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Gorges State Park

Rainbow Falls
Gorges is a state park in the southwest part of the state on the South Carolina state line.  The nearest town is Sapphire and the park is about 15 minutes from Brevard and an hour from Asheville.  It is the furthest-west park in the system and the only state park west of Asheville.

Gorges State Park is home to numerous waterfalls and due to high rainfall, has a temperate rainforest climate.  Gorges and the surrounding area in Transylvania County has the highest rainfall and the greatest concentration of waterfalls in the eastern US.  This is due to its location at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.  Gorges is also one of the newest of North Carolina's state parks and as such, is still in a state of development.  The land that is now the park was flooded in 1916 when the Lake Troxaway dam broke and flooded the area.  The land was bought by Singer Sewing Company and logged, then sold to Duke Energy in the 1940s and 50s for potential hydroelectric generation.  In the 1990s, Duke Energy sold the land to conservation groups and the state and Gorges State Park was formed in 1999.

IMPORTANT:  Gorges State Park is in a state of development and as such, trails and access points can change.  I do my best to keep this information up to date, but I only visit a couple times a year and so some information can be dated.  Always contact park staff to ensure trails and access points are open and available for public use.

Contact Information:
NC 281 South, P.O. Box 100
Sapphire, NC 28774-0100

Phone: (828) 966-9099

Email: gorges@ncdenr.gov

GPS Coordinates: 35.1133, -82.9563


Grassy Ridge Access:

From US-64 west of Brevard, take NC-281 south in Sapphire.  The park entrance will be on the left in less than a mile.


Gorges State Park


There are several miles of hiking trails within the park, most notably the Foothills Trail that winds through North and South Carolina.  Like the Foothills Trail, many of the trails in the park continue outside the park the boundaries.  See the list of trails below for information about individual trails.

Rainbow Falls Trail:

Length: 4.0 miles (one way)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Blaze: Orange Circles

The Rainbow Falls Trail leads from the Grassy Ridge parking area to Rainbow and Turtleback Falls.  About half way, the trail leaves Gorges State Park and enters Pisgah National Forest, where it more closely follows the Horsepasture River.  Along the way are some of the most popular waterfalls along the Horsepasture River, including Stairawy, Hidden, Rainbow, Turtleback, and Drift Falls.  See the Waterfalls descriptions below for information about individual waterfalls.  The trail ends at the National Forest boundary just before Drift Falls - do not attempt to go past the property line as No Trespassing is strictly enforced.

Raymond Fisher Trail:

Blaze: Blue Circles


Although Gorges State Park is best known for its waterfalls, many of the waterfalls are actually outside the boundaries of the park.  Specifically, the waterfalls along the Horsepasture River (Drift, Turtleback, Rainbow, Hidden, Stairway, Sidepocket, and Windy Falls) are outside the park in Pisgah National Forest.  However, the only legal way to see these waterfalls is to start at the park, so they are described here.  Many of the other waterfalls are in the rugged interior of the park and much more difficult to access.

Horsepasture River:

The Horsepasture River runs begins near Cashiers and flows into Lake Jocassee in South Carolina.  The area from NC-281 downstream to Lake Jocassee is protected as a state and national Wild and Scenic River.  Although technically not in Gorges State Park, the only legal access to the waterfalls is through the park and so I've included directions here.  The waterfalls are located in order from upstream to downstream.

Drift Falls:

Drift Falls is the highest waterfall along the the Horsepasture River before it crosses NC-281.  From Turtleback Falls, continue on the trail to the National Forest property boundary (which is impossible to miss with the numerous No Trespassing signs).  At the end of the trail, there is a side trail out to the river to get views of the falls while staying on public property.  In the past, this was a popular swim hole and water slide, sometimes referred to as Bust-Yer-Butt Falls.  However, the land changed hands and is now on private property and No Trespassing is strictly enforced.  In the right conditions, it is possible to get a decent shot of the falls from public property, especially in the winter months when there is less foliage to block the view.

Drift Falls

Turtleback Falls:

Turtleback Falls is a 20-foot waterfall along the Horsepasture River.  The water flows over a big sloping rock until it falls directly into the "chug-hole" or pool at the basin.  The shape of the rock, similar to a turtle's shell, gave the falls its name.  To reach the falls, follow the directions above to Rainbow Falls and continue on the trail just a short ways past Rainbow Falls.  Although dangerous, swimming and sliding down the falls are very popular activities in the summer months.  Do so at your own risk and use extreme caution, especially when water levels are high.  The currents are strong and it is easy to pulled downstream past the chug hole and over Rainbow Falls.

