some directions:
Branching off on the east side of the BRP, the road just to the south Aho Gap exit (which goes west on Aho Road) is Sampson Road.
Just off of the BRP on Sampson Road you will find an intersection with George Hayes Road, which extends to the north for a while, parallel to the BRP.
On the east side of this road, right across the road from a trail marker, there is a small pullout big enough for parking one or two cars.
On the west side is an entrance to the MST, with a trail marker and a set of steps going down into a small pasture, and then a small bridge over a creek. Just past that bridge, the trail goes into the woods.
This piece of the trail continues for 1.4 miles, crossing and running alongside the roaring, trickling and bubbling Goshen Creek.
You will do a little bit of wading to cross streams feeding into the creek, but the level of water will depend on recent amounts of rain, so you may or may not get a little bit wet. There are usually rocks and logs to step on at stream crossings. The trail will lead you to a sturdy footbridge where mighty, moss-covered rocks, trees, pools and waterfalls converge to make a majestic view.
Beyond the footbridge, along the creek, the trail leads down to a small field below a large viaduct which takes cars over the creek on the BRP. As you walk through from the footbridge to the viaduct, the creek keeps flirting with you, moving into and out of view, like a shy, old friend.
Many flat, wide rocks are available here for sitting and meditating to the sounds of birds and rushing water.