Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blue Ridge Parkway: Graveyard Fields Loop Trail (Blog Hike #699)

Trail: Graveyard Fields Loop Trail
Hike Location: Blue Ridge Parkway
Geographic Location: southeast of Waynesville, NC
Length: 1.3 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A high elevation semi-loop featuring waterfalls on Yellowstone Prong.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Graveyard Fields Overlook, which is located at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 418.8.  This milepost is located 4.5 miles north of SR 215 or 6.9 miles south of US 276.

The hike: Of the many easy and moderate dayhikes on the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, perhaps the most famous, scenic, and popular one is Graveyard Fields.  Graveyard Fields is a relatively large and relatively flat high-elevation valley along the Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River.  The valley’s unusual name probably comes from its logging days: clear-cut logging throughout the valley left only rows of stumps that resembled headstones in a cemetery.  An alternate explanation says that the valley got its name from a windstorm that overturned many trees, and the overturned trees resembled headstones.
            Yellowstone Prong enters Graveyard Fields from the west by cascading down Upper Falls.  The river then flows lazily through the valley before dramatically exiting it to the east via multi-tiered Second Falls.  Both of these waterfalls are easily dayhike-able from the Blue Ridge Parkway trailhead, but I only went to Second Falls for reasons to be given later.  Hiking the loop through the valley and the short spur to Second Falls forms the 1.3 mile hike described here.
Stone steps at main trailhead
            Start at the main trailhead beside the restroom building.  A colorful sign that features a trail map stands here.  After descending a set of stone steps, the steep descent continues on an asphalt trail through a thick cluster of mountain laurel.  In total, the trail descends more than 100 feet in the first 0.1 miles.
            The trail surface changes from asphalt to wooden boardwalk as you approach Yellowstone Prong, which you cross on a wooden footbridge.  Just after crossing the river, you reach a signed trail intersection.  The Graveyard Fields Loop turns left to head up some wooden steps, and we will go that way eventually.  First continue straight to hike the spur to Second Falls.
Yellowstone Prong
            The trail curves right to begin heading downstream with the river on your right.  A river access point appears on the right, but be careful wading into the river here: this point is just upstream from Second Falls.  Stay right where a connector trail to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail exits left.  Soon you reach a set of steep wooden steps that head down to the base of Second Falls.  The cascading 55-foot waterfall drops in at least three tiers, and the plunge pool is a popular place for swimming on hot summer days.  Though you will not be alone here, Second Falls makes an attractive site for the eyes and ears.
Second Falls
            Retrace your steps back to the Graveyard Fields Loop, then angle right to begin the loop portion of this hike.  The boardwalk soon runs out, and the rest of the hike follows mostly eroded dirt trails.  There are also quite a few unofficial trails in this valley; some trail markers might help keep hikers on the official trail if they were installed here.
Hiking eroded trail
            Just past 0.6 miles, where the Graveyard Ridge Connector continues straight, you need to turn left to remain on the Graveyard Fields Loop.  A carsonite post marks this intersection.  The trail continues its westward course, and the vegetation opens up enough to allow the surrounding mountains to become visible.
Views of surrounding mountains
            At 0.8 miles, the spur trail to Upper Falls exits right.  The spur is 0.9 miles long one-way, and it is rockier than the Graveyard Fields Loop.  I intended to hike to Upper Falls, but some loud claps of thunder over my shoulders told me that I had better take the shortest route back to the trailhead (a wise move, as you will see).  Thus, I forewent Upper Falls and turned left to continue the Graveyard Fields Loop.
Climbing back toward the trailhead
            Soon you cross Yellowstone Prong on a wooden footbridge.  The yellow stones that give this river its name can be seen under the river’s clear water here.  The balance of the hike is a gradual climb back to the Blue Ridge Parkway trailhead.  Some vegetation crowds the trail here, but the route was easily discernable on my visit.  Climbing a set of stone steps returns you to the parking area; I made it back to my car just as heavy rain started to pelt my head and shirt.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Gorges State Park: Visitor Center to Bearwallow Falls (Blog Hike #698)

