Rainbow Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfall settings in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This 150-foot tall waterfall is impressive, especially after rainy weather that swells the Horsepasture River, its source. The best feature of Rainbow Falls is the ability for visitors to experience the falls from the front, bottom, side, and top! Located in the Nantahala National Forest, adjacent to Gorges State Park, Rainbow Falls is just one of a series of cascades and waterfalls on a two mile stretch of the river. This area is near Lake Toxaway (small town of Sapphire), about 53 miles from downtown Asheville.
To reach Rainbow Falls, you'll need to hike 1.5 miles from Gorges State Park at the Grassy Ridge Parking area (drive about 2 miles after entering the park). Look for the cluster of information boards at the end of the parking lot. The trail to Rainbow Falls begins there, blazed with orange circles until you reach the National Forest. Then the trail is easy to follow with a creek crossing that can be a wet one when the water is high.
When you near the river (about 2/3 of a mile), be sure to follow the trail UP river. Hike by the many cascades with a few steep sections with stairs. Enjoy a full view of the falls from the trail. Plus, there are side trails that take you for a closer view from the base and side of the falls. Just past the main view of the falls, look for a side trail to the left that takes you to a wooden platform viewing area. It's a rare treat to get this close to the top of a big waterfall.
Be careful of very slippery rocks if you venture down to the river in front of the waterfall. You should not attempt this when the falls are running at higher levels. And yes, you'll see a rainbow in the mist on many sunny days - especially when the water if high. The rainbow is often brightest with the lower angle of the morning sun.
After exploring the falls from the front and said, continue on the trail up river and look for an opening to the left to walk out on huge boulders just above the falls. When the river is not too high, there is plenty of room to explore, peeking over the top of the falls down the gorge, and looking up river to Turtleback Falls.
Turtleback Falls Swimming Hole
Continue up river about 1/3 mile to Turtleback Falls, a 20-foot drop over a curved rockface into a pool that can have strong currents. At lower water levels, it's a popular spot to go sliding and swimming. You should be a good swimmer, since there are no lifeguards. The rocks and currents can make it dangerous if inexperienced. Do not attempt to slide when water is high, since the rushing water can take you down river over Rainbow Falls. There are several great vantage points to enjoy the falls - and the people sliding. See our other favorite mountain swimming holes.
Another 1/2 mile (keep left at the trail fork) to Drift Falls, a beautiful 80-foot rock slide. However, the Falls are just past the National Forest boundary and on private property. At the end of the trail, you can enjoy a great view of the falls from a distance. But don't go past the "do not enter" signs. You can get a hefty fine if you are caught.
Return and walk back the same trail to reach your car at Gorges. Just eight miles from Gorges State Park is Upper Whitewater Falls, part of the highest waterfall in the eastern USA. See more of the best waterfalls in western North Carolina.
The beautiful section just above Rainbow Falls
Gorges State Park is approximately 55 miles southwest of Asheville (1.5 hours driving time). From Asheville, reach the park from I-26, taking exit 40 onto NC 280 (airport exit)and traveling west to Brevard. Follow US 64 West through downtown Brevard toward Sapphire. Turn south on NC 281 in Sapphire; the western park entrance is .7 miles on the left.