Rainbow Falls | 1.5 Miles
-To Drift Falls | 1.9 Miles
Gorges State Park Grassy Ridge Area | Google Maps
Gorges State Park is located within the rural community of Sapphire, thirty minutes west of Brevard, in Transylvania County, North Carolina. With only one way in and one way out along Grassy Ridge Road, all guests simply have to do is follow the entrance into the park until reaching the Visitors Center. Filled with exhibits, gift shop, and a knowledgeable ranger on hand, it was my first stop during an early morning trip to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail. With plans to also visit Bearwallow Falls Trail before leaving, I’m choosing to tackle this tougher 1.9 mile trip first. Grabbing a trail map and taking a few moments to speak with a ranger about my days plans, I was informed that if I had some extra time, I should complete the trail by heading past Turtle Falls, to the boundary of the National Forest to see Drift Falls. Not advertised on any maps because it lies on the border with private property, the well worn trail ends at a riverside overlook of the falls only 0.35 miles from Turtle Falls. Add to this the smaller Hidden Falls located midway along this trail and you get FOUR gorgeous waterfalls for the price of one hike.
Leaving the Visitors Center, I traveled south along the main road until reaching the large parking lot for the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. There are only port-o-potties at this location so if you really have to go, I suggest using the clean and modern facilities of the Visitors Center before heading out on the trails. Depending on weather conditions, this trail is notoriously muddy in certain areas, especially around the four separate creek crossings. On a particularly windy day, the Rainbow Falls overlook gets battered by strong gusts that have been known to leave hikers soaked in the process of passing through, so pack accordingly. After taking a pause to look through the trailhead warnings and advisory boards, I headed off towards Rainbow Falls along the short 0.45 mile section of trail still within Gorges State Park
Characterized by its numerous waterfalls, rugged river gorges, and lush rainforest appearance, Gorges State Park has been winning over the hearts of outdoor enthusiasts since its opening in 1999. As North Carolinas newest and westernmost state park, it consists of mainly back country trails, with access to the Toxaway Game Lands and the 76-mile Foot Hills Trail, that traverse one of the largest natural features in the Southeast, the Blue Ridge and Jocassee Gorges escarpment. With annual precipitation second only to the Pacific Northwest, the temperate rainforest of the Nantahala National Forest feeds the lower rivers and dammed lakes of the South Carolina Piedmont region. The Horsepasture River, which we are tracing throughout this hike, is a 17-mile National Wild and Scenic River, containing a half dozen waterfalls along its 2,000 foot descent into Lake Jocassee in South Carolina.
After making a RIGHT TURN at the Raymond Fisher trail junction, this trail begins a steady humpback style ascent and descent over several ridges before heading down to the river bank. In this area, the trail itself mainly consists of mud. Its reddish-orange hue is unlike anything I’ve seen outside of Eastern Kentucky and generally signifies that the soil contains a healthy dose of iron. Along the way are several small wet weather creek crossings that are easily crossed even during the rainy season. Just find a series of stones to hop over and all is well. A marked sign near the 1 mile mark, notifies hikers that they are stepping outside of Gorges State Park and into the Nantahala National Forest.
Near this point is a short 0.2 mile off-trail path heading south to a fifth waterfall named Stairway Fall. Stairway Falls is another popular swimming hole containing a 50-foot natural waterslide over this smooth waterfall. If you’re confused as to which National Forest you’re in then you are in good company, because it’s actually a bit complicated. In 1954, the Pisgah National Forest was administratively combined with the Nantahala and Croatan National Forests, which collectively became known as the National Forests of North Carolina, but often times are referred to simply as the Pisgah. So if you see signs calling this the Pisgah, even though a map might say this is the Nantahala, technically you’re in both. Nearing the two campsites, which are free to book and available on a first come first serve basis, I start scanning the tree line for a path to Hidden Falls.
Right at this point, with a major creek crossing up ahead, there should be a small path on the LEFTHAND side of the trail leading down to the Horsepasture River. It’s important to note that it is extremely dangerous to get anywhere near the Horsepasture River as it has claimed the lives of many hikers and dogs over the years, especially during periods close to flood stage. Hidden Falls is the swimming hole, most popular with guests camping along the Rainbow Falls Trail. Under calmer water conditions, this 10 foot tall waterfall empties into a natural swimming pool that is often seen filled with hikers during the balmy summer months. Unfortunately, after a month long record of precipitation kickstarted by Tropical Storm Fred, the Horsepasture River is swelled over to the point of making Hidden Falls barely visible. Depending on the water level, this waterfall will sit completely submerged and hidden out of sight as it is today.
In between the campsites and Rainbow Falls is a 0.6 mile stretch of ascents over three separate staircases. You get a chance to catch your breath in between each stair climb, but as each one gets progressively longer and taller, it takes knowing that you’re getting close to Rainbow Falls to keep you motivated. Adding to the strain is the fact that much of the trail surrounding the stairs is badly eroded. These stairs are also narrow to the point that only one person can traverse them at a time, so if the trail is crowded, you might get stuck waiting in line to pass. At a certain point, after tripping over some of the displaced trestles, it almost seemed more feasible to trudge up the muddy slope than to deal with the steps or wait for other hikers coming downhill to pass through.
With the sound of rushing water growing more thunderous by the minute, it’s not long before I turn the corner past a short stair climb to see Rainbow Falls ravenous rapids. Even from nearly 200 feet away, it’s impossible to escape the impact of the falls strong gusts of wind. One nearly has to duck down and shield their face from the heavy plumes of water pelting passersby as they try to sneak a glance of the falls. This 150 foot tall waterfall was named Rainbow Falls due to the colorful rainbow that is often seen arching from the cliff to the trail. Despite being nearly the perfect conditions to see this natural effect, the skies are much too overcast to allow even the slightest sliver of sun to pierce through. Even so, the sight is utterly jaw dropping. The closest I’ve gotten to experiencing a waterfall like this was on a trip to see Niagara Falls.