Trails: Visitor Center, Bearwallow Valley, and Bearwallow Falls Trails
Hike Location: Gorges State Park
Geographic Location: east of Cashiers, NC
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: An out-and-back featuring Bearwallow Valley Overlook and Bearwallow Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Cashiers, take US 64 east 10 miles to SR 281 and turn right on SR 281.  Drive SR 281 south 0.9 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road to the Visitor Center, and park in the large paved lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: For my general comments on Gorges State Park, see the previous hike.  While many of the trails at Gorges State Park explore the Jocassee Gorge’s rugged backcountry, this short hike connects two of the park’s frontcountry sites: the Visitor Center and Bearwallow Falls.  As such, this hike is probably the park’s easiest hike.  Nevertheless, this hike does not skimp too much on scenery: it passes a scenic valley overlook and leads to an overlook of Bearwallow Falls, a 50-foot moderate-volume cascading waterfall.
Visitor Center trailhead
            Start at the Visitor Center trailhead, which is located on the southeast corner of the parking lot or just north of the Visitor Center.  An information kiosk with trail map, bench, and sign mark this trailhead.  The gravel trail enters the woods and in less than 200 feet reaches a signed trail intersection.  The option going right ends at the park’s amphitheater, so you need to turn sharply left to head for the overlooks and Bearwallow Falls.
            Marked with orange plastic triangles, the trail crosses the park road before passing through a relatively low area where short wooden boardwalks carry you over seasonally wet soil.  Next the trail climbs slightly to pass under some high-voltage power lines, a reminder of the Duke Energy operations nearby.  For no obvious reason the trail’s name changes from the Visitor Center Connector to the Bearwallow Valley Trail here, and the blazes change from orange plastic triangles to red plastic triangles.
Entering the power line corridor
            At 0.25 miles, you reach the wooden platform that is the Bearwallow Valley Overlook.  While the power lines considerably mar the south-facing view, there is quite a bit to see from here.  Chestnut Mountain looms in the foreground below you, and both Lake Keowee and Lake Jocassee can be seen well below you beyond the mountain.
Bearwallow Valley Overlook
            Past the overlook, the trail treads over a brief level section with a knob rising to your left before beginning the descent toward Bearwallow Falls.  A trail reroute takes you down a set of moderately steep switchbacks to reach a signed intersection with the Picnic Connector Trail, which is marked with white plastic triangles.  Turn right to keep heading for Bearwallow Falls.
            At 0.6 miles, you reach the Bearwallow Picnic Shelter, which features a nice stone and wood structure, an information kiosk, a restroom building, and a drinking fountain.  Walk northeast across the blacktop parking lot to find the signed Upper Bearwallow Falls Trailhead where the Bearwallow Falls Trail begins.  Note that you can reach this parking lot by driving the park’s loop road clockwise from the Visitor Center if you wanted to shorten this hike.
Upper Bearwallow Falls Trailhead
            Marked with blue plastic triangles, the Bearwallow Falls Trail comprises the last leg in our hike to Bearwallow Falls.  After crossing the park road, the steep descending switchbacks begin.  Benches placed at strategic points beside the trail make attractive places to sit and catch your breath on your way back up.
Bearwallow Falls
            Just shy of 1 mile, the Bearwallow Falls Trail ends at the overlook for Bearwallow Falls.  Bearwallow Falls is a 50-foot cascade waterfall in Bearwallow Creek, but only the lower portion of the cascade is visible from this overlook.  An interesting interpretive sign describes the area’s geology, and a partially obstructed view down the mountain opens up to the southeast.  The trail ends at this overlook, so after admiring the waterfall you have to retrace your steps to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.  While you are here, the Visitor Center is worth a few minutes of your time: it contains interesting exhibits about rainfall and its effects on the Jocassee Gorges.