This 11-mile hike is a great way to challenge yourself if you’re up for a long day hike or a stunning overnight tour of the southeastern portion of Shining Rock Wilderness and the headwaters of Dark Prong and Yellowstone Prong, both superb examples of high elevation rivers.
Opting to make this an overnight is a great way to have the time to really enjoy the scenery without feeling the need to rush through areas that call for lingering.
Day One: This hike begins at the ever-popular Graveyard Fields parking lot (get there early on heavy traffic days like summer weekends and holidays).
Follow the main staircase, next to the restrooms, down through the laurels to the bridge crossing Yellowstone Prong. If you’ve never visited Graveyard Fields take a moment to explore and snap a few pics; or save it for later, you will pass through the same area on the return trip.
Past the bridge stay to the right, following signs to Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). You will pass the turnoff for the Lower Falls on the right.
Not too far down the trail you will reach the intersection with MST. Here you will bear left heading toward the Graveyard Ridge Trail 1.8 miles away.
The trail slopes gradually upward through the forest, hugging the ridgeline and crossing several small streams along the way.
The next major intersection is easily identifiable by the open grassy area with several trails leading off of it. To continue this hike you will take the trail that leads north, toward Grassy Cove Top, labeled on the signage as Graveyard Ridge Trail.
Not far from the intersection of trails, it crosses the headwaters of Dark Prong and there is a nice spring here, perfect for refilling water bottles since there is not much good water along the trail for several miles.
As you follow this trail take note that it follows the boundary line of Shining Rock Wilderness, everything to the right (east) is wilderness area, to the left is not.
This trail is marked as all purpose, but in early summer was already overgrown in places and a little annoying, contending with the berry brambles. By late summer though, it would be a great place to stock up on wild berries if you come armed with long sleeves.
The trail is rocky and rough, much like Ivestor Gap, but narrower than its western cousin for most of the way. Occasional stunning views to the east in part make up for the hassles.
Old culverts along the way point to the trail’s past life as a railroad route through the region for logging.
In wet seasons, parts of this trail can get very muddy, so use caution. Views of Grassy Cove Top will be plentiful whenever the view opens up ahead.
About one mile along, you will come to the intersection which leads to Ivestor Gap to the west and Greasy Cove Trail to the east.
For this hike, you will turn east to continue along Greasy Cove Trail for the remainder of the day’s hike, if you intend to overnight.
Greasy Cove Trail, like many in summer, gets overgrown fast. While not unmanageable, it can get tricky to see your own feet at times so keep a close eye out for rocks, roots and other dangers.
After a brief skirt around Grassy Cove Top, the trail then begins its slow and steady march down through the ever-changing elevation environments until several miles later, it again reaches stream level, dropping from around 5,200 feet elevation to 4,200 feet.
For this part of the journey trekking poles would be a huge relief for sore knees, especially if you’re carrying a heavy load.
Greasy Cove Trail is interesting because the scenery changes so frequently. You will see open bald-like areas covered in berries in summer, deeply shaded laurel forests, grassy parkland forest areas, open hardwood forests, laced with penetrating rays of sun, and small headwater streams that feed larger prongs downstream.
Other than the steady downhill descent, nothing is overly challenging, but keep in mind this route runs entirely through Shining Rock Wilderness and is unmarked. Use caution if leaving the trail for any reason, and remain aware of your surroundings at all times.
As the trail descends closer to Greasy Cove Prong, you will hear the river before you see it, as it gathers strength in its headlong rush to join Yellowstone Prong to form the East Fork.
River crossing #1
The crossing of Greasy Cove Prong is the first of two river crossings along this hike. It is a little misleading at first glance because the trail appears to branch, one heading uphill, the other down a series of log steps, with no markers in either direction.
The uphill section (off to the left) leads up to cascade via a steep bank. This is not the right way.
The downhill section with log steps is your route. It leads directly down to Greasy Cove Prong at a spot situated between two smallish waterfalls.
Unless the water levels are very low, you will get wet here. Take your time and determine the best route for you and your skill / experience level. Keep in mind though, the river is deceiving in its strength. It can be quite strong as it squeezes between the rocks. Deeper sections offer slower, safer water to cross. Getting wet is not the worst thing that can happen on a river crossing.
Once across the river, the trail continues up a steep bank on the other side, and continues its downward trend hugging the contours of the land.
Ahead, about a half mile down the trail is the second river crossing, over Yellowstone Prong.
At this point, for those overnighting, it’s time to consider campsite options. There is a spacious campsite at the crossing, on this side of the river, and another just on the other side. On off days, there is third option about ¾ of mile past the crossing that is excellent, but due to the short distance from the parkway to it, it is often claimed by late in the day.
So, if you decide to camp before crossing, congrats, you’ve reached home for the night. If you intend to cross then camp; make your way across, again using all due caution. Just up the bank from the river is the second campsite option.
Both sites are within Shining Rock, so no campfires are allowed here.
River crossing #2
At the crossing, it’s not hard to notice the spectacular joining of the two rivers to form a third. With some careful rock hopping, it’s possible to stand in the center of the confluence and witness the true power of nature. Making camp here will give you the time to explore further and rest up for Day Two.
Day Two: If you camped on either side of the crossing, day two begins by heading south on the Bridges Camp Gap Trail. Because you are still in Shining Rock at this point, the trail is unmarked, but it’s not hard to find.
From the crossing head slightly uphill from the campsite to the trail above. Turning left (southeast) here will lead you deeper into Shining Rock along the Big East Fork Trail (not our route on this trip).
To connect to Bridges Camp Gap Trail head to the right (southwest). The trail will parallel Yellowstone Prong (below and to the right) for about a mile with lots of interesting rock overhangs along the way. It undulates gently up and down as it hugs the slope above the river, offering stunning glimpses to the waterway below.
Keep your eyes out for several waterfalls along the way. Just before you turn to leave the river and head up hill again, there you will see the third campsite on the shoreline.
At this juncture the trail turns sharply left to head uphill on the return trip. Continue along Bridges Camp Gap until it intersects with MST.
At MST, you will head west following it back to Graveyard Fields. You will pass through the popular swimming hole, Skinny Dip Falls, crossing Yellowstone Prong on a narrow wooden bridge. Following the white circle blazes, stay on MST along its uphill journey through the woods.
From Skinny Dip, back to Graveyard Fields, the trail gains nearly 800 feet in elevation over about a two-mile stretch. Again, trekking poles will come in handy. Celebrate reaching level ground again when you see the sign pointing off to Graveyard Camping area.
Shortly after this landmark, you will again see the sign from Day One that indicated the original MST intersections. Congrats! You’ve completed the loop. Now for the final march to the car. From here it’s an easy hike back along Lower Falls Trail, across the bridge over Yellowstone Prong, and back up the last sets of stairs and inclines to the parking lot.
If you missed it on the way out, or are in need of one last break before heading home, cool your heels in the river here, snap a few congratulatory pics and revel in your accomplishment.