Graveyard Fields is an anomaly
— a high mountain meadow and bog surrounded by 6,000 foot mountain peaks. The wide-open spaces found at Graveyard Fields are a rarity, an exception in the otherwise lush and densely forested slopes of Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness. Popular with locals and tourists alike, no trip to the high country of Western North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway is complete without it. Two waterfalls with the simple names of Upper Falls and Lower Falls, and with relatively easy access, delimit the western and eastern ends of Graveyard Fields. This hike occurred on Thursday, August 22, 2013 from 7:45am to 10:00am. My plan was to take the Graveyard Fields Trail to Upper Falls, then backtrack to the loop trail to Lower Falls and return.
Hike Length: 3.5 miles Hike Duration: 2.25 hours Blaze: None
Hike Configuration: Lasso Elevation Gain: 450 feet
Hike Rating: Mostly easy, but the climb back up from Lower Falls makes this moderately strenuous.
Trail Condition: Fair. Lots of mud. Rocks and roots near Upper Falls.
Starting Point: Trailhead at the Graveyard Fields Overlook – milepost 418 BRP.
Trail Traffic: I encountered two other hikers. Usually it’s more crowded.
How to Get There: From Asheville, NC take the Blue Ridge Parkway south to milepost 418. Park at the Graveyard Fields Overlook. The trailhead is at the west end of the parking area.
There are as many legends and myths swirling around Graveyard Fields as there are streams and seeps feeding Yellowstone Prong as it tumbles through the high mountain bogs and meadows. Historians seem to agree, though, that there was a massive tree blow-down hundreds of years ago, leaving chunks of dirt and roots exposed at the base of the toppled trees. Over time, moss covered the erect root balls leaving a scene reminiscent of headstones in a cemetery. Rest assured as you’re hiking through, however, that there are no secret graves lurking in the bogs.
It is known that there was a massive fire that swept through the valley in November 1925 that was sparked by the crash of a locomotive used for logging operations. The slash and debris from the clear cutting created fire so intense that it has slowed the ecological recovery of trees in Graveyard Fields. Another fire in 1940, followed by floods on the burned soil have left Graveyard Fields in a state of slow-motion evolution. What might usually take 20 years to recover following forest fire, has taken nearly a hundred here.
The valley floor is lush with heath
— blueberry bushes, rhododendron, mountain laurel
— but there is a sparsity of trees. All those bushes come alive in October with brilliant red hues, making Graveyard Fields one of the most popular leaf peeping destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But Graveyard Fields is a popular year-round destination. If you don’t get there before 9:00 AM on most weekends, you’re likely not to find a parking space at the overlook.
Locals and tourists swarm to Graveyard Fields for camping, swimming holes, blueberry picking, crisp & cool mountain air, and the pair of waterfalls that border the eastern and western flanks of the Yellowstone Prong Valley. Visiting those waterfalls makes for a nice relaxing 3.5 mile hike at any time of year.
The trailheads are found at either end of the parking area. I prefer starting at the western end, going in a clockwise direction to Upper Falls first. You will dive down a set of wooden steps into the rhododendron tunnel below. High above is the 6,200 foot summit of Black Balsam Knob peering down at the valley. Listen closely and you may hear whispers on the wind from Art Loeb, the father of the trails in these mountains.
The first three-quarters mile is beneath the rhododendron canopy as the trail twists and turns, seemingly lost in the jungle of warped rhodo trunks and branches. The terrain is wet. There are seeps everywhere. In places the trail is so frequently puddled that they’ve constructed boardwalks to avoid the worst of the mud. Come here when the rhodies are blooming, though, and the trail is a pathway of petals at your feet.
When you finally clear the heath labyrinth you’ll have your first view of Yellowstone Prong. There’s a foot bridge to cross, then a junction in the trail. If you turn right you will go through the Graveyard Fields bog to Lower Falls. If you continue straight, you will join the connector trail to Graveyard Ridge, another hike detailed here. I took the left fork, the one heading to Upper Falls.
It is 0.8 mile from the junction to Upper Falls. The trail again passes through wetlands and crosses more boardwalk. It meanders near, and then away from Yellowstone Prong, so you will occasionally hear rushing water. You’ll pass campsites. There are seemingly scores of them in the thousands of acres that comprise Graveyard Fields. To the north are the hills along Graveyard Ridge. Periodically you will get a quick glimpse of Black Balsam Knob or Tennent Mountain, two of the sixers towering above.
