Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Hike

Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park

A hidden-gem waterfall hike in a lush forest

The Horsepasture River thunders down a 125-foot drop spraying up a mist that creates rainbows that sparkle in the sunlight. This magical sight can be seen at Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park, one of the best Western North Carolina waterfall hikes.

What To Expect

Gorges State Park is located on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, where the mountains end and the Piedmont begins. From the Grassy Ridge parking lot, the Rainbow Falls trail starts out as gravel, but then starts to descend toward the Horsepasture River. With a few creek crossings here, prepare to get your feet wet. While it doesn’t affect your hike, you should know that the trail switches from Gorges State Park to Pisgah National Forest about 20 minutes after you leave the parking lot. The trail gets narrower as you pass through a hardwood forest, but you’ll follow along the side of the river most of the way to the falls.

When you arrive at the falls, you’ll feel it: a cool mist will soak you. The water is so strong that you must exercise extreme caution when getting closer: the rocks are slippery. Although it may be tempting to try to get photos from the top of the falls, don’t do it: it’s too dangerous.

While you’ll probably want to linger for a while, you can also continue up the trail for around 10 more minutes to Turtleback Falls, a low waterfall over a curved rock that resembles a turtle shell. People slide down these falls and swim in the swimming hole beneath them, but the currents can be extremely strong so, again, be cautious.

Rainbow Falls is popular in the summer because of the cooling mist, but the fall color here is also beautiful. The hike is open in the winter, when the mist has been known to turn to ice.

Hike Details

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance from Asheville: About 57 miles; 1 hour, 30 minute drive 

Length: 1.5 miles each way to Rainbow Falls, an additional 1 mile round-trip to

Region: Gorges State Park to Pisgah National Forest 

Duration of Hike: 30 minutes each way (add an extra 10 each way for Turtleback)

Elevation Gain: 800 feet

Pet-Friendly? Leashed dogs welcome

Multiple Use? Yes

Blazes? Orange circles

Facilities & Parking: Parking lot, portable toilet

Natural Features: Waterfalls, streams, wooded trails

Directions

From downtown Asheville, take 1-240 to I-26. Take exit 40 and make a right onto Hwy 280. Take it for 16 miles to Highway 64. Turn west on US 64 and travel toward Sapphire. To reach the Grassy Ridge Access Area (the west side of the park), turn south on NC 281 in Sapphire. The Grassy Ridge Access is .7 mile on the left.

GPS Coordinates

N35.1133, W82.9563