Black Balsam-Graveyard Fields Loop (5-27-14)
Black Balsam Knob and neighboring Graveyard Fields offer, to me, some of the most diverse and scenic hiking terrain to be found anywhere in the Southern Appalachians. Located adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville a mere 20-miles from my home these two spots are a couple of my favorite 'backyard' hikes. Graveyard Fields, a high elevation valley at over 5,000-feet, is an ecosystem in slow recovery. It gained its name from the extensive logging that took place here over one hundred years ago which stripped the area of its trees, leaving nothing but scattered stumps resembling gravestones. Fire followed the logging, as it often does, and burned so intensely here that it sterilized the soil making it exceedingly difficult for plant life to recover. To this day, a century later, only small shrubs and grasses have managed to make a go of it in the valley. Even so, it is a wonderful place to go to see spring wildflowers and it contains two of the prettiest waterfalls along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rising above Graveyard Fields like a protective rampart is the massive 6,000'+ ridgeline of Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. These two peaks are part of the greater Shining Rock Ridge which supports one of the largest continuous stretches of open bald country in the Southern Appalachians. From the Art Loeb Trailhead at Black Balsam Road you can hike north, for the majority of the time surrounded by nary a tree for nearly 4-miles!
Understandably, due to their proximity to the Parkway, they are far from being a secret so these areas can be quite busy in the summer months. I tend to limit my visits to the off-season. This year, however, is a bit different. If you've ever been to Graveyard in the summer you'll know that parking for the trailhead can be problematic as it tends to fill up early. The Park Service has chosen to alleviate this problem a bit by expanding the parking lot which had temporarily closed it during my visit. As a result, for those willing to walk a couple extra miles, there is the opportunity this year to see Graveyard as few do in the summer...all but empty. Because of this I decided it was as good a time as any to do something I've wanted to do for a couple years. Rather than hiking them separately as I normally do, I'd combine the two areas into one long amazingly diverse and scenic loop. I love these places, I never tire of visiting them...in this album I think you'll see why...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.320590, -82.876183
Route Type: Double Loop Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 10.0 miles Hike Duration: 5:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 4,920' Max. Elevation: 6,214'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,850' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 185'
Trails Used (Blaze Color):
Art Loeb (white), Graveyard Ridge (orange), Mountains-to-Sea (white), MST Access (unblazed), Graveyard Fields Loop (unblazed), Graveyard Ridge Connector (yellow)