Last week I hiked the Bearpen Trail. It is one of my absolute favorite hikes year round because it is so unusual. The trail is part of the recent reroute of the famous Benton MacKaye Wilderness Trail (BMT) which runs down Yellowhammer Gap above the lodge and then picks up directly across the street at the Jim Burchfield Trailhead on Meadow Branch Road.
There is a beautiful little bridge that indicates where the trail picks up on the way to Fontana and then into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is called Bearpen because it crosses through Bearpen Gap and legend tells that once a pen was located there which held at least one bear. I prefer to hike the Bearpen trail starting from its highest point, at Oldfield Gap Road and ending up back at the Tapoco Lodge, where, if I time it right, I can eat at the Slickrock Café as a reward.
The reason this short segment of the BMT is so unusual and fun for me is that it runs along a ridgeline. Most trails in our areas don’t have many beautiful views of the far blue mountains. This trail does. It is only about 1.8 miles of relatively easy walking and there are several spots along the way that have huge boulders where you can sit and gaze out at the mountains and the Cheoah River below. The rocks make wonderful photo opportunities and are perfect places to meditate.
Hiking this trail in early May allowed me to see the blooms on the Mountain Laurel, or “Ivy”, as it is called locally. Both sides of the trail are bordered by numerous mountain laurels and the blooms vary from almost white in the shade to a deep rose color in the sunlight. I was also able to see quantities of one of my favorite violets, the Birdfoot Violet, along the first quarter mile of the trail. Its flower is a little larger than the rest of the woodland violets and the shades of lavender are exquisite.
You know you are near the last half mile of the hike when you start noticing the Teaberry or Winterberry growing in colonies. The red, aromatic berries are edible raw and taste like wintergreen. There is a fairly steep descent at the very end of the trail that takes you down from the ridge to the little bridge. It is short enough to not be a bother unless you have bad knees, so just take it slow.
Once you cross the bridge you can stroll over to the Lodge and quench your thirst with one of their non-alcoholic ginger beers. I can almost taste one now!