In the not so distant past, at the confluence of three wild mountain waterways, a sprawling river valley served as a natural corral for ranchers in the Jocassee Gorges. The valley, surrounded by the towering peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, now lay beneath the cool depths of Lake Jocassee on the border of North and South Carolina. The Horsepasture, one of four rivers that feed the lake, derives its name from this alluvial plain.
Designated a Wild and Scenic River by congress in 1986, the Horsepasture is arguably the most spectacular in the Jocassee Gorges area, with several of the area’s most visited waterfalls occurring along its course. A 2.8 mile stretch of the Horsepasture traverses the Nanthahala National Forest and is home to five of these spectacular falls.
Beginning at Gorges State Park, Rainbow Falls Trail parallels the Horsepasture for over two miles and provides access to three of the five falls. The Horsepasture is a highly photogenic river and there are several points along the trail’s course that allow access. The boulder-ridden banks and riverbed provide the more adventurous ample opportunity to rock-hop into the midst of the churning white waters and the rugged beauty of the area captivates the eye.
Rainbow Falls, easily one of our favorites, is approximately 1.5 miles in and is the epitome of ‘˜wild and scenic’. Here the raging whitewaters of the Horsepastue River free-fall nearly 200 feet, exploding with a thunderous roar into a deep pool at it’s base. A sturdy railing along the trail provides a safe viewing platform overlooking the falls. In the Spring, when water volume is high and the morning sun lay low in the Eastern sky, visitors are likely to see a rainbow in the mist produced by the falls.
For those seeking a more intimate experience, the trail splits just beyond the railing with the left-hand fork leading to the base of the falls. There is nothing so awe inspiring as rock-hopping at the base of a 200 foot waterfall, the roar of the deluge filling your ears, the air wet with mist. While the trail to the base is slightly steep, we strongly encourage those who are able to make the descent. As always, exercise extreme caution in and around waterfalls, the spray areas can be extremely slippery and a fall could kill you.
Turtleback Falls, a short distance upstream, can be viewed from a huge granite boulder that opposes the falls. While nowhere near as majestic as Rainbow Falls, Turtleback is a popular swimming hole during the Summer months when thrill-seekers can be seen leaping from the top of the falls into the cool deep waters at its base. As is the case with this entire stretch of river, one can move about quite freely along the banks and the photo opportunities are many.
The Rainbow Falls Trail ends somewhat abruptly a short distance beyond Turtleback at beautiful Drift Falls. Drift Falls is on private property and trespassing is strictly prohibited. This 70 foot natural waterslide was once a popular swimming hole and the new owners are likely wary of the liabilities associated with such activities. Fortunately, public land extends to a point near the base of the falls allowing visitors a fairly good view.
Although the Rainbow Falls Trail represents a relatively short hike, plan on spending an entire day exploring the area; pack a lunch, bring plenty of water and don’t forget your camera. There are several primitive campsites along the trail for those who enjoy a night in the wilderness, just be sure to fill out a registration form available at the Gorges State Park entrance, and remember to Leave No Trace.
From Hwy. 64 in Lake Toxaway take 281 South approximately 0.8 miles to the main entrance of Gorges State Park. Turn into the main entrance and drive 1.6 miles to the parking lot on the right.
For more information on the Land of Waterfalls take a hike in ‘the virtual wilderness’ at The Hiker’s High.
Hiking In The Land Of Waterfalls – Part 1
Hiking In The Land Of Waterfalls – Part 3
Hiking In The Land Of Waterfalls – Part 4
Hiking In The Land Of Waterfalls – Part 5
Hiking In The Land Of Waterfalls – Part 6
Hiking In The Land Of Waterfalls – Part 7