The Coastal Plain & Outer Banks section includes Segments 11-18, from Falls Lake Dam to Jockeys Ridge (335 miles via the route we chose). Leaving Falls Lake Dam, hikers follow the Neuse River Greenway and backroads toward Smithfield, where the Neuse River Paddle alternative begins. Then follow the Neuse River to Cherry Branch Beach near New Bern. The trail follows backroads from there to Ocracoke, then north along the Outer Banks to Jockey's Ridge. This section was about half river, with the remainder pretty evenly split between road and trail, so we were able to hike, bike, and paddle! We expected this to take us a week and a half, including 1 zero day. The paddle days were long and we expected the water level to be low in the fall, so we kept some flexibility in our schedule to add another zero day or two if needed.

We ended up getting really creating to make it through the Coastal Plain section. Day 2 of the Paddle Route is a 36-mile day, with a high-consequence turn toward the end of the day. Miss the turn, and you end up in the intake of a decommissioned power plant. We knew this was going to be challenging in a canoe in the best of conditions. However, while we took our zero in Raleigh, we realized this just felt too risky with the low water levels and short amount of daylight, and decided to bike backroads from the end of Segment 11 to Goldsboro and begin the paddle there. It was challenging to end up off-route; I'm a Rule Follower. But at the end of the day, our safety was much more important than following the "official" route.

In the few months before we left, we were told by several recent thru-hikers that they were glad they'd done it, but they would never recommend it. Looking back on the trip, I feel really similar. I'm glad I did it. This trip was 10 years in the making, and it was an incredible experience. I'm proud of myself for pushing through the challenges. And as someone who likes to plan ahead, I am happy that I was able to recognize times when that plan needed to change. I pushed myself physically and mentally, and came out a stronger person for it. I think there are people for whom the MST is an excellent choice. If hikers are looking for an experience similar to the AT, where logistics are straightforward and there is a large on-trail community, this isn't it. For folks who are looking for more of a logistical challenge and are OK with solitude on trail, this might be a good option. Anyone wishing to hike it should spend the time to adequately research the trail and the challenges it brings, especially camping/lodging and resupply logistics.

Segment 11: Neuse River Greenway & The Let'Lones

Falls Lake Dam to Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, 66 miles [October 23 - 24]

We had a rear wheel failure on our bike mid-way through Day 1. It took us several hours to get picked up from the trail (it's really hard to transport a tandem bike!) and get our bike to a shop to replace the wheel. After getting back on track, we had an awesome day riding from Clayton past some of the historic civil war battlefields in the area. 

Highs: We lived in Eastern NC for a while, and riding through that flat ENC farmland felt really nostalgic.

Lows: Bike breakdown made us get off trail to seek repairs. A short stretch of the route followed a divided highway, where it is illegal (and dangerous!) to walk/bike. 

Favorite Memory: Our mid-90s tandem bike draws a lot of attention because it is so unique. But it can be really hard to find compatible parts. We got to the bike shop about an hour before they were set to close, and were prepared to be delayed for at least a full day. When we explained the situation, a couple of the techs stayed late to help us get it fixed that night so we could get back on trail the next day!

Segment 12-16a: Neuse River Paddle Option

Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center to the Neusiok Trail, 170 miles [October 24 - 29]

This is where we had to get really creative. After 2 days and 50 miles of paddling, we took a zero in Kinston. On that day off, we realized the bicep pain my partner had been experiencing was due to a partial tear in his bicep. The remainder of the paddle route was very remote and we didn't want to risk a full tear by continuing to paddle, so we pivoted. We put together an alternate route following state and county bike routes and a ferry to get from Kinston to Havelock to start the Neusiok Trail. 

Highs: The ride from Howell Woods to Goldsboro was one of the best days we had on the bike the entire trip! In Goldsboro, we learned of another thru-hiker who was about 3-4 days ahead of us on the paddle route. Seeing TONS of wildlife on the river - turtles, osprey, eagles, kingfishers, herons, egrets, woodpeckers, foxes, river otters.

Lows: My partner tearing his bicep. Very noisy campground in Kinston made it difficult to sleep. The state bike routes haven't been updated in a very long time, and one included a section of road that was illegal to ride on; we were actually pulled over by a highway patrolman who helped us reroute onto safer roads.

Favorite Memory: Joining up with the East Coast Greenway Trail the last day and following more bike-friendly roads, including taking the Minnesott Beach ferry! This is one of the last cable ferrys in NC.

Segment 16b: The Neusiok Trail

Pine Cliff Recreation Area to Oyster Point Campground, 14 miles [October 30]

I have a soft spot for unloved trails, and the Neusiok Trail is one of them! We loved hiking here when we lived in Eastern NC (especially in the winter), and it was just as swampy and buggy and overgrown as I remembered it. This was our last day of hiking, which was bittersweet.

Highs: Being back on a trail we haven't hiked in a while.

Lows: So many bugs. Seeing just how badly this area was damaged in Hurricane Matthew several years ago.

Favorite Memory: At our campsite in Oyster Point Campground, there was a faint footpath down to a narrow beach. From there, we were able to sit and watch both sunset and sunrise. It was a beautiful moment of calm after a hectic last few days.

Segment 17: Down East North Carolina

Oyster Point Campground to Cedar Island, 48 miles [October 31]

Busy roads from Oyster Point Campground to Otway/Smyrna, then very little traffic the rest of the day. Riding through the Wildlife Refuge is very quiet, and we got to see lots of wildlife.

Highs: Seeing so many cool birds and a few dolphins in the Wildlife Refuge. Flat, quiet roads made for quick riding.

Lows: Streetlights on overnight at the campground made it difficult to sleep. SO MANY MOSQUITOS.

Favorite Memory: Riding through all the Down East small towns, we took the time to stop at some of the historic markers to learn about the duck decoy artists in that area.

Segment 18: The Outer Banks

Ocracoke to Jockey's Ridge, 81 miles [November 1 - 2]

More ferry rides! This segment includes ferry rides from Cedar Island to Ocracoke, then from Ocracoke to Hatteras. All of the campgrounds on Ocracoke had closed for the season by the time we were set to arrive, so we opted to camp at Cedar Island and split Segment 18 into 2 days. We've ridden Hwy 12 up the Outer Banks several times, and were really looking forward to being back!

Highs: Watching sunset on the beach while drinking coffee the last morning of the trip. Nice wide (8'!) shoulders on the new bridges.

Lows: The first half of this segment was the worst day of our trip; we had someone literally threaten to kill us for riding our bike on the road. Drivers were so much more aggressive than we've ever experienced before. Strong headwinds the last day.

Favorite Memory: Finishing! The last week or so of the trip was really hard, I teared up walking up Jockey's Ridge. There was no one else there - not even at the State Park Visitor Center - when we arrived at the end, and it was so special to be there just the two of us.


One Final Note - I mentioned knee pain and/or a knee injury several times throughout these posts. I was finally able to get an MRI when I returned home, and I have since had surgery to address a torn meniscus (and clean up some other damage from hiking for a month on a torn meniscus). I'm looking forward to being back on trail again soon!