Rainbow Falls NC: Hiking at Gorges State Park
Hike to a trio of beautiful waterfalls near Gorges State Park including the towering Rainbow Falls, a stunning 150-foot single-drop waterfall that tumbles into a wildflower-filled forest.
The Rainbow Falls waterfall is exceptionally beautiful, pouring down a towering, near-vertical cliff in the Nantahala National Forest near Gorges State Park. Framed in lush forest and a hilly, wildflower-covered meadow, Rainbow Falls tumbles into a deep pool littered with giant boulders. After a drop of nearly 150 feet, the waterfall crashes loudly, exploding into voluminous clouds of mist which, when the sun is angled right, create colorful rainbows below the falls.
This hike on the Rainbow Falls Trail departs from nearby Gorges State Park, trekking a rolling, moderate 1.7 miles to visit the hike’s main attraction, the Rainbow Falls waterfall. The hike continues trailing upriver for another quarter mile to catch sight of two other waterfalls on the Horsepasture River, Turtleback Falls and Drift Falls. And along the way, a short side trail visits Hidden Falls, a short waterfall that tumbles over a blocky cliff framed in flowering rhododendron. At under 4 miles, roundtrip, it’s a hike that’s filled with photo-worthy waterfalls and beautiful, shady forest. It’s no wonder that Rainbow Falls is one of western North Carolina’s most popular waterfall hikes.
Rainbow Falls NC: the hike
The hike departs from the Grassy Ridge trailhead in Gorges State Park, near Cashiers, NC (view maps and driving directions). Gorges State Park is one of the newest in North Carolina’s state park system, and with an annual rainfall of over 80 inches, the park is classified as a temperate rain forest. Its rushing rivers, mighty waterfalls, abundant wildflowers and lush, green forest are born from the park’s abundant rain.
The hike descends southbound on the gravel-paved Grassy Ridge Trail, meandering through dense thickets of gnarly-branched mountain laurel. Fern and moss carpet the rich forest floor.
The hike reaches a trail junction at .3 mile, turning right to hike westbound on the Rainbow Falls Trail. The hike continues its descent, arcing northbound through a creek valley filled with rhododendron and fern. The Rainbow Falls Trail crosses the official Gorges State Park line at .8 mile, leaving the park and entering the Nantahala National Forest. The sound of the rushing Horsepasture River grows louder as the hike veers westbound, approaching the river at 1 mile.
The hike trails the river’s banks, following the river upstream as it tumbles over a rocky bed. Reaching the hike’s lowest elevation, the trail crosses a tributary stream at 1.1 miles before commencing a nearly continuous climb to Rainbow Falls. The river’s rushing roar becomes louder as the hike trails upstream. A short side trail departs trail left at 1.4 miles, leading to the Hidden Falls waterfall. Here, the Horsepasture River pours over a wide, angular outcrop into a pool that’s bordered by nearly-vertical rock and, in summer months, blooming rhododendron.
The hike continues the ascent, climbing wood stairs as it arcs around a bend. The sound of falling water amplifies on the trail as Rainbow Falls comes into view. The waterfall spills over a nearly 150-foot cliff, easily viewable from the top of the grassy, wildflower-cover slope in a wide clearing on the trail.
The trail ducks back into the forest, continuing its climb. The hike reaches Turtleback Falls at 1.65 miles, where the Horsepasture River cascades 25 feet over a large, curved rock outcrop into a pool below.
The trail arcs around Turtleback Falls, crossing a small wood bridge and passing a tall rock outcrop and shallow cave. The hike curves around upper Turtleback, catching views of the unique waterfall upriver.
From here, the hike makes an optional .3 mile trek to Drift Falls, the fourth waterfall in this short stretch of the river. It’s debatable whether the hike to Drift Falls is worth the extra mileage, though: the waterfall is located on private property, and it’s barely visible from the trail. (And the property border is, reportedly, regularly patrolled, so violators face stiff fines and penalties for edging even close to the waterfall.) We’ve made the trek to Drift Falls, staying well within the Nantahala National Forest boundary, but found the distant waterfall view disappointing.
Reaching the trail’s end, the hike turns around, retracing its steps back to the trailhead, passing Turtleback Falls and Rainbow Falls. The hike re-enters Gorges State Park, turning right at 3.6 miles to hike the Grassy Ridge Trail to the trailhead. The hike completes at just under 4 miles.
Rainbow Falls Trail: hike safely & leave no trace
Slippery rocks and fast moving water can be extremely dangerous! Please don’t climb, stand on, swim near, or jump from any waterfall. And, as always, please pack out everything you pack in and leave no trace: let’s preserve the trail’s gorgeous beauty for future adventures.
More Gorges State Park hiking adventure
Finished the Rainbow Falls Trail, and have a bit of energy (and daylight) left? The Bearwallow Falls Trail is a short, under-half-mile hike to a smaller waterfall. While it’s no Rainbow Falls, in size or beauty, it’s worth the hike. Or chase epic summit views on the Whiteside Mountain Trail in Highlands, catching view after stunning view from the mountain’s sheer, towering cliffs. And check out the full list of our favorite Highlands and Cashiers hiking trails for even more adventures.