View – the hike goes along the Horsepasture River and features 4 extraordinary waterfall views. The signature waterfall is Rainbow Falls with a height of 125 feet. This fall produces large, constant clouds of mist that create beautiful rainbows.
Unlike many waterfalls, these views are not blocked by foliage and great photos can be taken all year. Rainbow Falls has two manufactured viewing areas but the other falls are viewed from the trail or out on rocks in the river.
Hike Profile – the hike is an out-and-back hike that follows the east side of the Horsepasture River. The profile is bowl-shaped with a gradual descent from the trailhead followed by a gradual ascent to the top of Rainbow Falls. The side trail to Stairway Falls is a steeper, more challenging descent to the viewing area on the river.
The hike starts in the Gorges State Park but exits the park into the Nantahala National Forest before coming to Rainbow Falls. The trail ends just before the last fall, an unnamed cascade, at the boundary between Nanatahala NF and private land.
Trail Surface – the Gorges State Park section of the trail is a wide, smooth and well-maintained trail. Once the trail crosses into the Nantahala NF, the trail becomes more uneven with rough, slippery sections and a couple of small stream crossings. There are some steeper climbs after Rainbow Falls, but these have steps built in to make the going easier and safer. Although the trail goes along the river, it doesn’t have the tedious rock scrambling normally found on these type of trails.
The side trail to the Stairway Falls descends sharply on a typical rough and narrow trail. Just before reaching the viewing area, there is a very steep and rocky, but short, descent down to the river edge.
Environment – the hike is mostly in a forest area with light underbrush.
Navigation – we recommend that you take a trail map with you on this hike. A map is available for free at the visitor’s center. From the trailhead, there is a short walk to a T intersection – the Raymond Fisher trail goes to the left and the trail to Rainbow Falls goes to the right. From there, just follow the Rainbow Falls trail to the very end. You will pass Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls along the way.
On the way back, approximately half way between Rainbow Falls and the turn back to the parking lot, you will see a small trail branching off to the right with a trail wand marking the junction. This is the trail down to Stairway Falls. When we did the hike, the wand was blank and did not identify the trail by name.
Directions to Trailhead – from Brevard, take 64 west towards Rosman and Cashiers. Just past Lake Toxaway, turn left onto NC 281 south. About a mile down NC 281, the entrance to Gorges State Park will be on the left and is well marked. Follow this road to the Visitor’s Center. After stopping at the Visitor’s Center, exit the parking lot and turn right onto the road to the trailhead.
After hiking to Rainbow Falls, your trip to Gorges State Park is not complete without a short drive over to Whitewater Falls.
At a height of 411 feet, Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. To get to the viewing area, take a left onto NC 281 going south at the Gorges State Park entrance. After several miles, you will see a sign for the Whitewater Falls viewing area on the left. There is a parking area there with a $2 per car fee which you pay with an unattended pay box in the parking lot.
At the end of the parking lot is a picnic area and a short, quarter mile, paved trail to the upper viewing area of the falls. From this viewing area, there is a couple of flights of steps down to the lower viewing area, which is the better view by far.