Trails Forever Hikes recap: Mountains-to-Sea Trail

May 20, 2024

by Danny Bernstein

When hiking in the Smokies, flexibility is almost as important as hiking ability.

The Trails Forever Hike on May 14, 2024, was supposed to be “on top of old Smokies,” around Clingmans Dome. The plan was to hike to Andrews Bald and back, then up the Clingmans Dome Road to the beginning of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). Then we would go down the first three miles of the MST concurrent with the Appalachian Trail.

However, the weather had different ideas. The forecasters called for rain and thunderstorms. Our original plan was not a great idea with potential lightning because the top of Clingmans Dome is at over 6,600 feet.

Canceling a hike is a difficult decision that Olivia Wright, FOTS Outreach Coordinator, does not make lightly because the hikes are not rescheduled. Instead, Olivia and I came up with a low-altitude replacement.

Our new plan started on the Mingus Creek Trail, where we would walk up and back for a total of six miles and 1,500 feet. The start of the hike was at 2,000 feet and all tree-covered, so it seemed like a great alternative.

Trails Forever hikers at Mingus Creek Trail on May 14, 2024.

For me, it also mattered that the Mingus Creek Trail ran concurrently with the MST. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretches 1,175 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains at Clingmans Dome to the Outer Banks, stopping at many of North Carolina’s most beautiful places along the way. It is North Carolina’s premier state trail. More than 200 hikers have completed the whole trail; I finished the MST in 2011.

Fourteen people showed up for the hike on a day that could have been 100 percent rain.

Before starting our climb on the Mingus Creek Trail, we walked up a few minutes from the parking lot to see the historic Enloe Slave cemetery. Here small mounds are raised from the ground. Rocks lay still nearby, marking the area. Visitors have placed coins on top of the rocks. Coins are one of the ways that show that people have visited the cemetery and still care. This cemetery is part of the African American Experiences in the Smokies project, partially supported by Friends of the Smokies.

Graves at Enloe Slave Cemetery, May 14, 2024.

We start on the Mingus Creek Trail and MST. It is quickly apparent that there are other artifacts on the trail and in the area. We pass the old target range where National Park Service rangers used to practice. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also operated a camp here from 1933 to 1935. The Smokies had more CCC camps than any place in the United States.

Soon the trail split. We stay to the left to continue on the Mingus Creek Trail. The right fork takes you to a cemetery – this hike will be led on Wednesday, July 24, 2024, by Ed Fleming.

We climbed up the trail, crisscrossing the creek. The obvious human artifacts are no more; it is time for wildflowers to shine.

Blue-bead lily, or yellow clintonia as it is sometimes known, line the trail. The blue-bead lily is a perennial with a yellow flower; the deep blue beads appear in the fall. Foam flowers, wild geraniums, and violets are abundant. Reishi mushrooms grow on fallen logs.

But we all like what is rare.

Two lonely yellow lady slippers stop the hike. Those who missed the lady slippers on the way up make sure to walk very slowly on the way down to enjoy them. The Wildflowers of the Smokies book lists yellow lady slippers as “occasional,” not rare. But to hikers, they are rare and such a treat. A couple of pink lady slippers are also in the area; those are considered “frequent.”

Yellow Lady Slippers wildflowers, May 14, 2024.

We continue to the intersection with Deeplow Gap Trail. We have an official break where most hikers eat their early lunch. Then back down to stop at the flowers and mushrooms we may have missed on the way up.

By the time we reach the parking area, it has started to rain. But the Mingus attractions are not over. After we drop our packs in the cars, we walk over to Mingus Mill. Though it is closed, we admired the building dating back to 1886 and the water-powered turbine still in use today. The mill could be a study and visit of its own.

The moral of the story is: Modify your plans but don’t cancel a hike.

Mingus Mill. Photo by Danny Bernstein, May 14, 2024.


Take a hike and help restore the most loved trails in the Smokies. The Forever Trails Hikes program offers expert guided hikes twice a month now through October 2024. It’s just $25 per hike and all proceeds go to Trails Forever. Space is limited, so check out the schedule and register at https://friendsofthesmokies.org/hike-with-trails-forever/