Monday, October 2, 2017

Autumn comes to Graveyard Fields

It’s here. October. Autumn. Fall foliage!

It’s time to chase color. We headed up to the mountains this weekend to see for ourselves, and I can confirm – the leaves are turning. NOAA climate scientists are predicting this year’s fall colors to be the brightest and most beautiful in decades due to elevated average high temperatures and a fairly dry summer. In addition the season is supposedly starting early due to a cold snap some three weeks ago.

Every year the season kickoff is in the highest elevations (5,000 feet and up) north of Asheville, especially in the Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Waterrock Knob and Graveyard Fields areas. Of these the closest to the Upstate is Graveyard Fields – it’s under a two hour drive from Greenville.

Graveyard Fields owes its interesting name to a tremendous ‘wind-blow’ that happened here 500-1,000 years ago. The spruce forest was leveled, and over the years the trees and stumps rotted, leaving only dirt mounds. From a distance, the mounds supposedly looked like gravestones... Another legend tells of the extensive logging operations in the early 1900s that left only the stumps of trees, which covered in moss also resembled an overgrown cemetery. Whichever version you prefer, the forest recovered only to be destroyed again in a catastrophic fire in 1925 that burned so deep that it destroyed any trees, stumps, mounds and even the soil’s nutrients. Although over the years briars and other small plants have taken hold to start the long process of adding decaying vegetation to enrich the soil, the woods are a far cry from the spruce-fir forest that it once was.

Rhododendron tunnels

We planned to arrive early, as the small parking lot at the Graveyard Fields Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 418) fills up fast. There was a definite chill in the air when we got out of the car, and we donned extra layers before heading out. From the parking lot we headed down the stairs into the rhododendron tunnel, shortly reaching the bridge across the Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River. The headwaters of the Yellowstone Prong are at the junction of two high ridges, the mountains exceeding 6,000 feet in elevation while the base of the valley is over 5,000. From the Upper Falls in the west end of the valley, the river meanders through Graveyard Fields, spills out the east end over Second Falls, and then continues on to Skinny Dip Falls and the Shining Rock Wilderness area. To reach this gorgeous waterfall cross the bridge, turn right, keep right at the intersection and then descend the stairs to the river.

To continue our hike we retraced our steps back to the bridge. The trail that connects just after the stairs is the Mountains To Sea Connector, leading to the trail that stretches across the state of NC all the way from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway through Pisgah National Forest to the Outer Banks and the Atlantic Ocean. We left it for another day…

This is an unbelievably scenic stretch of Yellowstone Prong. The crystal-clear waters are home to the native brook trout, and in addition to bands of color in the bedrock, the streambed is filled with yellow rocks that give the river its name. Enormous boulders are scattered in the stream bed to the delight of our young rock-hoppers, and it was hard to tear them away both from Second Falls and from the bridge where there is another easy access point to the river.

But eventually we kept on, keeping to the north of the river and following the sign to Upper Falls. It’s about 1.5 miles between the falls, and the trail winds through the valley covered with grasses, small trees, blueberries, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Taller shrubs and small trees are starting to dominate in recent years, and this variety of colorful autumn species is what makes this hike such a delight in early October. The few beeches had already dropped their bright yellow leaves, but the blueberries, maples, elms and other trees were just starting their show!

Along the way are multiple mountain bogs that lie along springs and seeps in the valley. The trail is rather eroded and muddy in spots, but all the water makes for unlimited fascinating stops for the boys. About 0.2 miles from the bridge you’ll pass the Graveyard Ridge Connecter, and another 0.3 miles later is the where the Graveyard Fields Loop trail splits off to take you back to the parking lot. From this point it is 0.8 miles to Upper Fall, and you know you’re getting close when the trial starts climbing.

The area around Upper Falls is a lattice of improvised trails. Main points: 1. The rock is slick and dangerous when it is wet (and possibly when it is dry) 2. Do not try to climb up to the top of the falls – there’s not really anything to see there anyway 3. Enjoy the view of the falls as well as the view down the valley.

We had a snack and explored, the blue skies a stunning contrast to the colorful foliage. I don’t think anyone was ready to leave…

Knowing we still had a bit of a hike ahead of us we gathered up our things and started back. Having retraced our steps to the intersection with the Loop trail, we made a right and crossed the Yellowstone Prong on the sturdy new bridge that replaced numerous others that were all washed away in floods. From the bridge it is 0.6 miles back to the parking area, a steady climb through rhododendron and mountain laurel. We hiked through a few marshy areas and a grassy forest, across a couple of boardwalks/bridges, and finally up a flight of stairs.

Before piling back in the car we had another snack, sitting in the trunk and admiring the view. From the overlook you can make out hikers crossing the open expanses of Graveyard Fields, and the Yellowstone Prong is visible here and there. What up-close was a vivid cacophony of color appears a rich tapestry from a distance, but I have no doubt that the next couple of weeks at Graveyard Fields will be at peak color, heralding fall in the Carolinas.

Chase that color.

Total mileage from Graveyard Fields Overlook parking lot to Second Falls and then Upper Falls before returning to the parking lot via Graveyard Fields Trail = about 3.5 miles. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi There, we have been there--and done that same hike. We are going to be at Pisgah next week---so hopefully we'll see some color....

    Great pictures.


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