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Mountains-to-Sea Trail Crossing Near Blowing Rock on Shulls Mill Road Gets Major Upgrade

If you’ve ever followed the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across Shulls Mills Road about a mile and a half south of Blowing Rock, you know how challenging and even dangerous the old notched log steps up the road embankment can be.

Each step is canted slightly backward to offer extra traction on the way down. Using a level to establish that slant gave rise to the builder’s self-deprecating conclusion that “each step, and the entire construction crew, is about half a bubble off.” Compare this photo to the one of the old steps below and you’ll see quite the improvement. Photo by Randy Johnson

Over the last week, volunteers with the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail changed all that. The new set of deck-quality steps are such an improvement, motorists passing by often paused to honk and give a thumbs up. Many stopped to thank the volunteers and urge them on. One even came back and left a six pack of beer.

“It was really gratifying to see how much appreciated the new steps are,” said Randy Johnson, the task force leader for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail section from Beacon Heights to US 321 at Blowing Rock.

This popular section of trail makes a nice day hike.  From Shulls Mill Road, go north up the new steps to join the Rich Mountain Carriage Road. A left there reaches the top of Rich Mountain at 1.8 miles (a 3.6 mile round-trip).

The major project came about when Terry Smith, a Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail board member and accomplished step builder, was persuaded to get involved. Fellow board member John Lanman, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail task force leader north of Blowing Rock, enticed engineer Smith to offer his help. Smith has built trail across the entire state, with special focus on decks, bridges, and boardwalks such as those he’s engineered on the Neusiok portion of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the Croatan National Forest. Besides Smith, local FMST volunteers Leigh Derby, Jerry Hollenbeck, and Johnson made up Smith’s crew.

After gaining approval from the buried cable inspectors, the steps were designed to start well above the road so even a car that accidentally drops off the roadside won’t hit the structure. From the ditch, it’s not an effortless ascent to the steps, but it’s not difficult with the aid of a step and a solid handrail. The steps will be stained and signed by spring. Later plans also call for efforts to beautify the small MST parking slip nearby.

The MST through the Grandfather Task Force area has seen some significant roadside improvements lately. Last summer, a North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps (NCYCC) crew tamed the heavily eroded entrance to the Tanawha Trail at Rough Ridge by building a boardwalk set of steps.

Within the few years, the Holloway Mountain Road crossing of the MST has seen the opening of an attractive new roadside parking area and a nearby trail reroute. Special maintenance clinics have added their help, as have regular maintenance by members of the FMST task force.

To get involved with the Grandfather Task Force in its spring maintenance efforts, e-mail Johnson at ranjohns32@gmail.com.

Volunteer Leigh Derby prepares to start installing steps. Photo by Randy Johnson
The dangerous old steps were barely there when the new railings were installed. Photo by Terry Smith