Gorges State Park is North Carolina's newest and westernmost state park, located in the area where Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina meet. The crown jewel of this still-developing park is the Rainbow Falls Trail, a normally easy hike that leads you to four spectacular waterfalls in the Horsepasture River gorge. On a day with 14-18 inches of fresh snow on the ground, however, the hike may not be so easy. This hike occurred on Saturday, January 23rd, 2016. My plan was to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail in the park out and back, visiting Stairstep Falls, Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Drift Falls. I also planned to visit Raymond Fisher Pond and perhaps try some of the other short trails in the park. However, my plans were altered due to a heavy snowstorm that hit the region on the day before. All of western North Carolina got upwards of a half-foot of snow, with some areas (such as Gorges State Park) receiving as much as 18 inches. This caused Gorges State Park to be closed, and when I did this hike, I hiked the entrance road which added several miles more to my hike. Additionally, I was the first person to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail after snow, and with there being no previous footprints, it was a very slow and difficult hike. Thus, I was only able to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail to Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Drift Falls.
R/T Length of Trail: 8 Miles (4.4 Miles from Grassy Ridge Trailhead when the park is open)
Duration of Hike: 5:30 (Expect this to take a lot less in normal conditions and when the park is open)
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 3 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 1890 Feet (This will be lower if you start from Grassy Ridge Trailhead)
Pros: Beautiful river and water features in Horsepasture River Gorge; easy access to at least three waterfalls
Cons: You cannot get very close to Drift Falls, because the falls is on private property
Points of Interest: Rainbow Falls - 10+ stars; Turtleback Falls - 5 stars; Drift Falls - 8 stars; Turtleback Falls - N/A; Raymond Fisher Pond
Trail Blaze Color(s): Rainbow Falls Trail - Orange; Raymond Fisher Trail - Blue
Best Season(s) to Hike: Spring
Beginning Point: Grassy Ridge Trailhead (I started at the entrance to Gorges State Park, because the park was closed due to snow.)
Directions: From Rosman, NC: Follow US Route 64 West for 10 miles. Then, turn left onto NC State Route 281, and continue for 0.9 miles. Then, turn left and enter Gorges State Park. Follow the entrance road for 1.7 miles, past the visitor center, to the Grassy Ridge Trailhead. The parking area will be on the right.
A map and some other information regarding this hike can be viewed here.
Every winter, I try to do some sort of snow hike. However, most often these snow hikes feature only light to moderate snow. On this particular snow hike, following what is widely known as the "Blizzard of 2016" across the eastern US, I happened to encounter the deepest snow I've ever seen on a hike. I estimated that there was at least 14" of snow on the ground around Grassy Ridge, with some areas probably approaching 18" deep. In the gorge, snow totals were slightly lower, but a few inches didn't make a big difference. We were the first people to hike the trail, as the park had been closed during the snowstorm and remained closed. Thus, with no footprints to follow on this normally popular and easy trail, it quickly turned into a very exhausting trek. I struggled quite a bit on the uphill out of the gorge in deep snow! Furthermore, due to the park being closed, I hiked several miles more than one would normally hike to complete this trail.
While I started at Gorges State Park Entrance, the description will begin at Grassy Ridge Trailhead, because there's nothing of importance to note about the entrance road. It was 1.8 miles one way, and there were some good vistas along the way. From the Grassy Ridge Trailhead, you're following two trails: Rainbow Falls Trail and Raymond Fisher Trail. The wide trail descends gently into the gorge. There are some winter views. At 0.3 miles, reach a junction. Here, the Raymond Fisher Trail turns left. You can follow the Raymond Fisher Trail for 0.35 miles to Raymond Fisher Pond. However, the hike turns right to continue on the Rainbow Falls Trail. The descent continues. It is never steep, however. At 0.75 miles,cross a small stream. At 0.9 miles, exit Gorges State Park and enter Nantahala National Forest. At 1.05 miles, reach an important location. Here, the trail turns right, and a trail wand marks the right turn. An unmarked and slightly overgrown trail continues steeply down behind the trail wand. This steep spur trail leads to Stairstep Falls. I did not do this spur trail, because the prospect of scrambling through snow-topped rhododendron didn't seem too inviting. Nevertheless, I recommend that you do the spur trail to see this bonus waterfall. The spur trail is only about a quarter-mile roundtrip. After this, continue on the main trail. At 1.2 miles, the descent finally culminates as the trail crosses a small stream and enters an area of campsites. The Horsepasture River roars to the left, although it may not be visible yet.
