Friday, March 11, 2011

Art Loeb Trail/Graveyard Fields

Hike: Graveyard Fields/Black Balsam Knob Circuit
Nearby Town: Brevard, NC
Elevation (Max): 6,214'
Elevation Gained: ~1500'
Mileage: 10.75
Difficulty: Strenuous
Trailhead: Park at the Graveyard Fields Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway around milepost 419. The trailhead is the Graveyard Fields Loop trail that leaves the parking lot (there are two trails, use the one on the right).
Web Site:

Graveyard Fields from the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook

Park at the Graveyard Fields Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is one of the most popular overlooks, and the lot can sometimes fill up (though, if it does, people just park on the grass). From the overlook, head down the Graveyard Fields Loop trail on the right which is a paved path through dense rhodedendreon. The path reaches the Yellowstone Prong, a beautiful rocky river. Cross the bridge and turn left on the Graveyard Fields Loop (blue blaze). Enjoy this walk through a rare and beautiful mountain meadow with views up to all the mountains and ridges around you. The trail then turns right onto the Graveyard Ridge Connector (yellow blaze) which will take you up from Graveyard Fields to Graveyard Ridge. This trail can occasionally be confusing (as can several of the trails on this hike as they are not very well marked nor heavily used), but as long as you remember where you are coming from and where you are going, you should be ok. For example, trails zig-zag across the Graveyard Ridge Connector (these trails mostly just go around some obstacles on the trail), but as long as you continue going away from your car and up Graveyard Ridge, you will be ok.

Yellowstone Prong

Heading into Graveyard Fields

On to Graveyard Ridge

The trail will reach the Graveyard Ridge Trail (orange blaze) onto which you want to turn left. This is a mostly flat and easy trail that walks along the side of the ridge with beautiful views over Graveyard Fields and up to Black Balsam Knob. The trail will eventually come to a 4-way junction. The trail on the left is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) ascending Black Balsam Knob, the trail straight ahead is the Graveyard Ridge Trail heading to Ivestor Gap, and the trail on the right is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and Graveyard Ridge Trail (Graveyard Ridge is a loop). You want to go left on the MST up Black Balsam Knob (on the return side of the loop, you will be coming back on the Graveyard Ridge Trail from Ivestor Gap).

On the Graveyard Ridge Trail

Head to Black Balsam and Fire Road 816

We dubbed this trail the Mountainous Sea of Grass Trail as the trail is clearly not heavily used and is pretty overgrown with grasses and bushes. This is by far the most strenuous part of the hike with the majority of the elevation gain coming here. The views really begin to open up on this trail with Mount Pisgah to the northeast and Looking Glass Rock (and, believe it or not, your car) to the southeast. The trail descends a bit from a rocky overlook to the headwaters of Yellowstone Prong before climbing to near Fire Road 816 which the trail parallels a bit before connecting with the Art Loeb Trail. Parking along this road is popular for going into the Shining Rock Wilderness or taking a quick hike up Black Balsam Knob. This is where we first saw other people on the trail.

Not much of a trail

Headwaters of Yellowstone Prong

Join the Art Loeb Trail (white blaze) and begin the balds portion of the hike. The first bald is Black Balsam Knob (6,214') where the views open up on a grand scale in all directions with the Smokies to the west and countless mountains of Pisgah National Forest all around (and you can still, amazingly, see your car if you have binoculars). The balds are a unique feature of the southern Appalacchians where the latitudes are too low for an alpine zone but nevertheless the mountain summits are treeless. Theories for why this is so range from livestock grazing to forest fires. Whatever the reason, they provide beautiful, wide views. The Art Loeb Trail is a lot like the MST, though, with lots of overgrown grass, which, unfortunately, soon got soaked making for a very, very wet hike for the rest of the day.

