Gorges State Park/Pisgah National Forest: Waterfalls of the Horsepasture River – North Carolina

July 2014

Went with some buddies to Gorges State Park/Pisgah National Forest to check out the waterfall hike along the Horsepasture River this weekend.  I’ve wanted to check this site out for some time and I was not disappointed.  Due to the beautiful scenery of the waterfalls, great swimming holes, and a sliding rock, this hike is quite popular and you will undoubtedly be accompanied by other hikers.  Regardless of the crowd, Rainbow Falls is a must-see for hiking and waterfall enthusiasts.  Here is a detailed breakdown of the trail and its features.


Directions to trailhead:   Turn into Gorges State Park then drive 1.6 miles to a paved parking lot on the right side. You will pass the visitor’s center (a good resource for maps and other info) on your right. Continue driving past the visitor’s center; the parking area for the trailhead will be on your right.  From the parking area, the trail begins at the information kiosk. The only facilities at the parking area is a portable toilet, so if you want a clean rest room, stop at the visitor’s center. You may also use this same lot if you want to overnight camp on the river. There are a limited number of primitive spots and they are first come, first serve. Look on the kiosk for  information regarding leaving a vehicle in the lot overnight. Just remember that the park closes and locks its gates at night. Times are posted on a sign right after you enter the park.  Or look on the Gorges State Park website for more detailed info regarding park hours:

The trail to Rainbow Falls is a total 3 miles there-and-back (1.5 miles each way). From Kiosk to Rainbow Falls takes approximately 40 minutes to 1 hour.  The hike begins at the kiosk, just follow the orange blazes (plastic tags) on the trees. After about 5 minutes the trail turns right. Going left leads to the primitive pay sites at Ray Fisher Place which are in Gorges Park and can be reserved. Continue down the marked trail, cross a small creek and get to the national forest boundary line about 20 minutes from the parking lot.   A little farther is a brown carsonite stake pointing left to a steep trail that descends to the river at a small camp site near the top of Stairway Falls. Pass the stake, stay on the main trail, and in another 5 minutes you will arrive at the river. You are now at a point on the river above Stairway Falls and below Rainbow Falls. Most people are heading to Rainbow and Turtleback Falls, so turn right and head up river to do this. Immediately cross a small creek and head into a primitive camping area suitable for 2 or 3 small groups. Continue through the campsite and continue up river for about 10 minutes to an obvious place where people have been going down to the flat rock for a view upriver to Hidden Falls; this is a nice, and popular, swimming hole. From here the trail gets steep on the way up to the viewing area for Rainbow Falls. This is the most strenuous section of the trail, yet the scenic view of Rainbow Falls (pictured below) is only another 5 – 10 minutes away.  Notice the people in the bottom left side of the frame for a scale reference of the height of the falls.


Rainbow Falls is approximately 125′ high and one of the finest waterfalls in the Southeast.  Even though the overlook isn’t close to the falls, the spray from the falls mists the viewing area. Swimming anywhere in the national forests is allowed, but is at your own risk; the water is deep in some areas and the rocks are extremely slippery with algae. Do not climb over the railing at the upper overlook and go down the erosion paths. To get to the base of the falls, take the left fork of the trail ahead along the rail, then go down any of the scramble paths leading down to a lower viewing deck before you get to the rocks.

To get to the top of Rainbow Falls, and to access Turtleback and Drift Falls, take the right fork in the trail at the upper overlook. This leads up past some more steep scramble paths down towards the falls that you don’t want to take, then on to a small area near the top of the falls that has been used as a camp site in the past. To get to the rocks at the top of Rainbow Falls, look to the left at this point for the skinny trail between 2 rocks that will lead out to the top. This is safe when the rocks are dry and as long as you use common sense. People have died falling from this waterfall so proceed carefully and again use common sense. This is the view you will have of the river below:


From the top of the falls you can look up river and see Turtleback Falls coming in from the left. The river between the 2 waterfalls is a very pretty area. The bedrock is safe to go out on as long as it is dry and you will see several places to go out as you head up the trail towards the falls. However, DO NOT SWIM OR STAND IN THIS PART OF THE RIVER!  The current is more powerful than it looks and you could be swept over Rainbow Falls.  As mentioned earlier, many people have died in this exact spot, so be cautious and diligent.


When you get directly in front of Turtleback Falls on the trail (pictured below), you will notice a big rock you can get out on for an excellent view of the falls. During the summer there will probably be people sliding off of the waterfall. Again, it’s slide and swim at your own risk.


There are 2 ways to get out to the middle to slide, but for both ways you need to sit and scoot out to get to the proper sliding area. If you walk out the rocks are extremely slippery and the current is strong, so you will probably be swept from your feet and potentially injured.  Most people get in the water below the falls, then climb the rope up the left side. You can also continue on the main trail which will bring you around the falls and you can get out on the rock from there. Check out this link for a video I shot, using a GoPro with head strap mount, for a first-person view of the slide over the falls:   

Below is a video of a friend sliding over the falls.  He actually caught a bump in the rock on the way down and bruised his tailbone, so again sliding is at your own risk.  Aim for the smooth areas of the rock and you should be okay.  When in doubt, ask any of the experience local swimmers where the ideal sliding spot is located.

If you stay on the trail heading up past Turtleback Falls, you will arrive at Drift Falls in less than 10 minutes. People used to slide down the 60-70ft incline and the waterfall was referred to as Bust Yer Butt Falls. The trail ends at a fence with no trespassing signs, but look for a small trail to the left that heads down to the river for a view of the falls. The land owner will prosecute trespassers, so do not trespass for any reason. The boundary is just this side of the pool at the base of the falls, so you can get to this view. If you are accompanied by small kids, you should probably skip this area.

Hope you found this trail description informative and helpful.  Be safe, take great pictures, and enjoy the hike/swim.




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