Summer is a great time to cruise the highlands along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and perhaps take a stroll to a waterfall. Down on the Blue Ridge Parkway, south of Asheville, N.C., near Brevard, there is a popular pull-off known as Graveyard Fields. From the pullout, you can see the open valley of Yellowstone Prong below, with the Shining Rock Wilderness rising in the background.
Starting at Graveyard Fields you can take a three-mile hike combining high country vistas with highland waterfalls, an alluring amalgamation. Yellowstone Prong, nestled on three sides by mile-high ridges, presents two cataracts as it descends this perched valley. Between visits to these cascades, you walk through a montage of meadow and forest
First, visit Lower Falls, traveling a multi-stair boardwalk. Turn upstream, hiking through upland meadow where towering mountains rise in the distance. Reach Upper Falls, a white froth tumbling over a wall. Your return trip tunnels through rhododendron before returning to the trailhead.
Frankly, it is hard to find such a combination of high country and high falls. Since your access is from the Blue Ridge Parkway, the hike is very popular during the summertime. To avoid the crowds simply hike this trail during the shoulder seasons or early in the morning and late in the evening if during summer. In winter, you will be subject to Blue Ridge Parkway closures, which follow the whims of Jack Frost.
The hike leaves Graveyard Fields Overlook on stone steps, descending to an asphalt trail winding through rhododendron thickets, black birch and pin cherry. Just ahead, bridge Yellowstone Prong, a stony stream, channeling in flumes and chutes, then gathering in pools. Leave right from the bridge, toward Lower Falls. Boardwalks take you over tributaries. At 0.2 miles, a spur leads left to access the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. It isn’t long before you encounter the hazard of this hike — user- created trails that make trail junctions potentially confusing. Continue downstream closer to Yellowstone Prong and shortly come upon a multi-tiered, twisting boardwalk leading to the base of Lower Falls, also known as Second Falls. This cataract spills about 50 feet in four tiers, each tier angled differently. A massive boulder jumble lies at the base of the falls. These boulders provide seats for visitors. This is the low point of your hike and you are still above 5,000 feet!
From here, backtrack toward the trailhead, joining a new trail where you see a sign heading toward Upper Falls. Leave most other hikers now, and enter a fluctuating landscape, sometimes meadows, sometimes forest, sometimes upland bogs, sometimes creekside gravel bars. After a half-mile, the trail opens to views of the upper stream basin, bordered by Graveyard Ridge on your right, 6,214 foot Black Balsam Knob rising in the foreground, and Pisgah Ridge, where the Blue Ridge Parkway runs, to your left.
Continue deeper up Yellowstone Prong, crossing a boardwalk spanning a ferny meadow. The trailside flora in this highland vale continues changing — blackberry patches, shady multi-trunked maples and yellow birch, grassy meadow, and deep laurel thickets. Late summer hikers will find ripe blueberries. Elevation change is minimal thus far.
The Graveyard Fields Trail crosses another tributary. The name comes from now-unseen upturned spruce stumps resembling graves in the level valley that was formerly covered in forest. Note the thick brush bordering the wetlands. Stunning views of the surrounding ridges continue. It is simple to pick out Pisgah Ridge. You can even look back at the Graveyard Fields Overlook, and perhaps even your car. Stay with the most heavily used trail while occasionally passing through or near campsites.
Rock hop the main tributary to Yellowstone Prong at 1.3 miles. Note the quartz scattered among the streamside rocks. Join a slope covered in yellow birches rising over bright green grasses. The trail does its only real climbing here, and it isn’t much. Twist among rocks on the slope.
The hike reaches Upper Falls, at 1.8 miles. It starts narrow, then spills about 45 feet over a tan rock base, widening out as a fan would, then tumbles into a short sheer drop, and continues over a wide rock slab, briefly slowing at an impromptu stony viewing spot, then pushes onward. Upper Falls is the more impressive of the two falls in my opinion. However, the whole high altitude valley of Yellowstone Prong is a nonstop highlight reel. No wonder the area is so popular, but this is one of those “must-do” popular hikes, even for a solitude seeker.
Resume the loop hike after backtracking from Upper Falls. Then you will bridge Yellowstone Prong, enjoying the willow and rhododendron-lined stream framed in Carolina highlands. The water is as clear as air. Begin working your way through evergreen thickets roofing the trail. Make a big curve to the east then reach stone steps just below Graveyard Fields Overlook, completing the hike at 3.2 miles.
Driving directions: From the intersection of NC 280 and US 276 in Brevard, N.C., take US 276 north for 15 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow the Blue Ridge Parkway 7 miles south to the Graveyard Fields Overlook, on your right at milepost 418.8.
For more information: Pisgah National Forest, 1001 Pisgah Highway, Pisgah Forest, NC 28768, 828-877-3265, www.fs.usda.gov/nfsnc