Basking in unfiltered sunlight is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of hiking in the mountains of North Carolina. Long, forested ridges with the occasional opening or exposed rock outcrop are far more typical.
But thanks to some natural and man-made calamities, at Graveyard Fields, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway, one can visit waterfalls while enjoying mountain views unobstructed by trees. Or at least one can for now; the area is slowly recovering from the calamities, and there are no apparent plans to maintain the land in its current state.
Graveyard Fields, less than 40 miles from Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and maybe close by other driving routes, is a very popular location, especially in the summer. Go early on a weekday or go in one of the colder seasons if you wish to avoid hiking with a lot of people. Crowds or no crowds, this spot is worth a visit; there is nothing else like it along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
History of the Graveyard Fields
Hundreds of years ago, powerful winds felled trees here, and the stumps left behind reminded some people of gravestones. The forest had been growing back, but a fire in 1925 and another one in the 1940's decimated the area again, sterilizing the soils, and recovery has been slow, though occurring, since.
Park at the Graveyard Fields Overlook (large parking area) between MP 318 and 319 (close to 318) along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. A board at the trailhead depicts the trail system and distances.
From the trailhead, hike down to Yellowstone Prong. There is a bridged crossing of the stream, and then you go either right to reach the lower falls (about 0.3 mi away) or left to reach the upper falls (about 1.3 mi away). Before the upper falls, there are two notable trail intersections (there are use trails all over the place, so try to stick with the signs and obviously highly used routes)-- the first is the trail to Graveyard Ridge, which climbs to higher terrain but does not access the waterfalls, and the second heads back to the parking area, permitting a loop.
Total distance is about 3.2 mi, with a total elevation gain of close to 500'.
The creek around the lower falls features several boulders and slabs that make nice lounging spots and pools that entice swimmers and waders in the summer. The trail to the lower falls, though steep at the end, is also quite tame, with steps and rails to protect hikers and prevent more erosion. The trail to the upper falls is wilder, but there are some boardwalks to protect sensitive areas from trampling.
The trail ends before you actually reach the upper falls, and some easy scrambling is necessary to get to the waterfalls. The scrambling is easy in dry conditions; when wet, the terrain is treacherous and travel on it is not recommended.
Extensions and Variations
Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, rare North Carolina mountains with totally open tops (combined, they offer nearly three miles of uninterrupted treeless high-altitude hiking) form the backdrop of the Graveyard Fields. Some maps I have seen show the Graveyard Ridge Trail connecting to the trail system on Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, and it is also possible to bushwhack up the slopes, which are not as densely vegetated as most of the North Carolina mountains are (that does not mean the bushwhacking will be easy or pleasant).
From above the upper falls, it is also possible to bushwhack west to the access road for Black Balsam Road; this road is off the Blue Ridge Parkway about 1.5 mi west of the Graveyard Fields Overlook. I did this bushwhack myself and can tell you it is neither easy nor pleasant; expect dense rhodendron growth and lots of thorns. And that was in early April, before the forest had begun to "leaf out."