Seeing the forest for the trees

Since the Second Lebanon War, Biriya Forest has received a serious makeover.

forest 224.88 (photo credit: )
forest 224.88
(photo credit: )
Entering the forest just by Bayit Bagalil (see below) the visitor can enjoy a variety of herbs and flowers, among them sage, hyssop and rosemary. Cyclamen are scattered about, just about to bloom, and it's still possible to catch some autumn crocuses. That's all on the ground, but look up and you're in for a treat: this forest boasts views of the snowy Mount Hermon, the entire Naftali Ridge and Mount Meron. Planted in 1955 on about 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) north of Safed, most of Biriya was once made up of Jerusalem pine, but the Jewish National Fund diversified the forest to include British and Canadian pine and cypress. About half of the forest was damaged during the Second Lebanon War. Yossi Karni, the regional JNF forester, told Weekend that the scorched areas have since been replanted with more indigenous trees such as oak and pistachio, as well as fruit trees including carob and pomegranate, which are sturdier than pine and will give the forest a more "Israeli" landscape. Many guided hiking and jeep trails lead into Birya with picnic and parking areas along the way. A relatively new and easy 12-km. hike about three to four hours long begins at the main Rosh Pina-Kiryat Shmona road and continues north to the Dalton Winery where the Biriya Fortress Museum is located, presenting the story of the first settlement in the area. The trail passes remnants of the ancient Jewish settlement of Navoriya. On a good day the forest's observation point looks out to Tiberias, the Carmel, Nazareth, Haifa to the south and the Hula Valley and Golan to the north. If you don't want to go by foot, or it's simply too cold to contemplate, there is also a 6-km. scenic road for cars, revamped by the JNF. The forest is home to the burial sites of Jewish sages, the most prominent among them Yonatan Ben Uziel, a disciple of Hillel the Elder, who is regarded as a modern Cupid. Hordes of singles make the pilgrimage to his grave near Amuka to pray for marriage and children. One legend has it that the righteous Ben Uziel never had children so he acts as the middleman between God and those seeking love and family. Another legend says that singles seek him out because he wrote in his commentaries that it's forbidden to delay the tie between brides and grooms. After Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai's grave in Meron, Ben Uziel's grave is the most well-kept and frequented, with some half a million visitors a year. Buses unload there daily at its well-groomed parking lot. Capitalizing on the attraction are salespeople who have set up shop at the grave, aggressively hawking religious amulets for a little charity. The forest is not holding any Tu Bishvat plantings this year due to shmita, but this is definitely a good outing to celebrate the trees' new year. Take a picnic and stock up with good wines at the neighboring Dalton Winery off Road 886. Whether you're going by foot or taking the car, there'll be plenty to do for the whole family.n For info: Forest Line (JNF): 1-800-350-550