Gorges State Park Visitor Center
Gorges State Park is the only North Carolina state park west of Asheville and boasts more waterfalls than any of the other state parks. However, very few of the waterfalls have official trails to them at the present time. The park is also home to nearly 125 rare plant and animal species with 12 of those being endangered or threatened. You can click here for the official park web site - remember that their info, rules & regulations are what you should follow - not what you may see here or any other non-official source. If you have any questions about where you can or can't go, call the park office to confirm. Most of the park is very rugged terrain. People have been lost and died in this area over the years, so don't go wandering around on your own if you are an inexperienced hiker. Very few people visit the remote areas of the park on a daily basis and it is unlikely anyone would find you before night fall if you got hurt. Check the park web site if you want to see the exact park boundaries, but basically it lies in an area south of US64, east of NC281 south, and west of Frozen Creek Rd. It doesn't include any of the Horsepasture River, but borders just east of Stairway Falls on the river. However, the only legal access to the waterfalls on the Horsepasture is from a trail head in Gorges State Park.
The park was officially dedicated in 1999, but is still in the early stages of development. Phase one of the master plan was completed in the fall of 2012 when the 7,100 square foot visitor's center was officially dedicated. This is a beautiful facility and I would encourage you to stop in and check it out. Two day use picnic areas have also been added along with 3 parking areas. The park is a trash free park. Recycling containers are available, but you have to pack your own trash out. At the present time (July 2019) the only campsites available are primitive. Six primitive sites at Lake Jocassee off of the Foothills Trail are available on a first come basis. The sites are 5.5 miles from the parking area at the Frozen Creek access. Eight more primitive sites were added at the Ray Fisher location in the park. These sites are $10 per night and can be reserved online at Reserve America. Sites not reserved are on a first come basis. There is a pit toilet here, but I'm not sure about the drinking water situation. Drive up family tent and RV camping sites will be added some time in the future.
There is now a Friends of Gorges group and I encourage you to click the link and help out in any way you can. There is a more detailed map of the interior of the park for sale at the Gorges SP visitors center. It is similar to the Bill Thomas guide I speak of at the bottom of this page since Bill is with Friends of Gorges and helped with the map. This map is a 'must have' if you plan to do any exploring in the park, but a GPS with topo software will also be very helpful so you can compare the 2 to determine exactly where you are in the park. If you don't have any off trail experience, I would highly recommend that you stick to the official trails. Some of the nicest waterfalls in the park don't have official trails to them, but this is not a good area to begin off trail exploring.
Below are the 2 entrances to the park and what you can access from each one.
Grassy Ridge entrance - The main entrance to Gorges State Park is the Grassy Ridge entrance on NC281 south of US64 in Sapphire, NC. From the intersection of 64 and 281 south, drive 0.8 miles south on Hwy 281 and turn left into the gated entrance. There's a construction entrance just before the main entrance, so don't turn in there. The visitor center, Rainbow Falls, Bearwallow Falls, and Bearwallow Valley trails are accessed from this entrance. To get to the Bearwallow Falls and Valley Overlook trail heads, drive almost a mile into the park from the main entrance and turn left near the visitor's center. Drive another mile to the parking lot for both trails. The Bearwallow Valley Overlook Trail is a 1 mile round trip rated as moderate. There's an overlook with a view of the valley, Chestnut Mountain, and Lake Jocassee. You can also take a trail from the visitor center to this overlook. The Bearwallow Falls Trail is a 0.6 mile round trip rated as strenuous. I'm not seeing it as being that difficult at all and would rate it moderate at worst. You lose a little over 100' in elevation going down the trail, but the trail is in good shape with benches along the way if you need them. Here's a shot from the viewing platform.
It's an excellent view, but it's only a portion of the series of waterfalls on the upper part of Bearwallow Creek. The other waterfalls are not accessible at this time.
The main attraction to the Grassy Ridge entrance is the Rainbow Falls Trail to Rainbow, Turtleback, and Stairway Falls. Turn into the main entrance on NC281 and drive 1.6 miles to the parking lot on the right. The hike is a 3 mile round trip and rated as strenuous. Rainbow Falls is on the Horsepasture River which is not in the Gorges State Park boundaries - it's in the Pisgah National Forest. This is now the only legal access for Rainbow Falls and the other falls on the Horsepasture River. The trail from the Gorges parking area leads into the Pisgah, then a Pisgah trail picks up from there. I give a detailed description of the Rainbow Falls Trail on this page of my site. Some good news is you are now allowed to park in this same lot for overnight camping on the Horsepasture River, but you MUST fill out the registration form and put it in your windshield. This is also where you park to access the primitive camp sites at Ray Fisher Place.
