The Horsepasture River is where my passion for waterfalls began. It's popularity has increased tremendously since my first visit in 1998 and a lot has changed. The first thing to remember is that the Horsepasture River and it's waterfalls are NOT in Gorges State Park, they are in the Pisgah National Forest. (It used to be in the Nantahala district, but the land was transferred to Pisgah a few years back.) You can no longer park along NC281 and you can no longer slide down Drift (Bust Yer Butt) Falls. This has been true for several years now, but I still get emails from people that haven't been in a while asking if you can still slide. The former is for safety reasons and the latter is because Drift Falls is on private property. The boundary is right in front of Drift Falls, so you can still go to that point for a view and a picture. People now slide down Turtleback Falls which is perfectly legal. Years ago, you would park along Hwy 281, then take an old road/trail to the top of Turtleback Falls. This was a very dangerous situation because of all of the dump truck traffic from the nearby rock quarry. In 1999, Gorges State Park was formed and soon after they had a temporary parking area cleared close to Hwy 281 and folks were parking there, walking up to 281, then down to the old trail. That lot closed when Gorges began construction of it's permanent facilities and is no longer there. The old trail is permanently closed and is now a restricted area. Do not go down this trail for any reason! The new parking area for the Horsepasture River is still in Gorges State Park - just follow the directions below.
Directions: From Brevard, take Hwy 64 west for about 15 miles to the Lake Toxaway area. Pass the right turn for Hwy 281 north and continue up to the bridge across the top of Toxaway Falls. (Pull off on the right before the bridge and carefully cross Hwy 64 for a view.) Continue past the bridge for about 2 1/4 miles and turn left on Hwy 281 south. Drive 0.8 miles and turn left into the entrance to Gorges State Park. Once you turn left into Gorges State Park, drive 1.6 miles to a paved parking lot on the right side. You will have passed the new visitor's center which is a beautiful building - you should stop in and check it out. They have maps, info, great exhibits, a friendly staff, and bathrooms. Another thing to remember is the park is a trash free facility. There are recycling containers, but no trash cans. Carry your own trash out and don't litter! Once you get in the parking lot, the trail begins at the information kiosk. The only facilities at the parking area is a port-o-john, so if you want a nice clean rest room, stop at the visitor's center. You also use this same lot if you want to overnight camp on the Horsepasture. There are a limited number of primitive spots and they are first come - first served. Look on the kiosk for more info and what to do to leave your vehicle in the lot overnight. Just remember that the park closes and locks it's gates at night. Times are posted on a sign right after you enter the park or look on the official Gorges State Park web site. You can also go to this section of my site for more info on Gorges State Park.
The information kiosk lists the Rainbow Falls trail as 3 miles. It doesn't say, but this is round trip and I'm assuming that is to this viewing area. I timed the hike to this point at about 40 minutes which is longer than the old way in. The hike begins at the kiosk, just follow the orange tags nailed to the trees. In about 5 minutes the trail turns right. Going left leads to the primitive pay sites at Ray Fisher Place which are in the park and can be reserved. Continue down the marked trail, cross a small creek and get to the national forest boundary about 20 minutes from the parking lot. This is where the state park maintenance ends. A little farther is a carsonite stake pointing left to a steep trail that descends to the river at a small camp site near the top of Stairway Falls. Pass the stake on the main trail and in another 5 minutes you arrive at the river. You are now at a point on the river above Stairway Falls and below Rainbow Falls, but closer to Stairway Falls. Most people are heading to Rainbow and Turtleback Falls, so turn right and head up river to do this. Immediately cross a small creek and head into a very nice primitive camping area suitable for 2 or 3 small groups. These are on a first come basis and will probably stay occupied once word gets out about the new trail. Continue through the campsite and continue up river for about 10 minutes to an obvious place where people have been going down to the flat rock for a view up river to Hidden Falls pictured below. You'll see other smaller scramble paths before this which were probably made by fishermen over the years.
Hidden Falls 10-24-08
That shot was during a drought period when water levels were low. This is a nice swimming hole and will become more popular as people use the new trail. From here the trail gets steep on the way up to the viewing area for Rainbow Falls. In 2012, this trail was widened, rerouted a bit, some brush was cleared and some timber steps were added. This may be the hardest part of the trail, but it's only another 5 to 10 minutes to the falls depending on your legs and lungs. The spectacular view of the falls you will have is the next picture below.
