Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains
By Lynda McDaniel
[Fig. 26(5)] Water is nature's driving force, a fact readily apparent in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The region's ample rainfall produces high humidity and fuels countless springs, streams, and rivers that in turn support the lush evergreen and deciduous forests. While water has promoted the evolution of forests, logging and fire have permanently altered them. Nowhere is this more evident than in a beautiful narrow valley known as the Graveyard Fields.
Prior to 1925, extensive logging of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) and other prime hardwood timber occurred in the area leaving behind huge, moss-covered stumps. In 1925, a great fire swept through the area and eventually burned more than 25,000 acres of forest. The fire occurred at the start of the trout fishing season, and many of the 200-plus fishermen taking part in the season's opening day were caught in the valley. They survived by immersing themselves in the pools of the Yellowstone Prong, repeatedly surfacing into the searing heat for a brief gasp of air before plunging under again. Once the fires were out, the desolate valley and its dark stumps from a distance resembled a huge tombstone-studded graveyard, which gave the area its name.
The Graveyard Fields is easily one of the most popular hiking areas in Western North Carolina. A scenic stream, the Yellowstone Prong, enters the Graveyard Fields with one waterfall, the Upper Falls, then passes over another set, Second Falls, and exits through a third, Yellowstone Falls. These falls are quite spectacular and photogenic, especially considering the small size of their parent stream.
The Yellowstone Prong got its name from the color of lichens and minerals found on the rocks within and adjacent to the stream. Various colors and unusual erosion patterns can be seen, and these offer photogenic scenes, as well.
The high precipitation, shallow peaty soils, and historic disturbance in the area have produced an unusual mix of forest, shrub, and wetland vegetation. Trees include yellow birch (Betula lutea), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), mountain-ash (Sorbus americana), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), various oaks, white pine, Fraser fir, and red spruce.
Pink and purple blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron thrive throughout the valley as do many wildflowers, such as bluets (Houstonia caerulea), galax (Galax aphylla), and a number of asters and honeysuckles. Other groundcover plants include the hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum), and running clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum).
One delight in the Yellowstone Prong floodplain is the wild berry shrubs that have colonized the area. Hikers along the river enjoy summer and fall harvests of blackberries (Rubus argutus), gooseberries, and blueberries. These fruit-bearing shrubs also attract a variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, which munch on them from dusk till dawn.
Bird watchers report some unusual bird sightings here, including the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephala), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), and spotted sandpiper. Along the meadowlike areas in late spring and summer, northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), and indigo bunting are regulars.
The three waterfalls in the Graveyard Fields are easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The main trail descends from a parking area by means of steps that give way to an asphalt path, necessary due to the popularity of the area. Many parts of the trail beyond the asphalt portion have been worn into deep ruts which are often muddy due to the frequency of precipitation. For those who wish to hike beyond the Yellowstone Prong Valley, the spur off the Graveyard Field Trail, the Graveyard Ridge Trail, leads to, among several places, Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain where spectacular views, buckets full of blueberries, and grassy balds await.
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