For any number of outdoor adventures in Jackson County, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect starting point.
While offering awesome beauty through car windows, the scenic highway also provides hiking options both short and long. Whether you choose to mostly drive, pausing at overlooks, or stop for a longer walk, June on the Parkway is not to be missed.
It’s been said that the Parkway is a road for all seasons, with autumn’s annual leaf show topping the list. But if you’re fortunate enough to be in the mountains in late spring, you’ll find that June’s floral displays rival October’s foliage for colorful splendor.
The proof is in the extravagant lavender/purple blooms of the Catawba rhododendron, the bright-orange flame azalea blossoms and the pink to almost white mountain laurel clusters that line the Parkway and its side trails.
This month’s suggested walk, to a high mountain meadow with brilliant flowers and long-range views, is accessed via the highest section of the Parkway. Visitors begin in Sylva and travel east along U.S. 23/74 to reach the Parkway at Balsam Gap. Prominent signs direct travelers from the four-lane highway to the Parkway access road. Your destination is Wet Camp Gap, a high-elevation meadow with lots of blueberry bushes (you’ll want to come back in August to pick berries) and wildflowers.
From Balsam Gap, Milepost 442.2, travel north along the Parkway to Bear Pen Gap at Milepost 427.6. Along the way you’ll experience the highest section along the entire Parkway.
The 1.33-mile hike into Wet Camp is almost level, a rarity for mountain treks, and winds through shady woods. Your destination is located on Rich Mountain Ridge; Wet Camp Gap is on the divide between two major Jackson County watersheds, Caney Fork and the East Fork of the Tuckasegee River.
The trail begins at the left end (facing the sign) of the Bear Pen parking area. It passes around a large rock and then travels slightly downhill before intersecting with the Mountains to Sea Trail. Enjoy wildflowers, such as wild geranium and Clinton’s Lily, along the way.
Take a left at the Forest Service iron service gate and continue to the Gap. When you reach a small clearing, the MST will turn to the left, as indicated by a post, but you want to turn right to reach Wet Camp.
The small grassy opening will soon become a wide-open vista. Continue walking toward the other end of the meadow to see the small spring-fed pond that gives the gap its name.
Should you want to extend your hike another mile or so, continue to the far end of the open area where the trail continues to Gage Bald, one of several 5,500-plus peaks on Rich Mountain Ridge. Also at that end of the gap is a scenic overlook, marked by a twisted tree, into Jackson County’s Canada community.
To return, retrace your steps to the Bear Pen parking area. As you head back across Wet Camp, you’ll see a nice view of Rough Butt Bald, another of Rich Mountain Ridge’s high peaks.