Bill Thompson/Staff

Reddened by fall, wild blueberry bushes cover the meadows of Graveyard Fields


ON THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY -- It may sound like an eerie manifestation of All Hallows Eve, but no goblins or ghouls emerge from the high-elevation grasses and shrubs of Graveyard Fields, a botanical curiosity in the North Carolina mountains that draws troops of hikers to its unusual trails.

Nestled near the Shining Rock Wilderness area of Pisgah National Forest, this high, flat mountain valley might best be viewed as an upside-down "bald." Fields of low vegetation surround the tributaries of the Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River, which slides down Upper Falls into the western end of the valley and spills over Second Falls at the eastern limit.

"Yellowstone" is apt, since the Shining Rock Wilderness closely resembles a Rocky Mountain landscape.

Depending on which explanation one prefers, Graveyard Fields got its name in one of three ways. Natural calamity, when a ferocious windstorm snapped hundreds of the indigenous spruce and fir trees, their upturned roots resembling gravestones. Man-made action, when the mountains were being extensively logged in the early 1900s, leaving nothing but the stumps of cut trees. And botanical creep, when mosses colonized the stumps, resembling an overgrown graveyard.

Later during the logging era, devastating fires swept through the area, with temperatures so hot it sterilized the soil. While the valley is recovering, pockets of hardwoods sprouting here and there, periodic smaller blazes have swept the area, maintaining a distinctive alpine meadow appearance.

On the Loop

Accessed at Mile Marker 418 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers one of the route's most impressive overlooks, the Graveyard Fields Loop trail is a moderate, 3.2-mile round trip. It moves through rhododendron thickets and meadows, past massive tumbles of boulders and sections of northern hardwood forest with scattered spruces and firs, mountain laurel, blueberries and galax. In August, the meadow's vast fields of ripening blueberries make for a ready feast.

Above you looms Black Balsam Mountain, and to the right, Graveyard Ridge.

Between the two picturesque falls -- Second Falls is less than 100 yards from the trailhead, flowing across solid bedrock -- the river snakes lazily past gravel bars, threadlike channels and clear, still pools inhabited by native brook trout. Perfect for picnicking. Rare mountain bogs also are found along the valley's seeps and springs. Total elevation gain to Upper Falls is only 450 feet.

Of course, a 3.2-miler is merely a warm-up for many hikers. Nearby is the moderate 3.7-mile Flat Laurel Creek trail, while a spur off the Loop offers access to the Graveyard Fields Ridge trail, which gradually ascends the ridge before culminating at the intersection of the Ivestor Gap and Mountains to Sea Trails. Favored by backpackers as well as day-hikers, these latter trails meander into the Black Balsam area and on to the Shining Rock Wilderness.

A seductive gleam

The largest wilderness area in North Carolina, Shining Rock became one of the original components of the National Wilderness Preservation System in September 1964. Many of its steep, craggy peaks exceed 5,000 feet, with three crests higher than 6,000. The Shining Rock Ridge (or Ledge) provides the backbone for a series of high ridges extending east and west. The Pigeon River, with its numerous tributaries, drains the area.

The mountains and the Parkway form a large "U," with the Shining Rock Wilderness occupying the eastern half and the Middle Prong Wilderness the west. Splitting them down the middle is N.C. Route 215. Graveyard Fields rests at the bottom of this "U," where the Shining Rock Ledge meets the Pisgah Ledge at Black Balsam Mountain.

Bear in mind that when winter really sets in, this area of the Parkway often is closed to motorists.

Four miles farther south at Mile Marker 422 resides what is perhaps the most spectacular mountain panorama in the eastern U.S.: Devil's Courthouse. From a perch atop its 5,720-foot summit -- attained via a short but very steep half-mile trail -- one can gaze into South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, the great "rumpled blanket" of the range spread before you. But the scene is almost as dazzling from the parking area.

Its only rival, apart from 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome in Tennessee, is the 360-degree view from the Tolkein-esque spire of 6,292-foot Waterrock Knob (Mile Marker 450), reached by a winding "turret" trail like something out of a fantasy novel.

Devil's Courthouse shelters a variety of rare high-altitude plants, species thought to be remnants from the last glacial period. Hawks, ravens, vultures, eagles and peregrine falcons sail the warm updrafts rising from the valley.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.