This fantastic swimming hole and natural water slide deep in Pisgah National Forest is just a quarter mile upstream from the 150-foot Rainbow Falls. It's a 3.5-mile roundtrip hike from Gorges State Park. Also known as Umbrella Falls, it even has a rope to help you climb the small cliff to the top of the falls for a thrilling slide over the 20-foot drop of the curved rock face (recommended for only strong swimmers). This is not a good option for kids due to swift water and the long hike. Instead, take them to Sliding Rock. And a much more serene swimming hole is about 1/3 of a mile down river at Hidden Falls.
Turtleback Falls has been a favorite local swimming hole for many years. In 2009, a new trail was built from Gorges State Park to make it safer to reach. Boulders provide several great vantage points from which to enjoy views of the falls. If you want to ride down the falls, you should be an experienced swimmer. There are no lifeguards, and the pool is deep. The slippery rocks and currents can make it dangerous, so be extra careful. Do not attempt to slide when water is high, since the rushing water can take you down river over Rainbow Falls (this caused a fatality in 2013). But according to park rangers, more injuries are cause by heat exhaustion. So take plenty of water and snacks especially on hot summer days. See more Waterfall Safety Tips.
For other great spots near Asheville to play in the water, see our other favorite mountain swimming holes.
Start your hike in Gorges State Park at the Grassy Ridge Parking area, about a 2-mile drive from the park entrance. 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. The downhill trail is easy to follow, with a creek crossing that can be a wet one when the water is high. It's about 1.5 miles to Rainbow Falls and another quarter mile to Turtleback Falls. You'll hike by the many cascades with a few steep sections with stairs. Just past the main view of the falls, keep on the trail to the right for the final ascent to Turtleback. The last mile of the hike back to the parking lot is uphill, so save some energy! Bring water and snacks. There are restrooms at the parking area.
Another nice vantage point is by the top of the falls. Just continue on the trail to this point. The trail continues to a camp site along the river.
You'll pass Rainbow Falls on your hike to Turtleback. Find safe wading and sunning spots at the base of the waterfall, unless water is high. See our Rainbow Falls Guide. A short walk on the trail down river from Rainbow Falls is the serene pool at Hidden Falls.
Gorges State Park is approximately 55 miles southwest of Asheville (1.5 hours driving time). From Asheville, take exit 40 from I-26 East onto NC 280 (airport exit) and travel west to Brevard. Follow US 64 West through downtown Brevard toward Sapphire. Turn south on NC 281 in Sapphire. The park entrance is about a mile on the left. Stop at the visitor center (open daily 8-5), located about a half mile from the entrance, for questions and more park information. Street address for the visitor center: 976 Grassy Ridge Rd, Sapphire, NC 28774. But don't rely on GPS, since it is sometimes not reliable. Read more about Gorges State Park.
Turtleback Falls is a great picnic spot for fall color in mid-October - without all the swimmers!
Drift Falls Update: Hike another 1/2 mile upstream to reach the Drift Falls area with a few campsites along the river. It was once a popular natural slide (also known as Bust Your Butt), but it's on private property. So stay away! As of summer 2017, you can only get a glimpse of the waterfall from the end of the trail at the park boundary sign.