Lace up your hiking boots and pack the hand sanitizer, North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail is celebrating a birthday. Sept. 9 marks the 43rd anniversary of the trail’s proposal, but this year trail organizers have decided to expand the celebration during the course of the month due to COVID-19 concerns.

“We’ve expanded the celebration throughout the entire month of September and are encouraging people to hike safely, either with their family or with small groups of people that they’ve already been in contact with. No group hikes, no one weekend to overcrowd popular parts of the trail, but spread out over the state and throughout the month,” said the trail’s outreach manager, Betsy Brown.

In lieu of the guided group hikes and cross-state hiker relays which have marked the occasion in the past, this year’s celebration will include a unique set of challenges created by the trail’s organizers that outdoor enthusiasts can complete on their own.

The challenges range from simply taking a day hike along a section of the trail to hiking one of the three designated 43-kilometer stretches of the trail in 24 hours. Hikers are also encouraged to share photos of their hikes on Facebook and Instagram with the hashtag #MSTbirthday. More details about the trail’s birthday celebration and the list of challenges can be found at https://mountainstoseatrail.org/challenges/birthdayhike/.

The trail, which currently stretches 1,175 miles from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks, was the brainchild of former N.C. Secretary of Natural Resources Howard Lee. Lee first proposed the idea at a trail conference in Lake Junaluska in 1977. Since then, the footpath, which winds its way along the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway outside both Boone and Blowing Rock and into Ashe County, has seen scores of hikers, with numbers increasing each year.

“More people than ever have been out hiking! Getting out into nature has been such a necessity since March, new folks are finding out about the MST and those who are familiar with it are returning to it again and again,” said Brown.

For folks eager to partake in this year’s celebration, there are plenty of great places to hop on the trail locally. Some day hikes include Cascades Recreation Area to Benge Gap, Shulls Mill Road to Flat Top Manor via the Cone Manor Carriage Trails and Basin Cove Overlook to the Doughton Park Visitor Center.

For more information about the Mountains to Sea Trail, check out https://mountainstoseatrail.org/challenges/birthdayhike/.

The trail’s new guide book, “Great Day Hikes on North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail,” is available to purchase online at https://stores.portmerch.com/mountainstoseatrail/.

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