The Horsepasture River in southwest NC runs but a short distance at a little over 18 miles long, before in emptys into Lake Jocasse in northern South Carolina. Even shorter is the 4.5 mile section from NC 281 to Lake Jocasse that is designated a wild and scenic river. In this stretch of river is 6 named & famed waterfalls, tons of smaller falls and rapids that would might get names on most streams, and some of the prettiest waterfall scenery that North Carolina has to offer. This area receives a ton of rainfall. Gorges State Park, where the Rainbow Falls Trailhead is located, receives over 80 inches of rain per year. That’s a lot of water running down the hills, and the Horsepasture usually has a very healthy flow of water. Of the 6 names falls, 4 of them are fairly safe to reach, Stairway Falls, Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Drift Falls (viewable from the edge of pool only due to private property). Read more
During a recent trip to Gorges State Park in far SW North Carolina, I decided to make Stairway Falls my primary waterfall. This is accessed off of the popular Rainbow Falls Trail. Normally, hikers use this to see the magnificent Rainbow Falls. This is done by reaching the river first, and then hiking upstream. After the wonderful views of Rainbow Falls, most will either head back to their cars, or continue upstream. After climbing the steep Rainbow Falls Trail to the top of this 150 foot waterfall, 2 smaller , but but still beautiful waterfalls await. TurtleBack Falls, and Drift Falls, are just minutes upstream and are quite a fine reward for those that hike up the punishing Rainbow Falls. I have done this numerous times.
But….there are also waterfalls downstream from where you first meet the river. Most avoid this area due to a lack of good trails, and dangerously steep terrain. Stairway Falls, Sidepocket Falls and eventually the very dangerous Windy Falls can be seen to some extent downstream. This day I chose to visit Stairway Falls. This is the first one downstream, has a decent path, and is gorgeous. It is a fine addition to my new waterfalls seen in 2014, which is now at 23. To see more on this, please visit my Flickr album, “New Waterfalls Of 2014”.
To get here, find your way to The Gorges State Park entrance on NC Hwy 281. This is about a mile past where NC 281 meets with US 64 in Sapphire, NC. Turn into the state park, and I would suggest stopping at the visitor center. This place is only a few years old, and is very cool. The Rangers inside are also very helpful with information here. Once past the center, continue downhill a bit until you see a large parking area on the right. Park here, stretch your legs and get ready for some fun.
At this intersection, turn right and head down the Rainbow Falls Trail. This is a nice trail that will descend slightly for most of the way until the river. After a mile and a half from the parking lot, you will notice a sign saying that you are leaving Gorges State Park. Here is the sign along with a photo of the Rainbow Falls trail in autumn.
After leaving the park, you will now be in the Nantahala National Forest. Shortly after leaving the park, there will be a thin, brown, carsonite sign on the left side of the trail. Rainbow Falls has been written with a marker and an arrow to the right. The trail that breaks off to the left here….is the one that takes you down to Stairway Falls.
The trail is immediately more narrow, but still in good shape. There appears to have been some maintenance done on it recently. It goes downhill, and in no time, you will be at the top “step”. This is the first of five 10 foot waterfalls, one after another. The trail keeps going down to the base, where a number of large rocks and boulders await to sit down, stretch out and enjoy these 5 beautiful waterfalls all working together to form the “Stairway”. I really enjoyed it down here. The water was up on an already high volume stream. The fall colors and blue sky were marvelous. Also, on a crowded Saturday in the park along the trails, I had this entire waterfall to myself to enjoy.
After Stairway, I couldn’t…not see Rainbow Falls. This is after all one of the finest waterfalls in North Carolina. So I met back up with the Rainbow Falls Trail, and kept heading upstream. Once the trail reaches the river, a large campsite will be on the right. Two streams must be crossed, dryly I am happy to report. One is rather large, with big rocks placed there to help make the cross easier. The trail then begins to climb, steeper as you near Rainbow Falls. Nice wooden steps have been added in the last 2 years or so to make this easier and safer. After the steepest climb yet, there it is Rainbow Falls…..
The heavy mist coming off of this large waterfall makes for an amazing site. If you get there in time…about 9-11 am, a large rainbow can be visible over the waterfall, on a sunny day that is. I was there around noon, so the rainbow was in the lower right section of the photo, working its way out of the picture as the sun’s angle was changing. Enjoy the view from the trail, or walk down to the new, lower platform. If you still have energy, head on up the trail to the top of the waterfall for some additional views at the top, and also on to view Turtleback and Drift Falls.
Here is a map of the hike. Starting point is in the upper right corner, with Stairway Falls being the first stop on the river, and Rainbow Falls being well upstream.
New for 2014!! In an effort to improve the waterfall experience for everyone, I have made a few tweaks, changes and added Videopress. This will now allow me to present blogs with video. I think a good short video can really add a new dynamic to the viewer/reader, especially when presenting something like a waterfall. Read more
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.