A new link in North Carolina’s emerging Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail is now open to the public. Starting on the south side of Highway 74A, Strawberry Gap Trail climbs three strenuous miles along the Eastern Continental Divide, weaving through rhododendron thickets and boulder-strewn woodlands. At the halfway point, after a lung-bursting series of switchbacks, hikers are rewarded with dramatic views of the Great Smoky Mountains and Plott Balsam Mountains from a westward-facing bluff known as Ferguson Peak. From there, Strawberry Gap meanders to its terminus: Blue Ridge Pastures. Steps prevent the steep sections of Strawberry Gap Trail from washing out. Photo by Gordon Tutor. Though the 3,760-foot bald isn’t as tall or as expansive as neighboring Bearwallow Mountain, it does offer a “truly spectacular vantage point,” says Peter Barr, trails specialist with Conserving Carolina. “You can look straight down the pipe of the Hickory Nut Gorge.” Since 2009, Barr and his colleagues have been working tirelessly to protect the Hickory Nut Gorge, a 14-mile-long canyon that cuts through Rutherford, Buncombe, and Henderson counties. As part of these preservation efforts, Conserving Carolina has spearheaded the development of the Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail network—a 100-mile trail system snaking through some of North Carolina’s most feral country. With the completion of Strawberry Gap late last month—an endeavor made possible through a partnership between Conserving Carolina, private landowners, and Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy—there are now 38 miles of trails open to the public. Strawberry Gap acts as a connector, linking 16 miles of these trails. The view from Ferguson Peak. Photo by Gordon Tutor. “We wanted Strawberry Gap to be light on the land and require a lower level of maintenance than the average trail,” says Barr. “But we also wanted to offer an excellent user experience.” With a bustling parking lot just weeks after opening, it’s clear that Strawberry Gap is doing just that. Though many hikers are likely drawn to the trail’s two iconic viewpoints—Ferguson Peak and Blue Ridge Pastures—this out-and-back also cuts to the heart of outdoor recreation by simply offering a “beautiful forest experience,” says Barr. Strawberry Gap Trail meanders through a boulder-strewn forest. Photo by Gordon Tutor. Strawberry Gap Trail Difficulty: Strenuous Length: Six miles round-trip Elevation Gain: 1,450 feet Located off Highway 74A in Gerton, the trail begins with a steep climb through a lush forest. After 1.5 miles of hiking, you’ll reach Ferguson Peak—a small bluff overlooking the community of Fairview. After catching your breath, continue for another 1.5 miles to Blue Ridge Pastures, a sun-soaked meadow at 3,760 feet. Note: No dogs are allowed on the Strawberry Gap Trail, even if they’re on a leash. Blue Ridge Pastures is a grassy bald in the Hickory Nut Gorge. Photo by Gordon Tutor. Cover photo: Hikers on Strawberry Gap Trail. Photo by Gordon Tutor.