Graveyard Fields Hike
A unique loop trail winds through this high-elevation, flat valley. Two spurs lead to some of the most photographed and enjoyed waterfalls in the state! You'll pass through open areas, stands of Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, and young northern hardwood forests. Between the falls is a relaxing, lazy section of stream. This is a truly unique and highly recommended hike!
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Total Length: 3.2 mi
- Trail Tread Condition: Some Obstacles
- Climb: Hilly
- Lowest Elevation: 4960 ft
- Highest Elevation: 5320 ft
- Total Elevation Gain: 450 ft
- Trails Used: Graveyard Fields Loop
- Hike Configuration: Loop, out-and-back extension
- Starting point: Graveyard Fields Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 418
From Asheville, take the Blue Ridge Parkway South past Mount Pisgah. The Graveyard Fields overlook is at milepost 418; park here. The trail starts at the right side of the large map.
Note: The Graveyard Fields area trails underwent significant reroute during the summer of 2005 and have been updated since then, but the erosion problem continues. Another major project was completed at the Parkway overlook 2014, including more parking and pit toilets. No water is available.
This hike starts at one of the most popular overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Visit on a summer weekend, and you will likely find it overflowing - cars parked up and down the parkway and on every patch of grass big enough to fit four tires. There is good reason for this; if you can't visit on a less popular day, don't let the crowds deter you and try to squeeze into a spot anyway. This is a truly spectacular area, and you will never forget a hike here!
Begin the hike by descending the stairs on the right side of the parking area. The path below the stairs down to the stream is actually paved due the high volume of traffic it receives, and it travels through a dense rhododendron thicket. Their blooms will carpet the trail after a good wind storm in early June. At the end of the pavement, a nice new wooden staircase with a couple of viewing platforms has been built. It descends to a bridge over the Yellowstone Prong.
This bridge spans an unbelievably scenic stretch of Yellowstone Prong. The crystal-clear water flows across solid bedrock, through various slots, potholes, pools, and cascades. The rock is colorful; bands and veins swirl through the smooth gray slabs. Enormous boulders sit in the middle of the stream bed. In fact, the bridge actually goes from one bank, to a big boulder, and then to the opposite bank. Just downstream, a side tributary spills out of a crack in the rock, over a small waterfall, and into a pool in the main stream.
I'd almost be willing to wager that this little area gets more rock hoppers than any other in the state! It's a great spot for just cooling off and taking photos, but keep in mind that you're just above the brink of Second Falls. It's mostly level and not particularly dangerous, but still - be VERY careful if you decide to get in the water. The rocks can be extremely slippery.
Cross the bridge; a new staircase structure heads uphill to the right and almost immediately splits. Bear right onto the spur trail to Second Falls (incorrectly signed as "Lower Falls", presumably just because it's not Upper Falls).
The trail crosses the tributary on a bridge in a thin forest of short Northern hardwood trees with firs and grassy patches in between. You'll reach another intersection - this time with a spur that connects to the Mountains to Sea Trail. Again, bear right onto a new section of trail.
You'll soon descend to the base of the falls on dozens of steep, elaborate wooden steps. At the bottom is a viewing platform with some interpretive signs. You can also head out onto the boulders below the plunge pool at the base of the falls or perhaps take a dip in the deep, cold, crystal-clear pool itself.
The combination of boulders to hang out on, the beautiful waterfall spilling into the pool and crystal-clear water, along with easy access from the parking area make it hard to imagine a more ideal swimming hole. Not surprisingly, this is probably one of the most popular swimming holes in the mountains as well, so come during the week if you don't want to wait in line.
Return via the same steps and trail to the first intersection just past the main bridge to continue the hike. From here, the main trail makes a sharp right (signed "Upper Falls") and starts uphill. This begins the loop portion of the hike.
The trail heads uphill into a young but growing forest. It is deeply and alarmingly eroded in places despite only being built in 2005, and the bottom is lined with deep, slippery mud (with skirt-paths around it in places). Unfortunately, it's in terrible condition - the Forest Service really needs to do something about it here. Just make your way through as best you can.
