Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gorges State Park: Rainbow Falls Trail (Blog Hike #697)

Trail: Rainbow Falls Trail
Hike Location: Gorges State Park
Geographic Location: east of Cashiers, NC
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: An out-and-back, mostly moderate but steep in spots, featuring two waterfalls on the Horsepasture River.

Directions to the trailhead: From Cashiers, take US 64 east 10 miles to SR 281 and turn right on SR 281.  Drive SR 281 south 0.9 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Where the main park road splits after passing the Visitor Center, turn right to head for the hiking trailhead.  Park at the blacktop parking lot for the Grassy Ridge Trailhead.  The lot is decent-sized, but it can fill on nice summer days.

The hike: The first of numerous additions to North Carolina’s state park system in the early 2000’s, Gorges State Park has the distinction of being the only North Carolina state park west of Asheville.  Before it became a park, the land was owned by Duke Energy, who realized that the area’s steep gorges and high rainfall made it ideal for hydroelectric power generation.  Although hydroelectric dams were constructed downstream that form Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee in nearby South Carolina, the North Carolina part of Duke Energy’s land holding was not dammed.  In 1999, Duke Energy sold 7500 acres of its land to the State of North Carolina to establish the park.
            Today hikers and lovers of the outdoors are thankful for Duke Energy’s decision, for the Jocassee Gorges that give this park its name are some of the most rugged and wildest lands in the region.  Gorges State Park is still under development, and at present it offers only a fantastic Visitor Center, an amphitheater, and some picnic areas for amenities although a developed campground is planned.  Indeed, most of the land remains backcountry accessible only by rugged backpacking trails.  The famous Foothills Trail passes through the park’s southernmost portion, while the 7.2 mile one-way Auger Hole Trail, also open to mountain bikes and horses, slices through the park’s center.
            For people seeking dayhikes, the Grassy Ridge area in the park’s northwest corner offers the best opportunities.  Nice waterfalls anchor either end of the area: Bearwallow Falls lies on the east side while Rainbow Falls lies on the west side.  Bearwallow Falls is featured on the next hike.  Rainbow Falls and nearby Turtleback Falls are featured on this hike, which is probably the best dayhike at Gorges State Park.  As such, this hike is quite popular, and Turtleback Falls is a popular swimming and diving spot for area youth on warm summer days.
Grassy Ridge Trailhead
            The Rainbow Falls Trail leaves the south end of the parking lot at a well-developed trailhead.  Numerous information kiosks and picnic tables stand here.  The orange plastic circles of the Rainbow Falls Trail and the blue plastic circles of the Raymond Fisher Trail run conjointly as the wide gravel trail descends on a moderate to steep grade.  In total, the trail loses about 200 feet of elevation in the first 0.25 miles.
            At 0.25 miles, the Rainbow Falls and Raymond Fisher Trails part ways at a signed trail intersection.  Turn right to stay on the Rainbow Falls Trail.  The descent through oak and pine forest continues but on a more gradual grade, and more rhododendron appears in the understory as you get closer to the Horsepasture River.
Descending on the Rainbow Falls Trail
            0.6 miles into the hike, you cross the signed boundary from Gorges State Park to Pisgah National Forest.  Although both waterfalls on this hike are technically located on national forest land, the only trail access is from the state park trailhead via this trail.  The trail surface now changes from gravel to dirt, and significant erosion appears in the trailbed.  The orange plastic circles that marked the state park trail also disappear at this point, but the trail remains wide and easy to follow.  Soon the pleasant sound of water rushing down the Horsepasture River comes within earshot from the left.
            At 0.8 miles, you reach the lowest elevation on this hike where you cross a small stream on stepping stones.  An established campsite with a nice fire ring and logs for benches sits on the right just beyond this stream crossing.  The hike now becomes a riverside ramble with the rhododendron-choked river just to the left for the rest of the way to the falls.
Horsepasture River
            After a very brief level section, the trail begins going steeply up and down using many wooden steps with more up than down going in this direction.  Although the difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 450 feet, the almost complete absence of level areas makes the going more difficult than you might expect.  This characteristic and high humidity are typical of hiking in the Jocassee Gorges.
            At 1.3 miles, you briefly exit the forest and reach the viewpoint for spectacular Rainbow Falls.  The rocky falls are nearly 150 feet high, and the Horsepasture River supplies plenty of water to fall.  The rocks at the base of the falls send a large amount of spray toward the viewpoint, and the cool spray feels good on a hot summer day.  Rainbow Falls is by far the most scenic waterfall at Gorges State Park, so take some time here to enjoy the view and spray.
Rainbow Falls
            Some people turn around at Rainbow Falls, but there is another smaller waterfall only 0.2 miles upstream.  Where the trail seems to fork at the north end of the viewpoint, choose the higher right option to emerge at river level above Rainbow Falls.  Do not wade into the river here: exactly 2 days after my hike a man chose to wade here, got swept away by the current, and fell to his death over Rainbow Falls.  The same thing happened to another person about 2 weeks later.
Turtleback Falls
            Climbing more wooden steps brings you to a rocky outcrop that offers a nice view of Turtleback Falls.  At only 20 feet high, Turtleback Falls is as much a waterslide as it is a waterfall, and area youth like to use it as such.  I passed several groups of youths lugging coolers down this trail to this waterfall when I came here on a warm and muggy Friday afternoon.  Although a third waterfall (sometimes called Drift Falls) exists near SR 281 less than 0.5 miles upstream, the official trail ends at Turtleback Falls.  At some point you will have to turn around and retrace your steps back to the Grassy Ridge trailhead to complete the hike.

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