Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on November 2, 2023.
Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls in Pisgah National Forest (PNF) are two of the best waterfalls in North Carolina. To reach them, as well as Hidden Falls, you’ll need to start your hike on the Rainbow Falls Trail from Gorges State Park near Asheville and Brevard in Western North Carolina.
Known for the aptly named rainbows that often appear here, the 150-foot-tall Rainbow Falls has multiple vantage points, with each one being better than the last. This waterfall is beautiful throughout the year, but make sure you’re ready to get wet.
Once you reach the observation platform, you’ll see why.
Hidden Falls is just before Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls, a short distance past the main attraction. Our guide will share more info about all three, including essential safety info and which of these three is safe for swimming.
Obviously, we don’t recommend swimming at Rainbow Falls, but our guide will also explain why you shouldn’t swim at Turtleback Falls NC. Hidden Falls, on the other hand, is mostly safe, conditions permitting.
We prepare you for this trail, more inside Gorges State Park, and places nearby. We’ve organized the guide into the following sections:
- Driving Directions
- When to Visit Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls
- Before You Go: Safety Info
- Should You Swim at Turtleback Falls?
- Hiking with Kids
- The Rainbow Falls Trail (from Start to Finish)
- Hidden Falls to Rainbow Falls to Turtleback Falls
- More Things to Do at Gorges State Park
- Places Nearby (Hikes, Waterfalls, and More)
You can skip ahead to the section
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Where is the Rainbow Falls Trail? (Driving Directions)
Rainbow Falls is technically located in Pisgah National Forest, near the North Carolina-South Carolina border. However, you’ll need to drive to Gorges State Park and hike from the Rainbow Falls Trail inside the park.
Gorges is about 30 minutes from Brevard and 20 minutes from Cashiers.
If you enter “Gorges State Park” in your GPS, the directions may take you to a spot that’s on private land with a sign telling you to turn around.
To avoid that, the correct address is 976 Grassy Ridge Rd, Sapphire, NC 28774.
Read More: Map of Waterfalls in Western NC
When to Visit Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls?
There’s only one answer to the question, “When should you visit Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls?”
Our answer is now, as long as the weather is cooperating. The trail may be haphazard, but after a good rain, the falls will billow with power.
It is framed with greenery in the spring and summer and colorful leaves in the fall, and it continues to awe even in the winter. That’s why we think these two waterfalls are beautiful throughout the year!
Of course, we always suggest arriving early, no matter where you’re visiting. The trailhead parking lot gets full pretty fast on busy days and weekends. For example, we arrived at about 8:30 on a Saturday and were the fourth car in the lot.
When we returned to our car, there were no available spots, and cars were waiting for people to leave so they could park.
Read More: Winter Getaways in North Carolina
Before You Go: Safety Info
Note that you must stay on the Rainbow Falls trail. While it is tempting to wander off to get a better picture or view, the rocks here are often slippery, and it’s a treacherous fall.
Deaths at Rainbow Falls happen annually, so exercise caution.
Should You Swim at Turtleback Falls?
While sometimes a popular swimming hole, it is no longer recommended to swim at Turtleback Falls, NC. You can even see the river flowing from Turtleback Falls to Rainbow Falls.
Many deaths have occurred by being swept downstream. While many people think they can slide down and control themselves before being swept away, the risk isn’t worth the reward of surviving a deadly sliding rock waterfall.
Even if you are an experienced and seasoned swimmer, the rocks at the bottom of the river are slick. Mix that together with strong currents, and there isn’t much margin for error or inevitable death.
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Hiking the Rainbow Falls Trail with Kids
We’ve done this hike multiple times with our young daughter. However, we probably would not recommend this hike for younger children.
The inclines are rough at times, and the trail has several spots where there are narrow paths next to steep drops. It’s not completely impossible.
However, we think it’s best if only experienced young hikers try this trail, or their parents should prepare for some piggybacking along the way.
The Rainbow Falls Trail (From Start to Finish)
The Rainbow Falls trail is 1.5 miles one way and a steady downhill toward the waterfall. There are a few inclines and steep sections with stairs near the end.
That means the way back to the parking lot is more steadily uphill, with descending stairs. It is listed as “strenuous,” and while we disagree with that label, it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park.
