Mention the Horsepasture River and several really nice waterfalls (Rainbow, Turtleback, Drift) come to mind. Simply jump on the Rainbow Falls Trail at Gorges State Park and it’ll take right by these frequently visited cascades. What most folks on the trail don’t know is there are waterfalls downstream also. Generally, there are no posted trails and the terrain is extremely rugged and non-recommended except for the most experienced hikers who can navigate off-trail.
There is one exception to the downstream ruggedness and that is Stairway Falls. So named for the 8 or so tilted ledges that lead the river down a drop of about 100 feet over a run of horizontal run of 100 yards. The ledges are nicely spaced giving the impression of a stairway.
Because of the upstream tilt of the ledges, there are deep pools between each set, making this a most interesting waterfall. If you’ve seen pictures, the most surprising thing when you get there will be the size. It is much bigger than you expect. 100 feet tall, 100 yards long, 50 feet wide. Running at full stream, Stairway will be an impressive and noisy cataract.
To get there, take US 178 north from Pickens to SC 11. Left on SC 11 to SC 130 (signs for Duke’s Bad Creek Project and Whitewater Falls). At the NC state line, the road’s designation becomes NC 281. Cross the Horsepasture River and turn into Gorges State Park. Follow the main road down to the parking for the Rainbow Falls Trail. The trailhead and kiosk are at the back of the parking lot.
You’ll be following the orange markers while inside the State Park. At the 0.2 mile mark, a trail leaves on the left for a primitive campground. At that point, you will hear the river. Actually, you are hearing Stairway Falls, but the trail will have to loop around a small valley before taking you down to the water. At 0.8 miles, you will leave the State Park and enter Nantahala National Forest. The trail maintenance difference will be obvious. Another 0.1 miles further, the trail makes a hard right and you’ll see a less worn trail coming in on the left. This unmarked trail will take you down a small ridge line for about 0.1 miles and dump you into a primitive campground on the river.
Step out on the rocks and look downstream. You’ll be able to see the top of Stairway Falls about 50 yards down the river. The trail moves out from back of the campground and follows the river. You’ll find places along the way to get onto the top of the waterfall and the base of the second ledge, but the best view is where the trail ends at the base.
(Looking downstream from the base of the waterfall, you can get some appreciation of the fact the river is about to enter a very rough section of the Gorge. You might research Windy Falls to learn more of what the Horsepasture Gorge is all about. If you search carefully around the end of the trail, you may find the faint trail that leaves here and begins moving downstream through increasingly difficult terrain.)