It doesn't happen often but every once in a while, as I'm traveling to one of my hikes, I get distracted by something completely unexpected and my plans for exploration change on a dime. Such it was on this day as I drove south along the Blue Ridge Parkway for an intended date with the beautiful Flat Laurel Creek Trail and the summit of Sam Knob. As the road climbed from the Looking Glass Overlook, up the gorge of Yellowstone Prong, and neared Graveyard Fields something extraordinarily happened...the surrounding woodlands suddenly changed from solidly green to an early fall kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. It is of course well-known to locals that Graveyard Fields is one of the first places in the mountains to blaze into color each year. As a natural high-elevation bowl the valley traps early season cold air and that, combined with the stress of surviving on the thin exposed soils of the area, causes the forests here to adorn their autumn garb a few weeks earlier than their surroundings. Even so, I was unprepared for how far along the colors were this mid-September day. It seemed a couple weeks early for even Graveyard Fields. I couldn't resist...before I even knew I had caught the fall bug I found the foliage surrounding me calling me out onto the familiar trails of the Graveyard.
Starting from the overflowing Graveyard Fields parking lot, I quickly put together a plan together in my head for a nice loop hike down through the Fields themselves and up onto neighboring Graveyard Ridge where the colors looked to be the best from the trailhead. I'd start from the west end of the parking lot, heading onto the loop trail through Graveyard Fields in a clockwise direction. It's an easy path, with little elevation to overcome, and doable for pretty much anyone. The trail drops down to Yellowstone Prong, which bisects the valley, then curves around into the shrubby fields of blueberry and stunted trees which Graveyard is known for. This is a landscape quite utterly destroyed by fire over a century ago. The shrubs you see are all that has managed to repopulate the charred soil in all the years since. As mentioned before however, its due in part to this thin nutrient-poor soil that such early colors are here to enjoy in mid to late September each year. Anyway...back to the hike. About midway along the north side of the valley I turned up the narrow and frequently eroded Graveyard Ridge Connector Trail. As its name implies this trail provides a direct route from the valley to the ridge above. It's a short, moderate climb. Atop the ridge I made a brief foray west to a nice viewpoint of the valley below before backtracking east to pick up the Mountains to Sea Trail which would lead me back down to the valley via another short connector trail. Once down off the ridge I made the required side-trip down to the beautiful cascade with the criminally drab name of Second Falls. Despite its unspectacular moniker this is a wonderful waterfall. It's always busy, save rainy days, but its attention is well-deserved. After the falls all that was left for me was to make the short half-mile climb back to the parking area where I began.
As a place I've hiked literally dozens of times, this trip around Graveyard Fields didn't offer up any real new surprises...but that wasn't really the point of the hike. What I was treated to was a fairly decent display of early autumn foliage. It definitely thrust me into the fall spirit for this season and I'll anxiously be waiting for my next color tour hike. So please, without further adieu...come along with me as I enjoy an early taste of autumn in the southern mountains...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.320310, -82.847057
Mileage Hiked: 2.6 miles Hike Duration: 1:30
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people
Min. Elevation: 4,950' Max. Elevation: 5,250'
Total Vertical Gain: 400' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 154'