Allen De Hart was one of the original visionaries and principal designers of the Mountains to Sea Trail, North Carolina’s 983-mile footpath, which runs from the Blue Ridge peaks through the piedmont to the coast of the Outer Banks. In the mid-90s trail building was almost permanently stopped when the state decided there wasn’t enough interest in the trail. De Hart refused to let the dream die. In 1997 he started the nonprofit Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail and rejuvenated the effort for the footpath, which runs through three national parks, three national forests, and seven state parks. Thanks to De Hart’s persistence, the trail is moving closer to completion with renewed help from the state.
At 82, De Hart, a professor at Louisburg College, is known as a trail guru in the South. For the past six decades he has hiked hundreds of thousands of miles, and he also has physically measured more than 56,000 miles of trails for the 11 hiking guidebooks that he has written.
When did you become infatuated with trails?
I grew up on a large dairy farm in Patrick County, Va. My mother once told me that when I was two years old, they had to watch me or I was running off into the woods. When I was 10, I noticed that I could beat the bus to school by cutting a trail through the woods. I also wanted to be an engineer, so I just started drawing all kinds of roads and bridges. At that time I was a water boy for the Civilian Conservation Corps workers building the Blue Ridge Parkway. They were also building what would be the Appalachian Trail near Rocky Knob [this section has since been moved]. From that point, trails were in my system.
You have written hiking guides about every state in the South. What draws you to the region?
There are two special things. It has the Appalachian range, which is a world within itself. But it also has a coastal range with the swamps and the sea islands. You can get the feel and the diversity of two completely different worlds in one region. Moving through these different environments has taken hold of me.
Is the Mountains-to-Sea finally taking shape as you envisioned?
I was one of the early board members of the North Carolina Trails Council when it was formed in 1973. I was on it during the birth of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and I became one of the principle designers in the early 80s.
I was on the board for 16 years when I discovered the trail was in danger. The state was going to stop building, change the name, and just keep the part that was completed in the mountains. I was angry, but the director of parks and recreation told me there wasn’t enough interest. So I left the board and founded Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 1997. Back then we had four or five trail crews. Now we have more than 100 crews with over 1,000 volunteers that are building sections across the state. We are highly organized and moving forward. The state just contributed $1 million for purchasing land and equipment for us. The danger of losing the trail has passed. The odds were against us, but not anymore.