While I ponder where my next waterfalls hike will be, I would like to take a few minutes to share the best of what I have found so far in my travels. In the southwest corner of NC, deep in the “Land of the Waterfalls”, just outside of the fairly new Gorges State Park, lies the Horsepasture River. This river is home to the finest waterfall I have seen in person, Rainbow Falls. Rainbow Falls is a powerful waterfall, that falls 150 feet over a very wide open, large rock face. This waterfall is on a river, so there is usually plenty of water flow, even in dry times. When the water is up though, wow what a site!!
It is named Rainbow Falls for a special reason. The size of this river and the large amounts of water going over the falls, creates a huge spray zone that usually makes a B-line right towards the spot where most people view and photograph this waterfall. It will get you soaked if you stay there long enough, and it will surprise you because you are pretty high up with a good distance between yourself and the waterfall. Anyway, when the sun is at the right angle, usually 9-10 in the morning from what I have found, the sun and the heavy waterfall mist create a huge rainbow that at the peak, will cover the entire waterfall. It is beautiful and truly something to see. It took me 4 times before I finally saw the rainbow, now I will plan any hike here to be at the spot between 9-10 am.
The hike there can be challenging for some. There used to be an easy access right off of highway 281 that required only a short hike to get here. This is now private property and the owner has very intimidating signs everywhere threatening prosecution for trespassing. He or she does not appear to be playing around. So, the new option is to drive into the new Gorges State Park, which has a ton of waterfalls of its own that I will have to discuss on another blog, another day. The Trail is called the Rainbow Falls Trail and is roughly a 5 mile round trip. It starts in the park, but leaves the park halfway and into the Pisgah National Forest. The trail is mostly down hill to start, which makes for a difficult return trip. It finally meets up with the Horsepasture River, and the hike goes upstream. There are a number of smaller waterfalls and large rapids that would be the focal point of parks in other regions, but not here. Once on the river for a ways, the trail begins to climb, eventually gets steep for a short distance. At that point you look over the top and there it is, Rainbow Falls, and all of the thunderous sounds of the water pounding down 150 feet below. Here you will be at an area with a safety fence and is the place to shoot the waterfall if you are lucky enough to be there with the rainbow. Don’t stay long, as you can get drenched, not good for the camera.
The trail keeps going up towards the top, but there is also a side trail that goes down to the base. Be careful, use some common sense, and it can be navigated safely. At the bottom, you are close-up to this monster and then you really appreciate it’s size. The walk to the top will cause some huffing and puffing, but the view from the top is magnificent as well. Be very careful, I have read stories of people falling off the top, they did not live to tell about it.
After you take in this beauty, surprise, the Horsepasture river has more in store for you. Just upstream from Rainbow, is Turtleback Falls. Although it is much smaller, it has a character all its own and is a beautiful waterfall in its own rights. In the summer, people will slide over these falls into a deep pool. Don’t do this in high water, as I have read that people could not get out, and were swept right over Rainbow Falls. Then….about 1/4 more upstream is Drift Falls. This used to be called “Bustyerbutt” Falls as it was known for people to sliding down a large rock face into a pool. It is the closest to the highway and the waterfall people always saw first on the trip then. It is now on private property, but the park line comes just to the point where you can get a good view of the falls from down stream. It is a nice waterfall too, but does not compare to the other two.
There are two other waterfalls on this river I have yet to see, maybe this year. Stairstep falls, and Windy Falls. They are down stream from where the trail meets the river. Stairstep is fairly close from what I can tell, but Windy Falls is supposed to be quite the adventure.
If you make it down to this area of NC, the famous Upper Whitewater falls is just a few miles down the road from Gorges State Park, and is supposedly the tallest waterfall in the eastern US at 411 feet. It is only a short hike to a distant viewing platform, certainly a must-see.
Here is an extended gallery of some of my Rainbow Falls visits, along with a few shots of Turtleback and Drift Falls.