There’s a hidden gem of a trail in Pisgah National Forest that leads to two of the best waterfalls in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls.
Both waterfalls are along the Horsepasture River and can be accessed from the same trail. You can visit both waterfalls in one day with a reasonable 4-mile hike. If you take the time to look, you may even spot a third waterfall.
Rainbow Falls is a 150-foot-tall waterfall that sprays a fine mist in which you can frequently see rainbows. Turtleback Falls is a smaller waterfall where the water cascades over a rock that looks like a turtle shell.
Tips and Caution
Before you head out, there are a few things you need to know.
Two-thirds of the hike is in a National Forest. While the trail is in good shape and easy to follow, it is not blazed and there can be debris. Sections of the trail include rock steps and uneven terrain. I highly recommend hiking shoes or boots with support and good tread.
Bring plenty of water. If you’re not an experienced hiker, this could be a 2.5-to-3.5-hour trip.
Do not try to climb to the top of Rainbow Falls. This is extremely dangerous and deaths have occurred.
Do not try to swim at Rainbow or Turtleback Falls, even if you see other people in the water. People have had to be rescued doing this and there have been deaths.
Gorges State Park and this section of Pisgah National Forest are in a Temperate Rain Forest region which averages 80 to 100 inches of rain annually. Prepare for pop up rain showers and slick trail.
Best Time to Visit the Waterfalls
Spring and Summer bring the most rainfall and, while the hiking may be slicker and muddier, the falls will be at their peak (unless it hasn’t rained in awhile which is rare). Also, in summer, the flowers along the edge are in bloom creating a pretty landscape.
Fall is a nice time to go with the leaves changing colors. The waterfall may not be as powerful, but the colorful leaves frame it beautifully.
Winter is also a good time if you can get out there. I’ve been told the mist sometimes freezes which is really cool, but I haven’t seen that happen in person yet.
Regardless of the season, the best time of day to catch a colorful rainbow at Rainbow Falls is in the early morning hours when the sun hits it just right.
How to Get to Rainbow and Turtleback Falls
While both waterfalls are in Pisgah National Forest, the trailhead is in Gorges State Park. It sounds confusing but it’s easy to navigate because Gorges State Park happens to sit right up against Pisgah National Forest.
Gorges State Park is one of the newest North Carolina State Parks and has two entrances. The Grassy Ridge section is in Sapphire, NC, one of my favorite small towns in the mountains of North Carolina.
Finding the Parking Lot
In your GPS, enter the address for the Grassy Ridge Entrance for Gorges State Park. Your GPS should bring it right up. This is the location with the Visitor Center, and I found both Google and Apple Maps were accurate.
I highly recommend stopping at the park’s Visitor Center. It’s truly amazing with a lot to do and the staff is knowledgeable about the area.
The park has signs leading you to the parking area for the Rainbow Falls Trail. It’s a small lot and can fill up quickly on summer afternoons so try a weekday, off-season month, or early morning.
Following the Trail to Rainbow Falls
There is a large kiosk at the trailhead entrance and the Rainbow Falls Trail is marked with an orange circle blaze.
The first part of the trail is wide and well maintained. It has both orange and blue blazes. The blue blazes are for the Raymond Fisher Pond Trail.
When the trail comes to a T intersection, go right. This is where Rainbow Falls Trail and Raymond Fisher Pond Trail split. It’s well marked so you’ll know which way to go.
From here, the trail narrows a bit, but is still pleasant. You’ll encounter a couple of stream crossings which are pretty easy with rocks, but if it’s been raining, your feet may get a little wet.
Further down the trail is the sign noting the boundary between Gorges State Park and Pisgah National Forest. While you’re no longer in the park, the rangers from Gorges State Park are the ones that will come in an emergency, so help is nearby. Also note that once you’re in Pisgah, the blazes disappear.
Keep following the trail and, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see a short side trail to the river. This leads to Hidden Falls. It’s a small 10-foot waterfall, almost a rapid, but it’s still pretty.
From here, you’re about a half mile to Rainbow Falls. The trail narrows, and the elevation increases. In some places there are steps, both wooden and stone. Keep at it, the view is worth it.
You’ll hear the waterfall before you see it. There’s a small wooden fence which serves as the observation deck. Don’t try to go around the fence or climb to the top of the waterfall. The rocks are very slippery, and deaths have occurred here. You can get a perfectly fine photo from the observation area.
