Hike to the towering 150-foot Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls and Drift Falls through a wildflower-filled forest in North Carolina’s Gorges State Park.
LOCATION:near Cashiers and Highlands, NC in Gorges State Park
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 780 Trails Illustrated Map
Rainbow Falls 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 rolling, wildflower-covered meadow, the waterfall tumbles into a deep pool littered with giant boulders. After a drop of nearly 150 feet, the waterfall crashes loudly, exploding into enormous clouds of mist. And when the sun is angled right, the waterfall creates 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 through a waterfall-filled valley, visiting the enormous cascades of Rainbow Falls. The route continues upriver to two additional 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 four miles, round trip, it’s a view-packed hike that’s filled with photo-worthy waterfalls and beautiful, shady forest. It’s no wonder that this 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 classifies as a temperate rain forest. The park’s rushing rivers, mighty waterfalls, abundant wildflowers and lush, green forest are a beautiful result of 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 follow the Rainbow Falls Trail westbound. The trail continues its descent, arcing northbound through a creek valley filled with rhododendron and fern. The 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. The trail reaches the hike’s lowest elevation and crosses a tributary stream at 1.1 miles, and then begins a nearly constant climb uphill. The river’s rushing roar becomes louder, amplifying through the forest. A short side trail departs on the trail’s left at 1.4 miles, leading to the Hidden Falls waterfall. The Horsepasture River pours over a wide, angular outcrop into a pool that’s bordered by nearly vertical rock and framed in 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 broad 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 patrolled: violators face stiff fines and penalties for edging close to the waterfall.)
The hike turns around, retracing its steps back to the trailhead. The hike re-enters Gorges State Park, turning right at 3.6 miles to follow the Grassy Ridge Trail to the trailhead. The adventure reaches the trailhead at just under 4 miles, completing the hike.
Waterfall hiking safety
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.
Nearby hiking adventures
Finished the hike, 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.
This map is not a substitute for official trail maps or topographic maps.
Free parking is available at Gorges State Park.
35.088550, -82.952050 // N35 05.313 W82 57.123