The trail descends a bit and passes a split-rail fence and enters the "fields" for which this area was named, skirting the edge a flat, wetland area near the stream. Grasses, small trees, and heath shrubs - typically blueberries, rhododendron, and mountain laurel - cover the valley bottom and the hillsides.
This area is slowly transitioning back into a forest with taller shrubs and small trees starting to dominate more in recent years; however, there are still open areas, blueberry shrub patches, and grassy openings in places. The trail travels through vast areas of these wild blueberries, making for a feast when the berries ripen in late August.
The muddy and eroded nature of the trail continues, though some long boardwalk structures cross the particularly wet areas and small streams. Above you looms Black Balsam Mountain and to the right, Graveyard Ridge. The trail is quite easy at this point except perhaps navigating around the muddy areas.
If you have kids, count with them how many small brooks and tumbling tributaries you cross as you go. Notice how the trees - mostly oaks, maples, black cherries, and a few scattered spruces - are having a hard time growing back in this area, but are making steady progress. In places near streams, the ground is covered in a thick mat of Galax. Look for the patches of large, round, shiny leaves just a few inches off the ground.
There are three main intersections you should look out for - all of which SHOULD be signed (if not vandalized).
The first is an unsigned spur on the left, which leads down through a clay canyon to the Yellowstone Prong and a former campsite (camping is no longer allowed in the valley). Keep right here.
Just a few feet past this intersection, you reach an intersection with the Graveyard Ridge Connector, leading away uphill to the right. Turn left here.
At the next intersection, the loop portion of the trail turns left while the spur to Upper Falls continues straight ahead. You'll take that trail later to complete the loop; for now, continue straight on to Upper Falls.
A short section of new trail re-joins the old trail again. From here to the falls, much work has been done in terms of installing drainage and rock steps. But portions are far beyond repair - at one point, the trail has been completely swallowed by a meandering side stream. Unfortunately, getting around this section without getting completely soaked and muddy was tricky last time I was here, but at least the path is obvious.
The trail ascends into some more fields and taller trees after crossing the aforementioned side stream. Near the falls, the trail goes right and shoots straight up between some boulders. There is usually a sign here proclaiming the way to the upper falls.
As you come out below the main portion of the falls, it becomes a rock-hopping experience where you'll want to be very careful. You'll have to cross the creek to get a good view of the falls.
On dry days, you can walk up the sloping rock towards the left side of the base of the falls if you're careful, but if it is wet, forget about it. Do not attempt to reach the top of the falls.
When you're done enjoying Upper Falls, return to the loop down the same path. When you get back to the split for the loop, take a right to head back toward the parking lot.
The trail goes through a former campsite (now closed). A small tributary meanders across the trail here, which you'll cross on a small footbridge. The trail then crosses the much larger Yellowstone Prong on a large, sturdy new bridge built in 2008.
This crossing used to be on a bouncy log back in the day; a flimsy footbridge existed after that into the early 2000's. Both were washed away in floods. The new bridge is so sturdy, in fact, that it looks like it could carry a county road rather than a trail! But this one should last decades, at least.
The trail will start climbing after you cross the creek under a thicket of rhododendron and mountain laurel. It's not too steep, but it's devastatingly eroded - in fact, the bridge abutment is now fully exposed and you'll have to jump down a couple of feet to get off it and back onto the trail. And though the trail originally went through a couple of switchbacks when it was first built, short-cutters have ensured that better-designed route was abandoned. People now just follow the extremely deep erosion gully straight uphill.
On a positive note, once you rejoin the old portion of the trail built decades ago, it is in much better shape. There are some more attractive, grassy, high-elevation forests to pass through. The area is wet, and there are several more bridges - one of which is pretty long - over marshy areas. Trickles and seeps of crystal-clear water are funneled across the trail in trenches where they haven't escaped.
All too soon, you'll reach another staircase, at the top of which is the ever-so-popular overlook and the location of your parked vehicle to finish the hike.
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