The mile-high valley of Graveyard Fields, located on milepost 418.8 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, entices thousands of visitors each year with one of the most dramatic overlooks in the area. The 3 mile trail system here travels through blueberry laden meadows and mud choked ruts to the scenic waterfalls of the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Prong. This gorgeous landscape derives its sinister name from a weather event that leveled most of the valleys trees over 100 years ago, leaving moss covered tree stumps that resembled a ghostly graveyard, which early pioneers first encountered when discovering this area. Devastated by an epic fire in 1925 that incinerated most of the valley and surrounding peaks, its forests are regenerating into a vibrant and diverse ecosystem worth spending an afternoon exploring.
Graveyard Fields Loop | 3.5 Miles
Graveyard Fields Trail Map | Alltrails
Graveyard Fields Location | Google Maps
Tucked into a high altitude valley in the shadow of Tennent Mountain along the Blue Ridge Parkway, it leaves little to wonder what makes this area so special once you pullover at the Graveyard Fields Overlook. I drove past this area earlier on my trip through the Great Balsam Mountain Range to hike the Art Loeb Trail and summit the peaks of Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, hike the Sam Knob summit trail, and get an epic view from the observation deck atop Devils Courthouse. Hoping to let the crowds die down (yeah there’s a pun in there), I saved an exploration of Graveyard Fields until closer to dusk with the thought that maybe it would be less crowded. I was forewarned that Graveyard Fields is as touristy as it gets on the parkway, but one caveat to this is that most visitors rarely venture past the Lower Falls (also known as Second Falls on some maps), sometimes unaware of two other waterfalls in the area.
We begin our journey by descending the steep stairs on the far right of the Graveyard Fields Overlook parking lot. From here, the path to the first of the two major waterfalls, Lower Falls, is a mere 0.50 miles away. If you were to take the left staircase, it would lead you the long way through a clockwise, 1.3 mile loop to the Lower Falls overlook. Instead we will be tackling this hike going counter clockwise to Lower Falls first, straight back out to the Upper Falls, and looping south to exit the trail. Once at the bottom of the steps, one passes through a tunnel of rhododendrons which puts on a magical display of rose colored blooms each summer that would rival that of Craggy Gardens. Exiting the tunnel, we come face to face with the roaring rapids of the Yellowstone Prong. It’s early fall and the swollen river has some amazing cascades rolling under the two foot bridges that span a crossing. Even if this is as far as you ventured, it would still give you a photo worthy view of the slide style rapids and the surrounding fall foliage bursting with color.
Large boulders dotting the stream, like isolated islands, can be reached by walking along the river bank to get a close up view of the Lower Falls plunge basin. The best view of course is from down below. To reach this area, follow the trail past the river and keep RIGHT at the junction, crossing a small foot bridge past the Graveyard Fields Loop. You’ll have to take a series of staircases down into the gorge to merge onto the Lower Falls Trail. After a 0.2 mile trek, large gaps in the thickets beside the river bank will start to appear on your right hand side.
The first two gaps lead down a muddy scramble to the very top of the falls. Keep hiking past this to about the third gap which appears as a well traveled trail. This main trail stops at a small overlook of Lower Falls through the trees. Below this is a steep scramble which can be dangerous, but manageable for most people, to get down into the splash pool of the 55’ foot tall Lower Falls, where several groups of people were sun bathing on the rocks.
It’s a gorgeous sight that some say is the most impressive and photogenic waterfall in Graveyard Fields, which is also what makes it so popular with tourists. Though I won’t be venturing to see it on this particular trip, there is a third bonus waterfall just downstream from this one named Yellowstone Falls. To view it requires getting back on the main path of the Lower Falls Trail and hiking 0.5 miles east (away from the parking lot) to merge onto the Mountains To Sea Trail. Keeping RIGHT at this junction, follow the MTS another 0.5 miles to the small spur trail cutting RIGHT to an overlook of the top of Yellowstone Falls.
Having a reliable hiking app with a topographical map of the area is essential for this task. To get down into the plunge basin and experience a full view of this 45’ foot tall beauty requires a further hike downstream on the MTS, another dangerous bushwhacking side trip, and a downhill climb to the river. This is a hidden gem not regularly visited by folks as it requires some experience with off-trail hiking and scrambling, but totally worth exploring for a seasoned adventurer.