When the trail begins getting very rocky, and climbing, you will know you’re getting fairly close to the waterfall. The climb is about 300 feet, of only moderate steepness, easy no matter your fitness level. The sound will announce your arrival. A waterfall is unmistakable in the wild. No other sound can penetrate the moment.
As waterfalls go, Upper Falls is not spectacular. It’s a thin slide waterfall that plummets approximately 60 feet. There is no plunge pool, just the granite slab and other large boulders. Even with all the rain we’ve had in WNC this summer, it still wasn’t doing much.
But that really isn’t the point. Because it isn’t as showy as Lower Falls or Yellowstone Falls, it isn’t as popular. Because you have to hike 1.6 miles from the parking lot to get to it, the tourists tend to leave it alone. For me, it’s the solitude. Every time I’ve been there I’ve had it all to myself. If you get a good early start, say before 10:00 AM, you can almost guarantee having the same peace and serenity, especially on a weekday.
It’s a great place to meditate, or work on your tan, or grab a snack, or do your morning yoga. In summer, there are usually butterflies flitting about. In winter, you may even catch it iced up. The opposite direction from the falls, back to the east behind you, is a limited view of Pisgah Ridge.
Getting my fill of Upper Falls, it was time to head out to Lower Falls. To do so, make the 0.8 mile return trip to the trail junction. Instead of turning right to go back to the parking, go straight ahead. Just follow the sign to Lower Falls.
From the junction it is 0.6 mile to Lower Falls. Along the way the trail follows Yellowstone Prong, crosses more boardwalk, and enters the mountain bog. This is the wide open expanse of Graveyard Fields. The only vegetation here is bushes (mostly blueberry) and grasses and wildflowers. You can see hundreds of yards in each direction, unobstructed by trees. Especially in October, this area is on fire with autumnal colors. No matter the season, it is a vivid beauty.
A rustic split rail fence follows the trail as it winds through the bog. Your eyes are tantalized by the myriad of picturesque choices. The valley is surrounded by tall mountains and big sky. Because of the elevation, the sky is always a richer hue. I happened to catch goldenrod in bloom, and various asters.
On the eastern edge of the bog, the trail re-enters the woods and comes to another junction. If you turn right, you will return to the parking area. Remember that for your return. If you turn left, you will join the Mountains to Sea Trail for a trip into Shining Rock Wilderness. Straight ahead takes you to Lower Falls.
You will cross one last boardwalk, then pass close by Yellowstone Prong. You can both hear and see the rushing water on your right, and then you find the wooden stairs. If you aren’t in very good shape, or have a heart condition, you may want to think very hard about tackling the stairs to the waterfall. There are more than a hundred individual steps, equivalent to skipping the elevator in a 10-story building. What you go down, you must come back up.
And to see Lower Falls, you have to go all the way to the bottom. There are benches strategically placed along the way, so if you get tired on your way back up, you can take a breather while sitting. Once you are there, I think you will agree that it’s definitely worth the exertion of the stairs.
Lower Falls, also known as Second Falls, is a terraced waterfall with a large plunge pool that the swimmers love on hot summer days. The basin is surrounded by large boulders, many with varying shades of yellow minerals tinting the stone. It’s easy to see how Yellowstone Prong got its name.
Be careful how and where you step. It’s easy to turn an ankle or get a foot wedged between two rocks. If you take your time though, you can get some remarkable views of the waterfall from nearly every direction.
After you’ve huffed and puffed your way back up those merciless stairs, take the little side trail down to the top of the falls. Again be careful, you don’t want to spill to the bottom, but there’s a nice view westward, up Yellowstone Prong, of the foot bridge you’ll be crossing back to the parking lot. That’s the photo at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image.
Remember when I told you to remember above? When you get back to the junction, take the fork back to the parking area. Soon after you do so, you will cross that foot bridge in the photograph. On the other side, it’s back into the dense rhododendron forest again and a steady, but paved, climb up and out of Graveyard Fields.
Along the way I saw my first ever turtlehead blossom. I was so excited! They are really pretty amazing little flowers. Look through the photo gallery below for my find.
To summarize, Graveyard Fields is one of those must-stop locations along the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can do the touristy thing and snap some pictures from the overlook, maybe even put on your shoes and take the paved path half-a-mile round trip to Lower Falls. Or, you can impress people into thinking you know what you’re doing, and know something they don’t, if you not only put on your shoes, but also add your pack and take the loop through the whole area. C’mon. You know you want to.