Rainbow Falls is 125' high and really is a must see if you have never been. If you go in the morning on a sunny day, you may see a rainbow. Even though the overlook isn't really close to the falls, if water levels are high, the spray from the falls will drench the viewing area. In winter this area might be covered by frozen mist. During normal water flow and warm weather, you will probably see people on the rocks below and maybe some folks swimming. Swimming anywhere in the national forests is allowed, but is at your own risk. To get down below, take the left fork of the trail ahead along the rail, then go down any of the scramble paths leading down to a lower viewing deck before you get to the rocks. Do not climb over the railing at the upper overlook and go down those erosion paths! Once you get to the lower viewing area, look to the left for the eroded path down to the rocks. When these rocks are wet they are extremely slippery! They have a layer of algae or crud on them that makes them very dangerous when wet. If you can make it down, you'll have another excellent view of the waterfall.
Above is a video shot from both the top of the waterfall and from the overlook. If you want to head up to the top of Rainbow Falls (you do) and on to Turtleback and up to Drift Falls, take the right fork in the trail at the upper overlook. This leads up past some more steep scramble paths down towards the falls that you don't want to take, then on to a small area near the top of the falls that has been used as a camp site in the past. There used to be a social trail that led to the rocks at the top of the falls, but the forest service has done away with that trail since the 2 most recent deaths here in 2018. The picture below is from that area.
top of Rainbow Falls
From the area near the top of the Rainbow Falls, you can look up river and see Turtleback Falls coming in from the left. The river between the 2 waterfalls is a very pretty area. The bedrock is safe to go out on as long as it is dry and you will see several places to go out as you head up the trail towards the falls. Do not swim in this part of the river for any reason! The current is more powerful than it looks and you could be swept over Rainbow Falls - and people have, so don't think it can't happen to you. On July 4, 2018, 16 year old H'Money Sui lost her life after saving her 11 year old sister who got caught in the current while swimming in the river above the waterfall. Ms Sui was able to get her sister to safety, but the current was to strong for H'Money and the river took her over the waterfall. Just 2 weeks earlier, John Shaffer was swept over the falls and died after jumping in the river above the falls to save his dog. Taylor Terrell lost her life in July 2016 when she was wading in the water somewhere above the waterfall. She slipped, the current got her and she was gone before anybody could help her - one day before her 25th birthday. In 2003, 21 year old Sarah DiGiovenale and 19 year old Helen Mannweiler were both swept over the waterfall in separate incidents. In 2010, Eleanor Dorman died when she fell from here. Back in 2005, Lisa Walton emailed me about her near death experience at Rainbow Falls and how quickly things can go wrong. Please read her story here!
The next pictures are from this section of the river.
When you get directly in front of Turtleback Falls on the trail, you will notice a big rock you can get out on for an excellent view of the falls. If it's a warm summer day, there will more than likely be people sliding off of the waterfall. Again, it's slide and swim at your own risk. There are 2 ways to get out to the middle to slide, but for both ways you need to scoot out on your butt to get to the proper sliding area. If you walk out, the current will probably sweep you off your feet, then you might crack your head open and die. Most people get in the water below the falls, then climb the rope up the left side and slide from that side. If the water level is high like in the next photo below the video, it may cover the chug hole you can see in the video and in the 3rd picture. Most people slide between the chug hole and the middle of the falls. You can also continue on the main trail which will bring you around to the view in the 2nd photo below and get out on the rock there.
If you stay on the trail heading up past Turtleback Falls, you will arrive at Drift Falls in less than 10 minutes. People used to slide down the 60-70ft incline and the falls was referred to as Bust Yer Butt Falls. The trail ends at a fence with no trespassing signs, but look for a small trail to the left that heads down to the river for a view of the falls. The land that the falls is on traded hands a few years ago and the owner will prosecute trespassers. I was in there one time and there was actually a security guard on duty. Do not trespass on this property for any reason. The boundary is just this side of the pool at the base of the falls, so you can get to this view. If you are pushed for time or have small kids, I would skip this one.
click here for directions to Stairway and Sidepocket Falls