During spring, the falls have to contend for attention with competition from the color strewn hills of wildflowers that put on a gorgeous display along the riverbank. At nearly half the flow, it’s possible to even get down on the boulders just below the falls and sun bathe on the rocks. Near the bottom of Rainbow Falls is a platform overlook that can be reached by walking straight at the end of the main overlook past the “Y” trail junction. Lined by a large debris field of boulders one must scramble over to get through, this shaded area resembles a small garden with native hydrangeas and lush ferns that undoubtedly love the extra bit of water. Some of the parks rare species of plants including Gorge filmy fern, Appalachian filmy fern, and dwarf filmy fern, thrive under these conditions. Finding the overlook blocked off, assuming it had something to do with the waterfall consuming nearly half of it under its spray, I turned back towards the “Y” intersection.
Where the main trail splits off into a “Y”, take the RIGHT path over the boulders and up the hill. The path towards Turtleback Falls does not appear to even be an official trail when you see it at the Rainbow Falls overlook. In fact, plenty of people walk past it to the lower overlook by mistake. As you climb up to the ridge above the precipice of Rainbow Falls, the gentle ascent reaches a tall set of stairs that takes you the rest of the way to the banks of the Horsepasture River. This 0.25 spur trail is more manicured as it nears Turtleback Falls, with a wider path and a split wood railing protecting hikers from falling into the river.
Its hard to get a clear view of Turtleback Falls from the approach because the entire area in front of it is shrouded by a thicket of heavily foliaged rhododendrons. The best way to see Turtleback Falls is by taking the muddy path over to the boulders lining the riverbank directly across from it. You’ll find a WARNING! sign at the entrance to this path, reminding hikers to proceed with extra caution. Once upon a time, Turtleback Falls was a local swimming hole, with summertime hikes to the area necessitating a slide down its smooth rock face. As injuries began to mount, the park began dissuading visitors from entering the upper part of the Horsepasture River. In later years, people have accidentally slid off the boulders into the Horsepasture River will trying to get a closer look and have been swept away over the 150 foot cliff of Rainbow Falls. Several pets have also met an untimely death as a result of this rivers turbulent currents. Proceed with caution.
Looking straight at the front of the rounded precipice of Turtleback Falls, the water looks perfectly symmetrical as it empties into the natural pool below, resembling rainwater falling over an open umbrella during a downpour. This effect helped earned Turtleback Falls its other alias, Umbrella Falls. If it weren’t for the heavy splash and strong gusts of wind being produced by the falls ,this would make a great spot to sit and picnic. Although not visible today, when the current dries up during summer, it’s possible to make out the humped appearance of a brown turtle shell near the cliffs precipice. At the far right corner of the falls is a staircase cut straight out of the bedrock, leading over the cliff towards Drift Falls.
To get there, head on back to the main trail and continue the 0.35 mile journey north to what appears as a dead end. Shrouded behind some foliage is a bridge crossing, spanning a small waterfall that gently cascades onto the trail. The sharp left turn travels through a tunnel of trees along a narrow ledge to a hidden cliff overhang beside Turtleback Falls. This part of the trail is the most dangerous by far as there is nothing protecting you from slipping and falling over the falls and into the violent rapids below so PROCEED WITH EXTRA CAUTION. With notches cut out of the bedrock leading up and over the falls, it was reminiscent of Indian Staircase in Red River Gorge.
This last stretch of trail seems wilder and less kept. The forest canopy is denser, with thickets of mountain laurel, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas crowding a swamp-like wetland area. Even the crumbly, hummus rich soil looks darker, almost black. This tropical feeling environment is unique to the area and supports a whole host of plants found more typically hundreds of miles south in the tropics. Carolina star moss, found growing along the cliffs surrounding the waterfalls of Gorges State Parks, has also been found growing in similar moist regions of the Dominican Republic. Scientists believe these plants are remnants of tropical jungles that reached much further north tens of thousands of years ago, when a warmer climate existed in North America. If at any point it begins to sound like you’re in a rainforest, that’ll be due to the neotropical migratory birds that pass exclusively through this part of the state. The cascading teer, teer, teer, wee-tee-widow song of the Swainsons warbler is often heard here.
The trail finally comes to an abrupt end at the Nantahala National Forest boundary, marked by a giant billboard. A path on the LEFT heads down to a stone ledge protruding out into the Horsepasture River. This is the Drift Falls overlook. Swiftly cascading down a natural stone slide, the 80 foot Drift Falls is located 70 yards upstream on private property. Hiking to it is strictly prohibited, so just enjoy the sights and sounds from this overlook. It’s probably the best looking waterfall to slide down out of all the ones we’ve passed, which helped earned its local name "Bust-Yer-Butt Falls". Drowning out the sound of anything besides rushing water, this waterfall hides the fact that were standing mere yards away from North Carolina Highway 281. In the past, it was not uncommon for traffic on the highway to become backed with cars parked along the shoulder as locals would hike down the hillside to swim at this popular swimming hole. After a brief pause, it’s time to head back to the trailhead, retracing the way we came in. Before leaving Gorges State Park, we’ll be taking a short detour to hike the 0.2 mile Bearwallow Falls Trail to catch a glimpse of the last waterfall in the Grassy Ridge Park section. Stay tuned for our upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!