Rainbow Falls Trail is the most popular trail in Gorges State Park. This trail guide shows why.
Rainbow Falls with its namesake rainbow (bottom right) and plunge pool. The Rainbow Falls Trail leads to a National Forest Trail that leads to the falls.
Photo by Bret James Stewart
From N.C.: Take U.S. Highway 64 to N.C. 281 South. Turn onto N.C. 281 South. Travel .9 miles from U.S. Highway 64 to Park Entrance.
From S.C.: Take S.C. Highway 11 to S.C. Highway 130 North. Turn onto 130 North. Travel 10.2 miles to the North Carolina State line. S.C. Highway 130 becomes N.C. 281. Travel 7.8 miles to Gorges State Park Entrance.
From Park Entrance: Travel one mile to the new visitor’s centre. Continue travelling straight for .6 miles (a total of 1.6 miles from the park entrance) to the Grassy Ridge Parking Area.
This large parking area features nice long-range views, a picnic table, portable toilets, and the Grassy Ridge trailhead in the southwestern corner of the parking lot. Two trails begin here: the Rainbow Falls Trail and the Raymond Fisher Trail. These two trails overlap initially.
Blaze Markings: orange metal circles
Length: 3 miles (approximately 1.5 each way; the trail does not end at another trail or accessible location); exactly 8376 feet.
Difficulty: strenuous; due to elevation change and distance.
A portion of the Rainbow Falls Trail.
Photo by Bret James Stewart
The Rainbow Falls Trail is a medium length trail climaxing at the gorgeous Rainbow Falls. At 125’ tall, over twice as high as the renowned Looking-Glass Falls of Transylvania County, Rainbow Falls is named for the rainbows that form from its spray when the sun is right. Rainbow Falls is technically a cascade, becoming a true waterfall only during periods of high water. The lively action of the water creates a windy and misty cloud that coats the steep area around the plunge pool, creating a fey effect in sparkling airborne water droplets and glimmering rocks continually coated by the mist. During the winter, the waterfall becomes a jewel displayed in a frozen pillow.
A micro-climate known as a spray zone is created around Rainbow Falls, with unusual flora represented in this saturated environment. Stay off the banks in order to protect this rare ecosystem.
Rainbow Falls in on the Horsepasture River. The 18.1-mile-long waterway is born in Jackson County, North Carolina, grows in force and girth as it flows through the Jocassee Gorges area, and ends at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. North Carolina designated 4.5 miles between NC-281 and the state line as a “Wild and Scenic” river, thereby protecting it from future development. The river is named after the flat region downstream (and now submerged beneath Lake Jocassee) where the Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers once converged. This area was used by whites to pasture livestock to protect them from Indians in colonial times and Yankees in the War Between the States. With its wild plunge down the gorges, this portion of the Horsepasture has a large number of waterfalls. Notable falls near Rainbow Falls include Drift Falls, Turtleback Falls, Stairway Falls, Sidepocket Falls, and Windy Falls. Note that the Horsepasture River does not enter Gorges State Park, but the only legal access to Rainbow Falls is from the Park.
View downriver and downgorge just downstream from Rainbow Falls.
Photo by Bret James Stewart
I hiked this trail in late September. The morning started out clear and crisp as mountain mornings are, but it warmed up quickly to become relatively hot by early afternoon. The leaves had just begun to change, with some species or individual areas displaying a mild splash of colour to the scenery.
The Rainbow Falls Trail begins at the Grassy Ridge trailhead in the southwestern corner of the Grassy Ridge parking area. Several kiosks dealing with the hiking trails, camping for the Raymond Fisher Trail and along the Horsepasture River, and some general interesting environmental/ecological information pertaining to the park are present. The two trails commencing from the trailhead, the Rainbow Falls Trail (orange blazes) and the Raymond Fisher Trail (blue blazed), overlap for about ¼ mile. The gravelled Rainbow Falls Trail travels west out of the Park at the ¾ mile mark to enter the Pisgah National Forest (previously Nantahala National Forest; the property was recently transferred between Forest units). Rainbow Falls is actually in the Pisgah National Forest, with Gorges State Park providing the only access to the Falls. Large portions of the trail are graced with the glossy green of galax (Galax urceolata) and, a little higher, ivy bush (Kalmia latifolia) and laurel (Rhododendron maximum). In fact, the trail begins in an ivy thicket with galax everywhere…an auspicious beginning, indeed.
At 1195’, a small bench suitable for one person is present for those who tire easily.
At 1424’, the Rainbow Falls Trail and the Raymond Fisher Trail diverge. The Raymond Fisher Trail proceeds to the left; the Rainbow Falls Trail to the right. There is an official Park sign complete with the blaze colours on it present at the fork.
Around 1700’, a (perhaps wet-weather) springhead along the bank wets the trail for a short way. This happens several times along the trail. The raging Horsepasture River is audible from this point.
Around 2650’, another springhead with a couple of nice boulders, one on either side of the trail, at the end of the wet area.
At 2933’, notice a large pine on the right side of the trail along with some decently sized ivy bush (Kalmia latifolia). This overall area is second-growth forest, so there aren’t tons of massive trees.
At 3002’, a small spring chitters out of the ground below the trail to the left.
At 3121’, another smallish bench is provided along a relatively flat portion of the trail between two steep portions.
At 3718’, a nice creek with mini-whitewater crosses the trail. The creek is 5’ to 6’ wide, but very shallow. Rocks are provided for a dry crossing, but the presence of a small springhead on the other side of the creek, and running into it, wets the entire trail so that wet feet are unavoidable.
At 4203’, a sign marks the boundary of Gorges State Park. A survey stob is visible a few feet from the sign. The gravel ends at the boundary.
At 5027’, a poorly done sign marks a fork in the trail. Rainbow Falls Trail proceeds to the right. The left fork leads to Stairway Falls directly, and Sidepocket and Windy Falls, indirectly. I was surprised to find another trail off the main trail, as I was unaware of its presence. Thus, I had to surrender to curiosity and check it out. A short distance down this fork, approximately 460’, one encounters a large camping area and the Horsepasture River. Falls are present up and downstream. The trail is sometimes hard to make out, especially around camping sites, but the waterfalls are well worth seeing if one wants to have a side excursion.
At 5526’, another springhead wets the trail.
At 5712’, a more difficult stream crossing appears. First, the stream is much wider than the previous one: about 15’. There are stepping stones. On the other side of the creek, a large camping area is present along with several unofficial paths scattered about. Keep going straight.
About 5950’, one can begin to see the river peeking through the trees. The dark water with large rocks invite rock-hopping. The trail parallels the river the rest of the way to the falls.
At 6354’, a rock point perches out to the left. It provides a nice overlook of the Horsepasture River.
At 6865’, a partial view of a mini-fall/cascade with a beautiful pool.
At 8023’, one arrives at the falls along with its signature rainbow if the weather is cooperative. There is a wooden fence here to keep people from accessing (or falling into) the plunge pool of Rainbow Falls. There are a number of paths here and there people have made to access the water and/or views of the falls. One of these leads to a wonderful view from above the falls, and is worth taking. To remain on the official trail, take the path that is more or less straight that leads to the observation deck.
At 8376’, a constantly dripping observation deck provides a phenomenal view of Rainbow Falls and a refreshing cool mist to beat the heat. Note this area will sometimes be frozen in appropriate weather.
Note: take heed when dealing with waterfalls. The water is fast, footing is often tricky, and people are killed every year by being swept over falls. Live to enjoy another hike.
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