Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Docks Gap) Hike Route Map

MST - Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Docks Gap

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail begins heading eastbound via a wild and rugged 27-mile route through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After crossing some of the most remote and difficult terrain of its entire length, the M.S.T. then emerges at the parks southern boundary at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center…and its character changes completely. Over the next 14-miles, the segment shown in this album, the M.S.T. exists by sharing its route with the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and other established roads. Whereas its first section was one of wilderness, this portion most definitely is not. If there’s a silver lining, however, you can do worse than walking the Blue Ridge Parkway…as roads go, it’s about as scenic as they come. This section is definitely a slog though. It’s almost entirely uphill and the near-constant passage of traffic alongside you is wearing. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the route of the M.S.T. will be able to be moved away from the pavement which will improve the experience immensely. This album traces my hike from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Docks Gap, where the M.S.T. finally reverts to trail form as it continues east.

Those thru-hikers who emerge from the wilderness at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center are in for a rude shock. After miles of remote Smoky Mountain solitude suddenly there are crowds, cars, and concrete. The M.S.T. arrives along the drive to the north of the visitor center, then passes between it and the adjacent restroom building. The trail then follows the concrete walk behind the visitor center, and reaches a split where the M.S.T. bears right. For the next 2/10-mile the trail follows the fence line alongside the Mountain Farm Museum, which is a collection of historic structures depicting a mountain farmstead. Soon the trail enters the trees again and makes a right turn to coincide with the Oconaluftee River Trail for the next half-mile. There are numerous places along this flat stretch to enjoy views of the adjacent river. It’s also the last footpath you’ll be walking for quite some time. As the trail arrives at the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the Oconaluftee, the M.S.T. makes a sharp right turn uphill to join the roadway. This is the southern terminus of the Parkway, which runs for 469-miles north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail will now coincide with the Parkway for the next 7.7-miles, with only a couple minor exceptions. You’ll immediately cross the Oconaluftee River via the aforementioned bridge and then the Parkway begins its winding climb into the hills. Highlights of the walk along the Parkway come mostly in the form of established overlooks. The Oconaluftee River Overlook is reached in 7/10-mile, followed by the Raven Fork Overlook at 1.2-miles and the Ballhoot Scar Overlook at 1.7-miles. At 2.7-miles from the Oconaluftee River the Sherrill Cove Tunnel is reached and the trail leaves the Parkway briefly to bypass it, as it’s illegal (and frankly suicidal) to walk through Parkway tunnels. After enjoying a quarter-mile of dirt under your feet again, the trail once again rejoins the roadway.

In less than a half-mile the M.S.T. is forced to make another bypass, this time around the Rattlesnake Mountain Tunnel. This is a bit longer bypass, at 0.5-mile, and a much more strenuous one as the route the trail takes up over the adjacent hillside is a steep one. After returning to the Parkway yet again you’ll begin a lengthy 1.7-mile walk along its shoulder before reaching the next major viewpoint, the stunning Thomas Divide Overlook. On and on the road-walk continues. Thankfully, frequent openings in the trees provide numerous vistas north of the neighboring Smokies. The unmarked access road to the summit of Barnett Knob is passed at 1.7-miles from the Thomas Divide Overlook and, at 2-miles, the Big Witch Overlook is reached. This is yet another stunning vantage point, arguably the best of the day thus-far. Just beyond the overlook the Parkway dips to Big Witch Gap where, finally, it and the M.S.T. part ways for good. Unfortunately it’s just to join another road. The M.S.T. now turns onto a gated forest road (which may or may not be open) and soon thereafter bears right at a potentially confusing split. Keep a sharp eye out for white trail blazes. For the next 3.5-miles the M.S.T. will follow the gravel forest road, and it’s absolutely the worst stretch of this hike. Completely devoid of any views it is also frequently steep, which is brutal as the miles are really adding up by this point. The beginning of the end, and where the climbing finally ends, is reached as the trail/road enters the property of Mile High Campground. A series of large openings provide the first panoramic views seen since the Parkway, and are a fitting reward for effort of the previous few miles. Soon after the campground office is passed at an intersection with the camp road. Keep heading straight, watching for blazes again to keep you on the correct route. Now descending at a good clip, the M.S.T. continues to follow the gravel road and reaches its crossing of Heintooga Ridge Road 6/10-mile beyond the campground. After this the trail/road continues descending along the ridge and, in another easy 6/10-mile passes beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway at Docks Gap. On the outside of the tight bend beyond the bridge, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail breaks free of the forest road to continue east…once again as a traditional footpath. This is the start of the ‘Docks Gap to Waterrock Knob’ section, which will be depicted in another album.


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.513130, -83.306535  (Oconaluftee Visitor Center)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.509452, -83.169659  (Docks Gap)


Section Length:  13.5 miles                

Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  20.70 )

Min. Elevation:  2,000'  (Oconaluftee River)                   

Max. Elevation:  5,420'  (Lickstone Ridge)

Total Vertical Gain:  3,600'  (Eastbound)           

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  267'  (Eastbound)


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