June 12, 2017

Sunburst Falls and Graveyard Fields

My sister Alice aided and abetted me in playing hooky from the Monday afternoon session of Annual Conference. She had invited me to hike with her and sister Mary Lou on Tuesday (my birthday) but it was going to be a full day of volunteering with the Rise Against Hunger event and serving as an usher.

She attended the luncheon for pastors’ spouses, and then picked me up. We weren’t certain if the weather would cooperate. It was raining steadily when we met, and she asked if I still wanted to go. I had a rain jacket, and was already wet from the waist down from my walk over to meet her, so I told her I was game.

The weather cleared as we drove from Lake Junaluska toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. By the time we reached our first stop, the sun was shining. She wanted to show me Sunburst Falls, located on the West Fork of the Pigeon River where it runs under Route 215. There is gravel parking for a small number of cars here, and the upper falls are visible from the road.

After taking a few photos of the upper falls, I went to the other side of the bridge to look down toward the lower falls. Alice pointed out that there was a steep, rocky trail down to the base, and asked if I wanted to go down to get more photos. Of course I did! She opted to stay up top and wait for me.

As I scrambled down, she called out to ask if the heart-shaped leaves she was seeing were Dutchman’s Pipe leaves. Having never heard of this vine, I told her I had no idea, but she told me to look under the leaves for something that looked like a pipe. There were indeed pipe-looking flowers underneath, and I was excited to discover a new (to me) flower.

I reached the bottom of the trail, greeted the young family that was there by the stream, and then rock hopped to the middle to take some photos of the lower falls. They were very picturesque as they flowed under the arched stone bridge and tumbled over the rocks below.

When I returned to the side of the stream, the young man commented that I looked very nimble crossing the rocks. I must admit I felt some pride hearing this, because a couple of years ago I would not have been able to do this. Having lost so much weight has not only made it physically possible for me to do such things, my balance and confidence have both improved considerably. He said that he was a little nervous having his five year old son and wife who was expecting in two weeks down there. I think I would have been nervous, too.

Once I climbed back to the road, Alice and I continued our journey to Graveyard Fields. When we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, Alice pointed out trail heads for several other short hikes along the way. I will need to come back and visit this area when I have more time. She told me that it is possible to do several of the hikes in one day.

We pulled into the Graveyard Fields overlook at milepost 418. This valley was named in the early 1900s because moss-covered trees felled by a windstorm looked like gravestones. In 1925, a wildfire swept through the valley, burning everything. In the nearly 100 years since, vegetation has slowly returned in the form of low shrubs such as rhododendron, mountain laurel and blueberries.

Flowing through the valley is Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River. There are several waterfalls along this section of river, but with limited time our destination was Second Falls (also referred to as Lower Falls).

There is a nice, new parking area at the overlook with room for about 60 cars. There are also three pit toilets available here, a welcome sight after our long drive.

After utilizing the facilities, we headed down the trail toward Second Falls. The route begins with several steps, and then the paved trails winds downhill through a tunnel of rhododendron shrubs. We apparently had just missed the rhododendron blooms, as we could see purple blossoms on the ground. It must be a glorious sight to walk through this tunnel when they are in full bloom. Instead, we were treated to the sight of numerous patches of galax, which Alice told me likes to grow in the same area as rhododendron. We also spotted the leaves of several trillium scattered among the shrubs.

Exiting the rhodie tunnel, the trail crosses the Yellowstone Prong. This is a beautiful creek with crystal clear water running over colorful stones that give the stream its name. The rhododendron along the stream were still blooming. After crossing, we climbed a few steps up, and then took the right fork to follow Yellowstone Prong down to the base of Second Falls. Going left would have taken us on the trail to the Upper Falls but we did not have time for that today. Lovely wooden steps have been built to make this an easy descent. Many, many, many steps; making one realize that they must climb back up these steps to go back to the parking lot.

Second Falls is a beautiful waterfall from every angle. It is a popular destination on warm summer days, and today was no exception. There were several people jumping from rocks into the plunge pool, and splashing about in the water. There are numerous large boulders in the stream below the falls, making it easy to rock hop from one side to the other and back in search of the perfect photo op.

After I had gathered my photos, I went back to sit with Alice and enjoy the view and sound of the rushing water. She told me how beautiful these falls are in the autumn, and I hope to come back and see them during all four seasons. I would have gladly stayed all day, but time was growing short and we still had about an hour’s drive to get back to the lake.

It was wonderful to spend time with my sister, and see such beautiful new places. Fortunately, neither of our spouses were too upset about our late return, and the four of us even got to eat a late dinner together at the Blue Rooster Southern Grill. The food delicious, and it was a great end to a great day.


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