From here, the trail begins ascending along the Horsepasture River upstream. The trail stays above the river, but there are many great views of the gorge, the river, and its rapids. The ascent is generally not steep or difficult (unless you're hiking on deep snow like me). At 1.4 miles, the trail ascends to an opening right in front of Rainbow Falls. This spectacular waterfall, both powerful and tall, may be perhaps one of the most beautiful waterfalls I've seen in all time, comparable to Upper and Lower Whitewater Falls. The trail passes straight through the opening with a continuous view of Rainbow Falls. On this day, the waterfall's powerful spray had turned the hillside in front of it into a frozen mess, with ice crystals scattered all over the trail. At the far end of the opening, a short spur trail leads to a lower observation area that is even closer to the falls. I planned to see that observation area on the way back, however, because the deep snow was slowing me down so much that I was beginning to worry that I would not make it to Drift Falls in time to get back to the trailhead before dark.
While Rainbow Falls is by far the most impressive waterfall on this hike, the others are quite picturesque as well. Following Rainbow Falls, the trail ascends up the slope above the waterfall. Then, it levels out as it approaches river level. A side trail leads to the river near the top of Rainbow Falls. At 1.9 miles, a side trail bears left and leads to a point just downstream from Turtleback Falls. Turtleback Falls is visible here, although this is not the best vantage point. Continuing slightly farther on the trail, reach another side trail at 1.95 miles. This side trail leads to a front view of Turtleback Falls. This is not a tall waterfall, but rather a series of cascades ending with a slide at a 90-degree turn in the river. After this spur trail to Turtleback Falls, the trail crosses a footbridge over a small tributary and then passes next to a small rockhouse. After the rockhouse, you will ascend a series of steps next to Turtleback Falls. Here, there is a good side view of Turtleback Falls, as well as the 90-degree turn in the river. Also, you can see the start of the dropoff at Rainbow Falls.
After Turtleback Falls, the trail continues close to the Horsepasture River, but there is not much more ascent. At 2.05 miles, cross another small tributary. Then, you will enter a rhododendron thicket. You will also pass a fenced-off area to the right of the trail, which is likely the start of the old route to the waterfalls on the Horsepasture River. This route, which leads from NC State Route 281, is now closed due to the private property that is encountered.
At 2.2 miles, reach the end of the trail at a fence and a large sign hat indicates you have reached the national forest boundary. I have heard that the private property beyond the fence is strictly enforced. To see Drift Falls, proceed to the left along the fence down a narrow path that leads shortly to the Horsepasture River. Drift Falls is visible just upstream. This is a great view of this large slide waterfall. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to get closer to Drift Falls, as the falls itself is on private property.
From Drift Falls, retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Make sure to do the short spur trail to the lower observation area at Rainbow Falls. The side tail is only 0.2 miles roundtrip and is well worth the close-up view. You will reach the Grassy Ridge Trailhead at 6.6 miles.
I believe that this is another Best Hike. The waterfalls and beauty of the Horsepasture River Gorge are simply outstanding.
Out and back to Rainbow Falls - 3 Miles
Do the hike plus side trip to Raymond Fisher Pond - 7.3 Miles
Check out the other short trails in Gorges State Park, including trails that lead to Upper Bearwallow Falls and Bearwallow Valley Overlook.
Part 1: Pictures of roads leading to Gorges State Park, and pictures from walk on the Gorges State Park entrance road (1.8 miles).
Part 2: Pictures from the Rainbow Falls Trail hike.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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