During this out-and-back hike, you will start in Gorges State Park (near Brevard and Cashiers) and wander upstream along the Horsepasture River, venturing outside the park into Pisgah National Forest.
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Starting the Rainbow Falls Trail
Starting from the Grassy Ridge Parking area in Gorges State Park, follow the orange blazes on a 1.5-mile trek to Rainbow Falls North Carolina.
There were some steep sections, so you should be in good physical shape before hiking. In less than a mile, the trail crosses out of Gorges State Park and enters Pisgah National Forest.
On your way, you’ll come across two creek crossings. These may be sloppy if there has been a lot of recent rainfall. Rocks at each crossing will help you avoid most of the water, but your feet may still get wet.
This is why we suggest good waterproof boots during cooler times or water shoes during warmer months for this trail.
Continue hiking up the Horsepasture River (about a mile into your hike), and you’ll come across Hidden Falls. The Horsepasture River drops 2,000 feet in 18 miles, creating lots of beautiful waterfalls and rapids.
Hidden Falls is one of them and a mostly safe swimming spot. It’s a 10-foot waterfall “hidden” just before the last hill up to Rainbow Falls.
However, we don’t suggest swimming during periods of heavy rainfall, as conditions can be pretty dangerous.
There is no sign for Hidden Falls, but you’ll notice a clearing to your right and large rock outcroppings that make for the perfect picnic spot.
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Hidden Falls to Rainbow Falls
The last incline to Rainbow Falls is a big one, with a lengthy series of steps. But, when you finally reach the top, and the sky opens, your breath will be taken away by the views of Rainbow Falls, and you’ll forget about that last climb.
If there’s been significant rainfall, you may even get wet at the upper observatory.
Continue along the trail down to the left. From there, you can walk to a platform near the base of the waterfall. This is the closest you can safely approach Rainbow Falls, and you’ll likely get wet when standing here.
At the time of our last visit, the falls had experienced a lot of rainfall, resulting in photos of the waterfall at its peak. Seeing it up close
During another previous visit, we were unable to access some parts of the trail because of fallen debris and mud.
Read More: Waterfalls near Brevard
If you want to extend your hike, continue to the right from the upper platform. After a quarter-mile hike upstream, you’ll reach Turtleback Falls. You’ll have a few different angles from which to view this waterfall.
However, on hot days, Turtleback Falls gets pretty busy with people who shouldn’t be swimming but are. As we mentioned in our safety section, don’t be like them.
Your life depends on it.
More Things to Do at Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park spans 7,709 acres through Transylvania County and is a playground for those who love stunning views and breathtaking trails. It is one of the newest state parks and receives more than 80 inches of annual rainfall, classifying it as a temperate rainforest.
Take the short but steep trail to Bearwallow Falls, or gaze at the vast Jocassee Gorge from the accessible overlook.
There are two entrances: Grassy Ridge (where Rainbow Falls is) and Frozen Creek, which has longer trails, including the Foothills Trail that runs through Upper Whitewater Falls.
Places Near Gorges State Park
Apart from Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park, there are some more cool places to see in the area, too!
Panthertown Valley is a 6,311-acre backcountry wilderness area in Jackson County near Cashiers (and Sapphire). It’s within Nantahala National Forest and is closely managed by the Friends of Panthertown.
There are about 30 miles of trails in the valley, and we recommend you buy a map before visiting. It’s easy to get lost, but if you follow our guide to Schoolhouse Falls, you’ll be treated to the most popular waterfall in Panthertown Valley.
Upper Whitewater Falls
Upper Whitewater Falls is just a short drive from Gorges State Park and Rainbow Falls. This waterfall is one you won’t want to miss. Follow a short paved path to get a look at the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies!
Climb down some stairs for an even better view of the 411-foot Upper Whitewater Falls.
If you’re traveling down NC 107 to reach Upper Whitewater Falls, stop by Silver Run Falls along the way!
When driving to Rainbow Falls, you will more than likely pass Lake Toxaway. This man-made 640-acre lake is the largest private lake in North Carolina. Homes and rentals dot the 14-mile shoreline and make for the perfect romantic retreat near Rainbow Falls.
If you are hungry after your hike, we recommend heading into Cashiers!
Come in the summer and enjoy Sapphire National Golf Course or zip-lining through the valley at Sapphire Valley Resort.
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