A more accessible version of this waterfall, but one that still requires a hefty 1.5 mile trek to see, is the Upper Falls of Yellowstone Prong. Leaving the Lower Falls, head back on the trail the way you came from the parking lot and merge RIGHT onto the Graveyard Fields Loop a few yards before the river crossing. This lands you on the northern portion of the loop, which also happens to be the most scenic. A split wood railing guides you uphill to the expansive meadows and scrubland of Graveyard Fields. The boardwalk traverses a dynamic area that sees seasonal flooding from the Yellowstone Prong and precipitation working its way down from the ridges high overhead. Captivated by views of the valley stretching out to the peaks of Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob, it’s the tiny details that make all the difference here.
A rare and quickly disappearing habitat in the Southern Appalachians, the mountain bogs of Graveyard Fields are sustained by natural seeps and springs throughout the valley. Although nearly 5,000 acres of bogs were once found throughout North Carolina, only about 500 acres remain due to ditching, draining, and urban development. A whole host of amphibians can be found in this area including the endangered bog turtle, which only grows to be 3 inches long, but can live to be 30 years old.
The dried black fruit on many of the blazing red bushes adorning this area belong to a thriving natural grove of wild blueberries. Prized by locals and animals alike, Graveyard Fields hosts one of the best spots for wild berry picking along the parkway. The fruit here is so sweet and plentiful, that it also attracts the attention of the areas black bear population. Though backcountry camping was once allowed in the valley, the Pisgah National Forest began prohibiting camping here in 2015 due to a growing occurrence of bear encounters.
The further we get towards the Upper Falls, the further we travel through the stages of the regenerating landscape. From the meadows and scrubland, we enter into the young intermittent forest of colorful sweet gum, yellow polar, and loblolly pine. The locomotive fire of 1925 that charred 25,000 acres was so intense that it literally sterilized the ground. This is why after nearly 100 years, what should already be a fine tuned succession forest, still only appears to be in its twentieth year. Once in the backcountry stretch of Graveyard Fields, navigation becomes tricky due to the overwhelming amount of mud and erosion along the trails. In some areas the path disappears into sinks big enough to swallow a grown adult. Back in 2005, the Park Service began a project to rehab the trails, building several bridges over the Yellowstone Prong and redirecting badly eroded trails onto higher ground. Unfortunately after 18 years, we’re back to square one.
Between the new trail, the old trail, and user made paths created to avoid the mud pits and sinks, its painstakingly difficult to find your way around. On several occasions I had to use a hiking app, compass, and gps all at the same time, to figure out where I was and which direction to head into. Our experience was akin to finding your way out of a hall of mirrors. After several stream crossings, the trail becomes more appeared t once you reach the stone covered path deep in the woods. This traverses part of the original trail to the Upper Falls which at one point in time was gracefully arranged with stone steps and walkways. Though much of it has fallen down the hill due to erosion, it’s still enough to keep you on track to the first overlook of this waterfall.
Hikers often mistake the bottom of Upper Falls for the actual thing. Being the first overlook encountered on the trail with a slide style waterfall cascading down in between boulders, it looks the part. To the shock of many, including myself, the real waterfall is nearly 150 feet above this one. Reaching it requires getting back on the trail and scrambling up the field of boulders to the RIGHT of the stream. Once on the path, we began to notice that in between the jumbled mess of rock is a section of the original trail that is somewhat hidden away unless viewed from specific angles. Tucked within rows of towering boulders we found a carved stone stairway leading up to an outcropping at the base of the Upper Falls. Splashing down from ledge to ledge, roughly 40 feet, it leaves little to wonder that this is the real thing.
It’s a night and day difference viewing the Upper Falls almost in complete solitude, from the easily crowded Lower Falls. The journey to reach this waterfall is filled with so many twists and turns that it often dissuades the average person midway through the trip. Getting back to the main loop, to reach the parking lot once more, is almost just as difficult with the exception that some of the previous landmarks will help steer you in the right direction.
Upon reaching the Graveyard Fields Loop, turn RIGHT at the junction and cross the wooden plank bridge over the Yellowstone Prong. Unlike the meadows of the northern portion of the loop, the southern half is characterized by a tropical aesthetic. Filled with the wet, waxy leaves of rhododendrons and thin upright tree whips that resemble bamboo, the area resembles a jungle more than your typical upland forest. The end of the loop is marked by the near vertical staircase leading up to the parking lot.
Up next, I’ll be making my final stop on this tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway by paying a visit to view Looking Glass Falls. Though initially pondering a hike to the granite monolith of Looking Glass Rock, I found the trail closed due to a series of land slides that completely washed away portions of the trail. As a substitute, I’ll be spending that time admiring this iconic waterfall located just mere feet away from U.S. Hwy 276 which connects the town of Brevard to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stay tuned and as always, see y’all on the trails!