“Graveyard Fields” is the name of a high, flat mountain valley where the Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River originates. Surrounded by mountains exceeding 6000′ in elevation, the base of the valley is itself over 5000′, which accounts for some of its unique characteristics. A variety of hiking trails wind throughout the valley for your exploration.
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.
Today, the unusually flat valley is 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 Mountain, surround the valley. 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. 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 the area, helping keep the alpine meadow-like appearance in places.
An excellent loop trail (Graveyard Fields Loop) enters the area from an understandably crowded overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and spur trails lead to two of the three major waterfalls on the Yellowstone Prong. The Graveyard Ridge trail ascends and then travels along Graveyard Ridge itself before ending at the intersection with the Ivestor Gap and Mountains to Sea Trails. These trails lead up into the Black Balsam 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.
The trails list in this area is combined with those in Black Balsam, since they are both accessible from the same stretch of parkway, their trails connect, and Yellowstone Prong actually drains the slopes of Black Balsam Mountain itself.