I don’t know how I’ve never been to Gorges State Park before. It’s just across the South Carolina state line in western North Carolina. It’s a great park with an impressive welcome center. There are lots of activities in the park, but the main attraction is Rainbow Falls. Well, the falls are not technically in Gorges State Park. They’re about a half-mile from the state park border in Pisgah National Forest, but that’s splitting hairs.
The hike from the trailhead to the viewing platform is only around 1½ miles, but it feels longer. The path is well marked. Honestly, there were so many people there that you just follow the queue. The first half of the trail features a downhill gravel pathway. The second half features an uphill trail that is going to be muddy despite the weather or time of year. This is the only strenuous part of the hike.
You will be in the shade until you reach the falls. If you plan to spend time around the falls, you’ll want to bring some sunscreen. You definitely want to bring some bug spray if you’re hiking in the summer.
People of all ages were making the hike. After climbing scores of wooden stairs, you’re treated with a viewing platform overlooking Rainbow Falls. And what a view it is! If it’s sunny, you will see rainbows in the mist that rises from the rocks below.
What makes this waterfall impressive is not just the scale—185 feet. It’s one of the only hikes in the area where you can access the cascade from the bottom, side, and top. Just be careful at the top. There’s little chance of surviving a fall like that. Naturally, I took a selfie at the top with my new StickPic—a tool that turns my trekking pole into a camera mount.
If you walk/scramble another ¼ mile or so up the trail, you’ll reach Turtleback Falls. This is the most popular swimming hole. The rocks are slick, so people slide down the face of the falls. And it’s deep enough to dive. But swimmers should be careful not to underestimate the strength of the current in the Horsepasture River.
Some parents were allowing their little kids to swim in the deeper pools at the base of Turtleback Falls. That seemed irresponsible to me. A grown woman died there just a couple of weeks ago when the current pulled her downstream and over the falls. Think of how much stronger she is than a child. It’s just not worth the risk when there’s a shallow wading pool at the bottom of Rainbow Falls. Plus, the mist acts like free air conditioning.
This spot is conveniently located between Cashiers and Brevard. You can make a great little day trip out of this by doing the hike early when it’s still cool (and the crowd is thin) and then grabbing lunch in one of those towns.