Turtleback Falls

Rainbow Falls:

Rainbow Falls is a magnificent 125-foot tall waterfall along the Horsepasture River.  To view the falls, start at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead and follow the Rainbow Falls Trail past the park boundary.  After about a mile, the falls will be to the right.  There is no missing it!  There is also a small and steep trail that leads down to the base of the falls and swimming is popular in the falls basin.  If you chose to swim, do so at your own risk, as the currents can be strong and dangerous if water levels are high.  Also, avoid going near the top of the falls.  There are really no great views or photo opportunities to be had, and a slip over the falls will lead to certain death.

Hidden Falls:

Hidden Falls is a very small waterfall just downstream of Rainbow Falls.  From Rainbow Falls, head back towards Gorges State Park and after going down a little bit, there is an obvious trail to the right leading to the river.  The pool at Hidden Falls is popular as a swim hole.

Hidden Falls

Stairway Falls:

Stairway Falls is a series of cascades with a final plunge along the Horsepasture River.  To visit the falls, start at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead and follow the Rainbow Falls Trail.  Shortly after crossing the state park boundary, the main trail will curve to the right, with a smaller trail leading straight/left.  Follow this steep and poorly-maintained trail for about a quarter mile until you reach the Horsepasture River and you should be at the base of the falls.  In times of heavy water flow, the falls look like a series of six or seven steps, hence the name.  The first picture shows the falls where the stairs are distinct.  In dryer times, as shown in the second picture below, the stairway is not so obvious.

Stairway Falls

Stairway Falls

Sidepocket Falls:

Sidepocket Falls is less known waterfall on Horsepasture River, downstream from Stairway Falls.  To visit the falls, start at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead and hike down the Rainbow Falls/Raymond Fisher Trails for about a quarter mile.  Turn left at the intersection to stay on the blue-blazed Raymond Fisher Trail.  Where the trail crosses Chestnut Mountain Road, turn right and hike down the gravel road about 0.1 mile to a path on the right.  There was a big pile of gravel in front of the turn when I visited.  In about a quarter-mile, a second old road comes in from the left.  At this point, get off the trail to the right and pick up an overgrown path.  There was flagging tape to mark the path and I thought it was pretty easy to follow.  The trail passes between two knolls and then heads up a ridge before descending to river level.  The descent is quite steep, but we found spots to switchback around the steepest parts.  When the path comes out at the river, follow it upstream a short ways to the base of Sidepocket Falls.

There's also an upper section that you need to climb up the rocks to view.

Bearwallow Creek:

Bearwallow Creek is a tributary of Toxaway River with a number of waterfalls along its course.  They are listed in order from upstream to downstream.

Upper Bearwallow Falls:

Upper Bearwallow Falls is accessed from the Bearwallow Valley section of the park.  The short Bearwallow Falls Trail leads about a quarter-mile to an overlook for the falls.  The picture below is from the overlook - it's not a great view.

We tried to bushwhack down to the creek for a better view.  We ended up at the very base of the waterfall as in the picture below and couldn't see any of the waterfall above.  We'll have to come back and explore more!

Indian Camp Falls:

Indian Camp Falls is the first of four waterfalls along a short stretch of Bearwallow Creek, that were formerly known as Paw Paw Falls, collectively.  To visit the falls, start at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead and begin the hike on the Rainbow Falls/Raymond Fisher Trails.  At the split, turn left and follow the blue-blazed Raymond Fisher Trail across Chestnut Mountain Road and down to the pond and campground.  Follow the service road to the right of the information kiosk for a quarter-mile and make a sharp right at the intersection.  From here, follow the road for about a half-mile and go left at the intersection.  In another quarter-mile, turn left again.  The road is rather steep as it heads down to a ford over Bearwallow Creek.  Once across the creek, get off the road and bushwhack downstream along the creek.  Stay close to the creek and you'll reach Indian Camp Falls in about a quarter-mile from the ford.  The creek slides down and makes a sharp left turn.  For a good view of the falls, get on the rock ledge immediately in front of it.

