Waterfall Week II: Rainbow Falls, NC
**DISCLAIMER: While all of the waterfalls featured here on Becauseitzthere can be safely hiked and enjoyed, be aware that there is GREAT RISK involved in venturing off trail near ANY of the waterfalls described here. We advise you to HIKE SAFELY. Please remember that you are responsible for your own safety on the trail. This site and its editors bear no responsibility for any accidents that occur as a result of engaging in any of the hikes described on these pages. Don’t be blamin’ us for it now, hear? END DISCLAIMER**
For our final – and in our opinion best – installment of WWII we visit Rainbow Falls in NC. It is entirely possible that Rainbow Falls is the best waterfall in North Carolina outside of Dupont State Forest.
Rainbow Falls is accessed from the relatively new Gorges State Park in the very southwestern part of the state…outside Sapphire, NC, not more than a few miles from the South Carolina border. Somewhat overrated Whitewater Falls is also in this area, but the falls in Gorges SP are MUCH more worthy of visiting.
Gorges State Park is a fantastic – and still little visited – place. Founded in 1999 and only recently developed for recreation, the park boasts a number of attractions that include waterfalls (Rainbow falls being the most notable of several) temperate rain forest, miles of back country hiking trails, horseback riding trails, primitive camping and even a section of the underrated Foothills Trail. We did a section of this great trail a few years back in Table Rock State Park, SC (which should not be confused with Table Rock Mountain in NC.)
Speaking of confusing things, don’t confuse Rainbow Falls in NC with the Falls of the same name up in the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains. That fall is worthy too, but the NC one is superior.
The park boasts a HUGE state of the art visitor center that opened in 2012 and would be the envy half the US National Park units. It would be worth stopping by for this alone. Sylvia and I are very excited about the potential of Gorges State Park and plan to cover it in a future post. We hope it stays little visited for a while.
Rainbow Falls is actually located just outside the park boundary in the Pisgah National Forest, but is accessed from the State Park along a well-marked 1.5 mile trail which leaves from the Grassy Ridge parking area a short drive from the visitor center.
The park literature lists this hike as ‘strenuous’ but we think it would best be termed moderate in difficulty. It’s likely the park did this intentionally to dissuade badly equipped, out of shape hikers from thinking this trip will be an easy jaunt. It IS very easy over the first half mile of so, as it goes gently downhill along a wide gravel path. But it eventually turns uphill, becoming steeper and a bit rougher before reaching the falls. Bear in mind much of the trail will be uphill on the return.
The first glimpse of the falls is absolutely jaw-dropping. We had done no research on the place at all prior to visiting (we had not even intended to visit) and therefore had no idea that we were walking toward one of the state’s best waterfalls. What a great surprise!
After all too many disappointing trips to half-baked cascades generously termed waterfalls, at last our expectations were far exceeded. THIS, be assured, is a REAL waterfall.
The view of the falls from the trail itself is quite nice, but you can descend to a small viewing platform to get a bit closer and actually feel the spray. However, the platform only gives you a partial view of the falls. There is a ledge with an annoying tree growing right in the way. I noted this same phenomenon while visiting Looking Glass falls and other waterfalls in the state…the facilities are sending a bit of a mixed message. They are supposed to encourage safe viewing, and yet at the same time openly encourage people to engage in cowboy behavior in search of a better view.
We recommend you descend by the herd path that goes down below the platform to the rocks beside the plunge pool for the best and most unobstructed views. This short trail is steep and somewhat slippery but can be safely followed if one is cautious. We would recommend avoiding the Kamakazi-style herd paths that diverge directly from the trail; these are precipitous and muddy and there is simply no reason to attempt them. All the trails go to the same place anyway, so take the safest one.
At 150 feet tall, Rainbow Falls on the scenic Horsepasture river is both voluminous and magnificent. A huge torrent of water pours over the top of it, creating a thundering sound and an omnipresent mist. Though there were none there this day, it’s not hard to see why it’s called Rainbow Falls!
In fact, it also reminded us a bit of spectacular Mist Falls in the Sierra Nevada.
What surprised us most about this great place is how few people were present — and this over the Columbus Day weekend! We are sure this must be a busy place in Summer…it’s not too far from the Greenville/Spartanburg area. But only a few people were in attendance and most of these were quite respectful of the place. There was only one group of idiots running around engaging in full-on Rocket Science and mostly everyone else ignored them.
We came to Gorges State Park just a couple weeks after Hurricane Florence dumped a ton of rain on the state, so the falls was REALLY going. We feel lucky to have seen it in full splendor.
If Rainbow Falls ain’t enough for you, you can proceed further along the trail for another half mile to much smaller Stairway Falls, a 50-foot cascade. This part of the trail is much steeper and MAY accurately be termed strenuous. Note that while Stairway Falls is a fine falls in itself, it may be a bit of a letdown after Rainbow Falls.
The trail does pass in close proximity to the top of the falls where very herd paths can be followed to look directly from the edge; there is also swimming hole there called Turtleback Rocks, popular in summer. We did not visit this area, nor did we visit Bear Wallow Falls in the state park itself. We saved these for a future trip to Gorges.
Note that if you DO visit the top of the falls, exercise extreme caution. We can think of few more dangerous places than the top of a large waterfall. The potential for a fatality here is no joke.
Waterfalls and short male attention spans.
Speaking of exercising caution, Brian, a ‘head’down’ hiker due to his ‘trick knee’, set a personal record by TWICE testing the toughness of low-hanging tree branches by slamming into them with his forehead. He reminds all hikers to occasionally look up and see where they are going.
Compared to Whitewater Falls, which you can hardly get close enough to so as to hear the rush of water, you can get VERY close to Rainbow Falls for an exhilarating experience. We LOVE trails that allow you to SAFELY get close enough to feel the spray and really experience the place.
This part of North Carolina gets a lot of rain (nearly 100 inches per year) so it’s not hard to find a moist time of year to visit. We would recommend spring or fall when the crowds will be lower. During summer, we leave the waterfalls to the Instagram dare-devils, well-insured bathers and rocket scientists.
We very much enjoyed Rainbow Falls. We also enjoy Gorges State Park, and in fact the entire NC/SC foothills region has some GREAT terrain and fine waterfalls. In fact, the ones in nearby Dupont State Forest might even surpass the ones at the Gorges.
But we’ll save those ones for Waterfall Week III…someday soon.
We very much hope you enjoyed WATERFALL WEEK on Becauseitzthere!