(Not to be confused with Rainbow Falls near Caesars Head.)
The writer has documented more than 100 waterfalls here on joltleft.com but, if you can only visit one, this is it. Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River rates as the Best Waterfall to Visit. This rating comes from high scores in all of the rating elements:
- Visual. Spectacular scene from the main trail.
- Height. 150 feet.
- Rock Face. More than 200 feet wide.
- Cascade Type. Almost a plunge given the steepness of the rock face. Technically, probably can be called a tiered plunge.
- Water Flow. About 80 feet wide uniformly down the rock face.
- Trail. Relatively easy 1.5 mile trail, although there is a 400 foot elevation change.
- Access. A spur trail leads down to the rocks and the base pool.
- Visitor Friendly. Due to the steepness of the rock face, swimming in the base pool will take you right into the cascade. Rocks are present near the base to sit and enjoy the mist. Kids will love the base pool, the rocks and logs. The more adventurous can climb and few feet up onto the rock face and use that as a launch point for dives into the base pool. If you don’t want to get in the water, an enjoyable time can be had just sitting on the rocks enjoying the sights, sounds and spray of the waterfall.
The waterfalls of the Horsepasture River as actually within the boundaries of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest just south of US 64 near Toxaway, NC. To get there, take US 178 north from Pickens to SC 11. Left on SC 11 to SC 130. Right on SC 130 to the NC state line where the road becomes NC 281. After crossing the Horsepasture River, look for the entrance to Gorges State Park on your right. Follow the main road about a mile to a large parking lot with kiosks at the far end. This is the trail head for Raindow Falls Trail.
For the first half mile, the trail is inside the State Park, is wide, graveled and extremely well-marked with orange disks. After that, you’ll leave the Park and enter Nantahala National Forest. The trail is much rougher from here on out. But don’t worry about getting off the trail, it is well-used and quite obvious. At about the 1 mile point, you’ll pass a scramble that will take you out to a rock to view Hidden Falls. You will have dropped 400 vertical feet to the river and now begin a climb that takes the trail up alongside Rainbow Falls for a truly spectacular view.
Just past the viewing area, there is a spur trail off to the left that will take you down to the base. You absolutely want to go down there. While the view from the trail is special, getting close to the waterfall will give you an even better feel about the size of this beauty.
Continuing up the trail will take you to the top of the waterfall. A large primitive camping area will be found there with easy access to the river. Turtleback Falls can be seen upstream. As long as the rocks are dry, it is safe to get to the top of the falls and take a very impressive photo of the drop. Between the two falls, the river is gorgeous and inviting – but it is dangerous. A number of people have died on Rainbow Falls, not from falling from the rock face itself, but from being washing from upstream and over the falls. Stay out of the river between Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls.