This early March trip was planned to be a trip to South Carolina to see Kings Creek Falls and Yellow Branch Falls. As it often happens, my original plan did not pan out, and a new story developed. Read more
Upper Whitewater Falls, at 411′ is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. That is argued by some, however one thing can not be disputed. This waterfall is an amazing site. This can be accessed just off of NC 281, 9 miles south of US 64 in Sapphire NC, and just a mile or so from being in South Carolina. This is a fee area, requiring $2, but the money is well worth seeing the falls and the facilities there are decent. At the upper end of the parking lot, the paved trail begins. In 1/4 of a mile you will reach the top viewing area which is handicap accessible. The view here is good, but….drop down about 155 steps to the lower viewing area and it is as good as it gets. The view is sensational. Be ready to share the deck with other photographers.
This is a pretty long drive for most people, so planning ahead is important here. This waterfall can easily be paired with some others in the area for a super waterfall day. Just down the road in SC is Lower Whitewater Falls. You can drive down into SC to view this one or keep hiking down the steps from Upper Falls and hike down the Foothills trail. I have yet to do this one but maybe this fall.
Some other options include the Thompson River which you pass on NC 281 on the way to Whitewater Falls. This opens up another 4-6 waterfalls including the amazing Big Falls. I also have yet to do this but reading other blogs, it is a good 5-6 mile round trip.
An option that I have done is drive into Gorges State Park and hike to the super waterfalls along the Horsepasture River, including Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, Drift Falls, and Stairstep Falls. This is accessed also on NC 281, about a mile south of US 64.
If none of those options look good, I have also visited Upper Whitewater Falls and then stopped at DuPont Forest on my way back east to visit Hooker Falls, Triple Falls, High Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.
Last but not least , Panthertown Valley is also right in the area. It has 10 or named waterfalls and is a fascinating place to hike. The main point of all of this is that Upper Whitewater Falls is a sensational waterfall to visit, but the hike is minimal, so something else should be planned to make the trip worth it.
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.