As the 2020-21 school year has ended and things are finally starting to open back up, more people will be looking forward to traveling this summer. Lake Oconee News general reporter Lance McCurley has compiled a list of things to do away from Lake Country in the summer series, ‘A Tank of Gas’. All the recommendations are for places or destinations that will, in fact, only take one full tank of gas to visit. Enjoy.
If you’re bored this summer, then I suggest you ignore TLC’s advice, “don’t go chasing waterfalls,” because this hike is one of the best and most beautiful in the Southeast.
Gorges State Park sits along the Horsepasture River in Sapphire, North Carolina, and is nestled in the Pisgah National Forest.
The state park has access to the hike that houses Rainbow Falls, which is the tallest waterfall in the Tar Heel State. There are also a few other falls along the river, including nearby Rainbow Falls (which is upstream) and Hidden Falls (which is downstream).
“It’s home to rugged river gorges, sheer rock walls and one of the greatest concentrations of rare and unique species in the Eastern United States,” RomanticAshville. com says. “An elevation that rises 2,000 feet in only four miles with combined rainfall more than 90 inches per year creates a temperate rainforest. It’s just 55 miles from Asheville, between Brevard and Cashiers. There are two access areas to the 7,700- acre park.”
The Grassy Ridge Road entrance in Sapphire is the primary location where the hike starts. There are bathrooms and a visitors center on-site, which tells the history of the surrounding area. A large parking lot leads up to the start of the trailhead.
Gorges State Park opened in 2009 and is one of the newest parks in North Carolina. All of the roads are paved going into the Grassy Ridge Road entrance, which is nice for vehicles that aren’t equipped for driving on gravel routes or anything unpaved.
“A wheelchair-accessible overlook has views across Jocassee Gorge and the Blue Ridge Mountains,” RomanticAsheville says. “A wheelchair-accessible overlook has views across the Jocassee Gorge and the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is no admission fee. Most of the park is remote with little access to protect its many ecosystems. Check-in at the Visitor Center to get a map and find out about any trail closures.”
Hiking the trail
Once you leave the parking lot, say goodbye to the pavement.
The trail starts right below the paved lot and it is a three-mile round trip hike up to Rainbow Falls and back. The hike takes you out of the Pisgah National Forest and into the wilderness, which is the coolest part of the trip.
There are many stoppage points on the trail to rest, but just make sure to move to the side so others can pass by.
Tucked away and “hidden”
About 1.3 miles into the trail is Hidden Falls, which is out of sight from the main trail. It’s sort of hard to explain the exact location of the waterfall, but if you look at a map on your phone or take one from the Visitor Center, you should be able to find it. It’s nestled down a steep hill, so make sure to be careful, but when you reach the bottom, it is totally worth the short detour.
“Hidden Falls is a serene family-friendly swimming hole in Pisgah National Forest just downriver from the towering Rainbow Falls,” RomanticAsheville says. “It’s on the Horsepasture River ‘hidden’ just a few steps off the main trail. Most hikers miss it. The waterfall is less than 10 feet tall, but it drops into an idyllic pool surrounded by boulders that act as a small dam and provide sunning and picnic spots.”
One of the more enjoyable experiences of the trip is climbing up the slippery rocks below the falls and entering the little cave-like structure behind it. You won’t be able to hear the person next to you, so be prepared to hear the thundering water hitting the black rocks in front of you. It’s best to sit with your legs facing the falls and push yourself through the waterfall. Soon enough, the current will take you sliding down the cascading rocks into a 10-foot pool of crystal clear water.
“There is no sign for the short side trail to Hidden Falls,” RomanticAsheville says. “It’s just before your final ascent to Rainbow Falls (an obvious uphill section with stairs). You’ll see a wide area in the main trail with some obvious trails to the left to the river. The waterfall is tucked away on your right, so you need to be on the river to see it.”
Hidden Falls is definitely your best bet to swim and cool off before ascending onto the next set of falls.
The pain is worth the view
The stairs leading up to the viewing area of Rainbow Falls are a little tiresome, but once you reach the top, the view is worth the climb.
While hiking there, you can hear the rumbling sound of the water hitting the large boulders below, so that’s how you know the waterfall is close.
“Rainbow Falls is one the most spectacular waterfall settings in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina,” RomanticAsheville says. “This 150-foot waterfall is impressive, especially after rainy weather that swells the Horsepasture River. The best feature of Rainbow Falls is the ability for visitors to experience the falls from the front, bottom and top.”
If your trip happens to be on a sunny day, a rainbow can be seen in the midst of the falls. It’s most beautiful in the early morning, but the multi-colored sight is also visible in the afternoon, especially after a summer rainstorm. The most refreshing part of the trip is feeling the cold mist of water on your face after climbing the stairs.
A small erosion trail leads to the bottom, where you can climb on the rocks and soak everything in. However, the steep incline is not meant for the weak, so be prepared to walk step-by-step as you descend to the bottom of the short ravine. The experienced and well-prepared hiker could even fall to their misery, so be warned.
It’s not common to see people jumping off a perched ledge of the waterfall, but it’s not recommended. The ledge is located about 50 feet above the water and swimmers have to go through a series of climbing on trees, and over stumps, plus down a steep incline to get to the place where the jumping occurs. The water level is surely deep enough, but don’t take the risk if you don’t have to.
There is also a vantage point on top of the waterfall as the trailheads to your final destination.
“After exploring the falls from the front and side, continue on the trail upriver to Turtleback Falls,” RomanticAsheville says. “Do not jump from the cliffs or get too close to the river’s edge since rocks are slick and currents are strong.”
The final destination
Hiking up to the top of Rainbow Falls and hanging a left on the trail will lead you to the most remote destination, which is Turtleback Falls.
Turtleback is about a 45-foot waterfall that drops into the pool below it. It’s commonly known for being a “sliding rock” but state park officials have advised against it since there have been so many deaths in the past couple of years. So, it’s best to maybe make for a picturesque moment.
“Due to many injuries, rescues and deaths here during the past two years - especially during frequent high water due to record rainfalls - Gorges State Park Rangers warn against sliding and swimming here any longer,” RomanticAsheville says. “While riding down the cascade is not prohibited, water currents are often too strong for safe play. If you go to the slide, be sure water is at a lower level. You should be a strong swimmer and keep children away. Take drinking water. Be safe! Rescues are difficult in this remote area.”
Turtleback Falls is the final stop on the trail unless you want to venture about a half-mile upstream to Drift Falls on private property. So, if you visit Drift Falls, be careful and stay off the private property it sits upon. But, if not, it’s time to start the trek back to the car and make the drive back to Lake Country.