Pull into the parking lot at mile 419 of the Blue Ridge Parkway and head north on the paved walkway. Cross the Yellowstone Prong and turn left onto the blue-blazed trail: your 9.8-miler begins with a jaunt through the sweeping Graveyard Fields, named after the rows of moss-covered, grave-like stumps that once peppered the meadows’ grassy confines. A rare low-elevation bald surrounded by higher, vegetation-covered ridges, Graveyard Fields is home to a multitude of blackberry and blueberry shrubs that attract throngs of visitors in the late summer and fall. Hike gently uphill before turning left and into a tunnel of trees swinging west along Graveyard Ridge.
Trace the contour of the Ridge until hitting a junction with the Mountains-To-Sea Trail, which you’ll follow west for a steep climb to the top of Balsam Knob. Break free from the trees and traverse Balsam’s exposed spine on the Art Loeb Trail to gain expansive panoramas of the surrounding ridge country: Sam Knob, Little Sam Knob and Fork Ridge backdropped by the Smokies to the west; Tennent Mountain to the north; Ivestor Ridge and Graveyard Ridge sliding into the Pigsah National Forest to the east.
After cresting Balsam’s peak (6,124 feet), head north for more endless panoramas from Tennent Mountain before dropping into the idyllic Ivestor Gap. Primo campsites are available around the gap, but water sources are only reliable here after heavy rain (the next constant water source is Yellowstone’s Dark Prong, 0.8 mile further). Push into the Shining Rock Wilderness and savor spectacular down-valley views of the wooded slopes between Ivestor Ridge and Grassy Cove Ridge. After crossing the Dark Prong, return to the junction just below Black Balsam Knob. Close the hike’s loop section by picking up the stretch of Graveyard Ridge Trail you hiked in on. Conclude your hike with a quick splash in the Yellowstone Prong’s Lower Falls before returning to the trailhead.
-Mapped by John Thomas