Getting to Turtleback Falls from Rainbow Falls
You can continue on the trail another half mile to Turtleback Falls. Once you arrive, you’ll see the waterfall. It can be reached with a bit of rock scrambling at the bottom to get a better view. It’s not difficult, but you’ll want good tread on your shoes.
Enjoy the falls, then head back to your car.
I would take some time to relax on the back porch of the Visitor Center before heading home, or you can visit Bearwallow Falls which is 0.4 miles round trip. You can only see them from a distance though.
What About Drift Falls?
Another half mile up the trail is Drift Falls, but this is on private land with signs and it is monitored. You can see the falls from the trail before entering private property, but the view isn’t great, and the falls aren’t worth it in my opinion.
Can You Swim in the Waterfalls?
Except for Hidden Falls and only in the right conditions, I wouldn’t try swimming near the waterfalls.
You will see people at Turtleback sliding down the falls, but it’s not recommended. People have died doing this. The current can be fast with a strong undertow and it’s easy to get carried downstream. You can also become stuck behind the falls, unable to work your way out.
I spoke to a member of the State Park staff to let them know a lot of people were heading to Turtleback in flip flops and with coolers and bags of food. They shook their heads and told me they’re frequently called out that way for rescues.
It’s pretty obvious that you can’t swim near Rainbow Falls, at least I hope it’s obvious. I’ve seen people at the bottom, but you would have to walk along the river well before you reach the observation deck to safely get down there.
You can swim near Hidden Falls if the water is low enough. After a big rain, I wouldn’t try it. Use your judgement. If you’re known for bad judgement, ask a friend.
How Difficult is the Hike?
The park notes the trail as strenuous, but I disagree and would call it moderate. It’s not easy, but the mileage is fairly short and most of the trail is well maintained. While I would say you should be in decent shape, most people can make it by taking it slow. Leave yourself plenty of time.
On the way back, the section of trail inside Gorges State Park is a slow climb. You probably didn’t notice the downhill trend on the way to the falls, but the uphill on the way back to your car can be felt.
Once inside Pisgah National Forest, the trail is less well maintained and there can be debris on the trail if there’s been a recent storm.
Inexperienced hikers and those not in great shape should assume 2.5 to 3.5 hours round-trip. An experienced hiker can do it in 1.5 to 2 hours.
Can You Camp Near the Waterfalls?
The answer to this is yes, primitive camping is allowed as long as you’re inside Pisgah National Forest. On the trail, you’ll see a campsite on the right just past the boundary from Gorges State Park to Pisgah National Forest. There’s a home-made fire ring and plenty of tent space.
There’s another site between Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls. I’m sure if you look you’ll find more.
Remember to carry out all your items and trash, practice Leave no Trace principles, properly store your food, and stay 100 feet away from the water. Check the National Park website for more information on primitive camping guidelines in wilderness areas.
Gorges State Park asks that you register your vehicle, which is free, if you plan to park in their lot overnight while camping in Pisgah National Forest. The tag placed in your car notifies the Rangers that you’re camping and not missing.
If you’d like a less primitive experience, Gorges State Park has a family campground equipped for RVs and tents, plus cabins, and a nice bathhouse. It’s about a 5-minute drive from the trailhead.
Other Waterfalls Nearby
Upper Whitewater Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies with a 411 foot drop, is down the road from Gorges State Park. There’s a parking lot and a short, paved pathway to the waterfall making it easily accessible.
You are also 15 minutes from Brevard, NC known as the Land of Waterfalls. There’s Looking Glass, Sliding Rock, Moore’s Cove, and many more.
Panthertown Valley in Nantahala National Forest is just 20 minutes away with its famous Schoolhouse Falls which you can walk behind. There’s also a swimming hole here that’s a popular and safe place to play in the summer.
Wrap-Up: Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls
These are two of the prettiest waterfalls in North Carolina, each with its own charm and an easy half day hike to reach both. Plan to stay a bit and take a lot of photos. Finding little treasures like this is why I love exploring North Carolina.
Afterwards, you’ll have plenty of time to head back to your campsite, relax at the Visitor Center, head to more waterfalls, or do some additional hiking. Plus, you’ll get to say you hiked from Gorges State Park to Pisgah National Forest, no one has to know how easy it was.