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. 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 Pisgah 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. The park is in the Sapphire community, near Lake Toxaway and about 55 miles from downtown Asheville.
When the water is low (photo at very top of page is after heavy rains), there are plenty of rocks for picnics and a tranquil pool for a dip. Just a quarter mile upstream is Turtleback Falls, a popular natural water slide. Use common sense and do not climb up the rock face or jump from the top. Someone dies about every year (most recent death was July 21, 2016).
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 - about half way. 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 (toward your right). 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 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 is high. The rainbow is often brightest with the lower angle of the morning sun.
After exploring the falls from the front and side, 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. Of course, do not jump from the top or get too close to the edge since it's a deadly fall.
Turtleback Falls Swimming Hole
Continue up river about 1/4 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. See our Turtleback Falls Guide.
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. Street address: 976 Grassy Ridge Rd, Sapphire, NC 28774. Don't use GPS since it's often not reliable in remote mountain areas.
Watch our Rainbow Falls Video #1: Summer with lower water flow
Watch video #2 of Rainbow Falls: Flowing big after heavy rain, with a full rainbow