Joining the Art Loeb Trail

The final ascent of Black Balsam Knob

Something you really have to be prepared for when doing this hike is rain. The mountains of western North Carolina are a temperate rainforest, and thunderstorms can pop up suddenly on any day. When we did this hike, we started with beautiful, sunny skies, but only a couple hours later clouds had filled in, and as we approached Black Balsam Knob, thunder started rumbling all around. Being on top of a bald in the middle of a thunderstorm wasn't something we were very interested in. Luckily, we were only a few minutes away from the treeline so we just retreated back down the way we came into the trees to wait out the lightning and heavy rain. We ended up waiting about an hour or more just sitting around under the trees trying to stay dry. This waiting made our goal of reaching Shining Rock essentially impossible. The really great thing about the Graveyard Fields/Shining Rock Wilderness area, though, is that there are lots of trails that come in from the east and west connecting to the central Art Loeb Trail, which makes revising hiking plans easy.

Storm clouds approaching

Waiting out the rain (Don't worry, E is not crying--just bored)

After Black Balsam Knob, the next peak we came to was Tennent Mountain (6,040'), which provides even more incredible views (since the entire hike along the balds is exposed, the views are basically never ending). The trail curls along the east side of Tennent Mountain before descending toward Ivestor Gap with only one more small hill in between. Water supply is the biggest challenge of a hike across the balds as you are entirely on the ridge. Luckily for us, the thunderstorms that rolled through earlier left plenty of puddles around and we filtered from a large puddle between Tennent and this small hill.

The trail up Tennent Mountain

Looking back along the Art Loeb Trail

On Tennent

Descending to Ivestor Gap through wet, waist-high vegetation

We decided to start looking for a site to camp for our two-day hike. We saw three other tents already set up including an amazingly beautiful spot in a field in Ivestor Gap with views both east and west. Sadly, we didn't get this spot, but ours was pretty cool too. We camped right off the trail on a thick bed of grass on top of the hill between Tennent and Ivestor Gap with great views to the east and of Tennent Mountain. There was also a stand of large-ish trees nearby which we used to hang our bear bag. Camping is allowed anywhere in Pisgah National Forest, so it's really a finders-keepers sort of thing.

A lovely camping spot

The night got pretty cold--despite the 85 degree day, but I was comfortable in the 25 degree rated bag. E, on the other hand, slept wrapped in a blanket because she didn't have a lightweight sleeping bag and because we figured late June would be plenty warm. Well, that did not turn out to be quite correct, and she had a rather uncomfortable, cold night. We hit the trail at about 7 the next morning and began the last part of the hike through dewy grass that quickly soaked our socks (again).

The next morning with dew on my lens

When you arrive in Ivestor Gap, several trails come together. First, take a moment to enjoy the view to the west one last time before descending the east side of the ridge. Then take the wide dirt trial on the right heading east. This is the Graveyard Ridge Trail again. This trail is pretty wide as it is supposedly for multiple use like horses, though I cannot imagine a horse walking on this trail covered with loose, small rocks. the trail winds around the east edges on the mountains before crossing Dark Prong, which is a beautiful, cold stream which we filtered to replenish our bottles. The trail continues and pretty quickly returns to the 4-way junction from yesterday. You want to go to the trail from which you came yesterday so go straight on the Graveyard Ridge Trail (right goes back up Black Balsam and left is the MST along Graveyard Ridge). From here just retrace your steps back to your car.

Or, you could enjoy a quick side adventure to the base of Second Falls along Yellowstone prong. To get there, instead of going right across the bridge back to your car, go straight down the hill and you will eventually get to some stairs that take you to the base of the falls. It's a pretty impressive sight.

Second Falls

A beautiful and very cold-looking pool at the base of the falls

This hike can be done in one day as long as you get an early enough start. Thunderstorms pop up pretty frequently in the mountains in summer, though, so be ready to revise your plans. This is easily my favorite hike in North Carolina so far. I hope to get back to the Art Loeb Trail again some day to hike its entire length. Below is a GPS-generated map of the hike.