Pets allowed
Allowed
Elevation Gain
700.00 ft (213.36 m)
Trail type
There-and-back
Distance
3.90 mi (6.28 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

These are two beautiful waterfalls on the Horsepasture River in Pisgah National Forest. The jouney to reach them begins from Gorges State Park at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead and then follows a well-marked and heavily trafficked trail. Rainbow Falls is just over 1.5 miles in, and Turtleback Falls is less than half a mile beyond that. This hike is beautiful at all times of year, but it is especially rewarding in the fall for colored foliage.

Pools in the Horsepasture look inviting during the heat of summer, but use extreme caution because rocks are slippery and the currents in this steep river are always swift. Even wading can be dangerous. The waterfalls must be barely more than a trickle to even consider swimming near them because recirculating hydraulics beneath are deceptively strong and deadly. Several signs at the trailhead warn against swimming, but there are a few safe spots to take a dip if you exercise caution and common sense.

The trail begins with a long descent down into the river gorge. The going is mostly easy, but a few sections can be rugged or wet. At roughly the 1-mile mark there is small side trail leading to Stairway Falls, which you can take for your first glimpse of the river. Most continue past this intersection, though, and find the river a little farther up at Hidden Falls. This small cascade is merely a preview of what is to come. It is worth a pause, however, especially if you are intent on swimming because the pool here is nice if flows aren't too high.

From here, a short but somewhat steep ascent remains to reach Rainbow Falls. You will know right away when you are close. You'll hear the echoing crash of water just before you round a corner to see it. These proud falls drop 150 feet over slick granite and throw chilly spray surprisingly far. You will likely be standing in the spray as you view the falls, even though the trail is nearly 200 yards away. You can get closer, however, by following side trails downhill to a viewing platform or to river level. Be careful because surfaces are always muddy and slick in the spray zone. The constant, heavy mist is what gives this waterfall its name. It faces mostly south and it gets a lot of sun, and when rays hit the droplets you'll see a rainbow framing the falls. This phenomenon can be seen almost any day when the sun is out, but higher flows heighten the effect.

To round out the day, go the extra distance to Turtleback Falls, a less impressive but uniquely pretty cascade less than a half-mile farther up river. Here the river drops over a curved cliffband that resembles the side of a turtle's shell. This is a popular place to swim because the rock makes a natural waterslide. Hydraulics below can be strong, though, so swimming is only safe if the waterfall is a thin curtain of water. Higher levels are dangerous. The flow shown in pictures above is much, much too high to get in the water at Turtleback.

Almost everyone does this as a simple day hike, but backcountry camping is allowed in the national forest once you have crossed out of state park bounds. You must self register at the parking area, but there is no fee. A few obvious campsites exist along the main trail, and another is located on the side trail to Stairway Falls. Camp only in spots that have clearly been used before, and try to leave it better than you found it. Staying at Raymond Fisher Campsites in the state park is another great overnight option. This primitive campground is about a mile down its own trail that begins from the same trailhead as Rainbow Falls.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

High

Parking Pass

None

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Gorgeous waterfall. Multiple falls.

Cons

Can be crowded. Slippery trail near falls.

Trailhead Elevation

2,920.00 ft (890.02 m)

Highest point

2,920.00 ft (890.02 m)

Net Elevation Gain

150.00 ft (45.72 m)

Features

Backcountry camping
Waterfalls
Wildflowers
Family friendly
Vault toilet

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

No

Location

Field Guide

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