Graveyard Fields Area
"Graveyard Fields" is the name of a high, flat mountain valley adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Mount Pisgah. With its open views, cool summer temperatures, cascading waterfalls, and great variety of hiking trails, Graveyard Fields is one of the most popular outdoor recreation areas in all of Western North Carolina.
It's at the junction of two high ridges where the Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River has its headwaters. Capped by mountains exceeding 6000 ft in elevation, the base of the valley is itself over 5000 ft, which accounts for some of its unique characteristics.
The area known as Graveyard Fields roughly includes the Yellowstone Prong valley above Yellowstone Falls, between the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south and the summit of Graveyard Ridge to the north, and west to the upper falls.
The unusually flat valley was once like an upside-down "bald", with fields of high-elevation grasses and shrubs surrounding the tributaries of the Yellowstone Prong. True bald mountaintops, such as Black Balsam Knob, surround the valley. But also like many balds, the valley is slowly growing over with shrubs and trees, replacing the open areas.
The Yellowstone Prong gathers in these high surrounding mountains, tumbles over Upper Falls into the western end of the valley, and spills out the eastern end over Second Falls (before flowing on to Skinny Dip Falls and the Shining Rock Wilderness area).
Between the Upper Falls and Second Falls the river is slow and lazy, with meanders, gravel bars, threaded channels and crystal-clear still pools supporting native Brook trout.
Rare mountain bogs lie along springs and seeps in the valley. Although the trees and shrubs are beginning to grow back in places, periodic smaller fires have swept through the area in modern times, helping keep the alpine meadow-like appearance in places.
There's no shortage of trails to explore in Graveyard Fields. While unofficial "manway" trails wind all over the valley, a good network of official trails are in place and should be used instead.
An excellent loop trail (the Graveyard Fields Loop) enters the area from an understandably crowded overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. From it, spur trails lead to two of the three major waterfalls on the Yellowstone Prong.
The Graveyard Ridge trail ascends and then travels along its eponymous itself before ending at the intersection with the Ivestor Gap and Mountains to Sea Trails. These trails lead up into the Black Balsam Knob area and on to the Shining Rock Wilderness (the Mountains to Sea Trail leads to the Shining Rock Wilderness in both directions), making for some excellent day and overnight hikes.
In addition to the standard Graveyard Fields Loop hike, which travels to both waterfalls, several other possibilities for look hikes are in the area. Here are some additional suggestions that will take you farther from the most crowds (use a map to scope these out before your hike):
- Short Graveyard Ridge Loop: for a shorter hike that takes in some of the views from Graveyard Ridge, follow this route: Graveyard Fields Loop (R. past Second Falls) → L. on Mountains to Sea Access → L. on Mountains to Sea Trail → L. at 1st (eastern) jct. with Graveyard Ridge Trail → L. on Graveyard Ridge Connector → L. on Graveyard Fields Loop → R. at bridge to return (Moderate)
- Long Graveyard Ridge Loop: for a longer hike that offers more exercise, views into the next valley, and even more views from Graveyard Ridge, try this route: Graveyard Fields Loop (R. past Second Falls) - L. on Mountains to Sea Access → L. on Mountains to Sea Trail → R. at 1st (eastern) jct. with Graveyard Ridge → along north side of Graveyard Ridge → R. at 2nd (western) Graveyard Ridge Trail Junction → R. on Graveyard Ridge Connector → L. on Graveyard Fields Loop - R. at bridge to return (More Difficult)
This is just an overview of trails available in this Trailhead area. For all the trail details, visit the trails page. You can also look at the Graveyard Fields interactive map to see how everything fits together.
The area certainly has an interesting name, and there are several theories about what might have lent the moniker. A natural explanation for it originates from a time when a windstorm blew down hundreds of the spruce and fir trees that originally grew here. The upturned roots supposedly resembled gravestones in a graveyard.
But there is a man-made explanation as well. During the early 1900's, when the mountains were being extensively logged, all that remained in this valley were the stumps of cut trees. Over time, mosses eventually grew all over the stumps, resembling an overgrown graveyard.
However, later during the logging era, catastrophic fires swept through the area, destroying anything resembling a graveyard and heating the soil enough to sterilize it. The once dense spruce-fir forest was forever changed from that point forward. Plants to this day have trouble growing in the nutrient-poor soils, although trees, shrubs, and grasslands are slowly replenishing it and will eventually take over once again.
Camping in Graveyard Fields Prohibited
Camping in the "Graveyard Fields Vicinity" has been "temporarily" prohibited since March 2015 due to bear activity. It is unclear if this restriction may be lifted in the future, and it is not exactly clear what constitutes the "Graveyard Fields Vicinity" for the purposes of this restriction. To be safe, I'd assume anything within or on the margins of the Yellowstone Prong drainage to be off-limits. That includes along the Graveyard Ridge trail, the gap between Graveyard Ridge and Black Balsam, and the areas above Yellowstone Falls.
Expanded Parking Area and Restrooms at Parkway Overlook
The Blue Ridge Parkway's Graveyard Fields overlook has been expanded, from 15 parking spaces previously to 40 now. In addition, a solar-powered pit toilet was installed to meet the needs of visitors. However, parking is now prohibited along the Parkway shoulders and outside of designated spaces in the official overlook. Rangers are issuing tickets for those found to be illegally parked; if the lot is full, hike in from the Mountains to Sea Trail (from Looking Glass Rock Overlook or Black Balsam Road), or visit another time.
New Bridge on South Side of Loop
The upper bridge over the Yellowstone Prong was reconstructed and should be adequate for many years in the future, no matter what floods may come. This completes the loop and most of the trail maintenance issues in the area; however, there are still some very bad sections of trail and the newly constructed trail isn't holding up perfectly either. Still, it's an improvement.
Camping and Lodging
Camping is not currently allowed in Graveyard Fields - see the above notice. Camping is normally allowed anywhere on National Forest property, subject to applicable National Forest backcountry camping regulations. Dispersed camping is allowed in the National Forest outside Graveyard Fields.
Bear canisters are required in areas outside the Graveyard Fields Vicinity that are still open to camping. All bear canisters must be commercially made; constructed of solid, non-pliable material manufactured for the specific purpose of resisting entry by bears.
Some campsites in the area are over-used, but it's better to use one of those than to make a new one. Just do your part to keep it clean - don't trample vegetation, don't leave half-burned logs in the fire ring, and don't take a soapy bath in the stream!
There are no developed campgrounds in the immediate area. The closest ones would be at Mount Pisgah, about 20 minutes south on the Parkway, and Davidson River Campground, about 30 minutes East along US Hwy. 276.
Take the Blue Ridge Parkway South past Mount Pisgah and US Hwy. 276. The Graveyard Fields overlook is at milepost 418.8, just over 25 miles from the NC 191/Brevard Road entrance to the Parkway in Asheville. Park only in designated spaces (there are 40 of them now).
If the Graveyard Fields overlook is full, don't park in the grass, or you will be ticketed. Come back later, or you can still hike into the area via a longer, more difficult hike. Park at the Looking Glass Rock overlook and take the Mountains to Sea Trail west past Skinny Dip Falls, or parking at the Black Balsam Knob parking area and taking the Mountains to Sea Trail east toward Graveyard Ridge. Both of these options offer more difficult excursions into the Graveyard Fields area.