Some more good news is there is access to Auger Hole Rd from the Grassy Creek entrance, but you are required to have high clearance 4WD to drive into this area. No Rav4's or other such 4x4 wannabe's. You must have 8" of clearance or you will be paying a hefty tow bill to drag your stupid self and what's left of your vehicle out of there. The road in is called Chestnut Mountain Rd. Drive in the main entrance and continue to the Rainbow Falls parking area. Park for a moment, then walk back out to the road. Just to the right is the gravel Chestnut Mountain Rd. Read the rules and regulations on the sign closely and don't be an idiot. Chestnut Mountain Rd continues for 3.3 miles before ending on the dirt/gravel Auger Hole Rd at Turkeypen Gap. The last mile is very steep and straight down. The road is also the boundary between the park and the Toxaway Game Lands once you drive down the road for a short distance. Heading down, land on the left is Gorges SP and is Game Lands on the right. You are not allowed to stop for any reason along the road. Once you reach Turkeypen Gap, you can only turn right at Auger Hole Rd with a vehicle. (I spoke with the park superintendent in June 2018 and he said that eventually there will be a gate at this point also that would only be open during hunting season, so be prepared for that.) The gated road to the left back towards Bearwallow Creek, the Toxaway River, and up to Frozen Creek is off limits to vehicle traffic, but open to foot and mountain bike traffic. Turning right at Turkeypen Gap will take you towards the Horsepasture River below Windy Falls and on into South Carolina. If you know where you are going you will end up on Musterground Rd which comes out at Bad Creek power station in SC. I know Musterground Rd is gated and only open during hunting season from Bad Creek, so I'm guessing it's gated from Auger Hole Rd also. Call the park office for more accurate information.
Frozen Creek entrance - The other access to the park is on Frozen Creek Rd which is a left turn off of US64 just west of Rosman. If you are coming from Brevard, take US64 west. Once you pass the right turn for NC215 north, continue on 64 for 0.9 miles and turn left on Frozen Creek Rd. This is just past a left turn for the county landfill and you'll see M&M Grading in a blue building on the left as you turn. There will also be a sign on the right side of US64 pointing left to The Wilds and Ridge Haven. Drive 3 miles down Frozen Creek Rd and turn right into the gravel parking lot with the Gorges State Park sign. This entrance serves as the access for the Foothills Trail and the Cane Brake and Auger Hole Trails. This lot is open 24 hours and also has horse trailer parking, picnic tables, and a port-o-john. The Auger Hole Trail is open to horse, mountain bike and foot traffic and is actually just Auger Hole Rd. This section of the road is no longer open to public vehicle traffic. It continues way down into the guts of the park. There are numerous old roads and trails off of the main trail (road), but none are official trails. They were there before the park was established. At 3 miles down the trail (road), you have to cross through the Toxaway River. There is no bridge. During high river flow you won't be able to cross - you'll be swept away by the river never to be seen again. If you make it across, in another 1/2 mile you'll have to cross through Bearwallow Creek - there's no bridge here either. If you make it across the Toxaway River, you'll be able to cross Bearwallow Creek with no problem. The trail continues on to Turkeypen Gap at the point where Chestnut Mountain Rd comes down from Grassy Ridge. The trail turns to the left at this point and continues to meet up with the Foothills Trail. Horse and bike traffic is not allowed past Turkeypen Gap within the Gorges SP boundaries, but I'm assuming they can continue on Auger Hole Rd which is now in the Toxaway Gamelands. Total trail length from parking to the Foothills Trail is 7.25 miles - and a lot of it is downhill. A lot of the park's interior waterfalls can be accessed from the Auger Hole Trail, but none of them are listed officially at the present time - and may never be.
The strenuous Cane Brake Trail branches to the left off the Auger Hole Trail 0.7 miles from the parking area. It's also a road, but is open to foot traffic only. It's 5 miles down to the Foothills Trail at the Toxaway River finger of Lake Jocassee. There's primitive camping at this point. A small section of the 76 mile Foothills Trail runs through Gorges State Park. You can click here for more information on the entire Foothills Trail.
I've been exploring in Gorges State Park for many years now, both before and after the park was established and have seen some truly awesome scenery. The only problem for the average or novice hiker is that most of the good stuff requires long and difficult hikes and bushwhacks. The official map and guide brochure currently just lists just 6 trails with 5 of them being strenuous and the other one moderate. More trails will be developed in the future. You can download the official Gorges SP map as a PDF here. There's also a detailed map of the area that includes Gorges State Park in Bill Thomas' Sierra Club Guide to the Jocassee Gorges if you can still find a copy. It includes the park land, but the guide was written before the park was established, so some rules of where you can and can't go have changed. This guide does show and describe trails and waterfalls that aren't officially listed by the park. Kevin Adams' North Carolina Waterfalls book has more specific directions to all of these waterfalls also, so pick it up as an extra source of information.
7-29-17 Years ago I had decided not to post directions to all of the off trail waterfalls to help prevent inexperienced hikers from trying something beyond their capabilities. Now that Kevin's book has directions, I've decided to add directions to the waterfalls from my point of view. Unfortunately, I didn't take notes on my previous hikes and most of these were 10-15 years ago. I plan on revisiting all of these falls and will add them here as soon as I can. So far I've only done Double Drop Falls, Auger Fork Falls (Cascades), and Maple Spring Branch Falls and you can read about those by clicking the link.
Most of the rest of the waterfalls are either on Bearwallow Creek or the Toxaway River. Bearwallow Creek has 10 named waterfalls and several other smaller cascades. Below you can view some of my images I've taken over the years on both of these steams.
Click here to see the beautiful scenery along Bearwallow Creek.
Click here to see lots of sites along the Toxaway River.
Falls on Maple Spring Branch
go back to the Jocassee page
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