Split Rock Falls:

Split Rock Falls is just downstream of Indian Camp Falls.  Follow the directions to Indian Camp Falls and continue downstream a short ways.  You'll have to go up a bit to get around some rocks and then come to the base of Split Rock Falls.  The water slides down a split in the rock face, hence the name.

Chute Falls:

Chute Falls is downstream of Split Rock Falls.  From Split Rock Falls, you'll need to climb up the ridge to continue downstream.  I thought this was the most difficult part of the bushwhack and you'll be high enough that you can't see the creek.  It's about 0.15 miles downstream from Split Rock Falls to Chute Falls.  This was my favorite of the waterfalls along this stretch of creek, but a big tree had fallen at the base and made pictures difficult.

Lower Bearwallow Falls:

Lower Bearwallow Falls is a spectacular waterfall along Bearwallow Creek.  Unfortunately, it's very difficult to access and it's still up in the air whether the park will prohibit access in the future.  As such, I'm not going to publish directions.  It is located on my park map below and the location is also on the NC Waterfalls map.  But be warned - it is a difficult bushwack to get down to the falls and there is very delicate vegetation along the path, so use extreme caution if you choose to visit.

Lower Bearwallow Falls

Toxaway River:

The Toxaway River flows from Lake Toxaway through the park and into Lake Jocassee.

Wintergreen Falls:

Wintergreen Falls is a huge waterfall on Toxaway River, roughly half way between the Lake Toxaway Dam and Augur Hole Trail.  Although you can get to it heading downstream from the dam, this is extremely difficult and I haven't tried it yet.  A more reasonable way is to start at the Frozen Creek Access and hike Augur Hole Trail.  From the parking lot, it's about 3 miles down the trail to a gated old road that heads upstream along Toxaway River.  If coming from Frozen Creek Access, the turn is right before the trail fords Toxaway River.  The road runs for about a mile, heading uphill then downhill to near the river.  From here, the trail becomes more of a path.  Flagging tape was strung up along the way to help.  In about a half-mile from where the road ends, the path crosses Panther Branch then requires scrambling over rocks at a cliff face.  Past the cliff, the trail is a little flatter and soon comes out at the huge pool at the base of Wintergreen Falls.

Chub Line Falls:

Chub Line Falls along the Toxaway River is so named because it marks the furthest upstream that chub minnows are able to swim.  And seeing the force of Chub Line Falls, it is no wonder that they can't make it further upstream.  Chub Line Falls is extremely difficult to visit.  It is located on the Toxaway River just north/northeast of the stream crossing at Toxaway River.  There is no trail or markers indicating where the falls are, but it's possible to hear it from the trail.  From here, it is a steep and difficult bushwack down to the falls.  The map below should give you a rough estimate of where it is.  At the bottom, you should come out on some rocks above the falls.  Unfortunately, I don't know anyway to get downstream of the falls to get a good picture.  Just a shot from above on the rocks.  There are sheer cliff faces on both side downstream of the falls, so no easy way to get down there for a shot of the falls.  Overall, I don't think this one is really worth the bushwack, considering it's not possible to see the falls from base.

Chub Line Falls

Waterfalls at Confluence of Augur Fork Creek and Maple Spring Branch:

Two for the price of one!  At the point where Maple Spring Branch flows into Augur Fork Creek, just upstream of where Augur Fork Creek flows into Toxaway River, are two beautiful waterfalls.  The two waterfalls are located off Augur Hole Trail about a mile north of the Toxaway River stream crossing.  There is no official trail leading down to the falls but there may be some marking tape indicating the path.  Looking at the map from park office, you can see where the confluence of the two creeks occurs and this is where the waterfalls can be found.  The map below will also give an estimate of the location.  From the trail it is a fairly steep and challenging bushwack down to the base of the falls.  Looking to the left (west) is the waterfall on Augur Fork Creek and to the right (east) is waterfall on Maple Spring Branch.  To get the best views, climb a little ways up along Maple Spring Branch.  The setting is like something out of tropical rainforest and it's truly amazing to look in one direction and see a beautiful waterfall, then turn around and see another.  The first picture below is the waterfall on Augur Fork Creek; the second is the waterfall on Maple Spring Branch; the video shows both.

Waterfall on Augur Fork Creek

Waterfall on Maple Spring Branch

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External Links:

NC State Parks website: http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/gorg/main.php