The first time I landed in Transylvania County, I figured the “Land of Waterfalls” signs represented the typical rural region overselling its meager asserts. Well, two awesome waterfall hikes in two visits has turned me around.
This week’s source of wonder: Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park, North Carolina’s remotest state park, about 55 miles southwest of Asheville. Gorges is a work in progress — the Rainbow Falls Trail is the only must-see amenity on the park’s western side, which I visited Sunday (only PortaPotties for your bodily duties; no running water, alas). I checked out the Upper Bearwallow Falls, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it.
Still, seven hours of driving and $60 bucks worth of gas later, all I can think of is how soon I get back out there to see which Transylvania County experience bests this one.
About the hike: I drove to the eastern entrance about a mile south of the hamlet of Sapphire, and drove past one under-construction parking lot and parked in a big lot where the park road ended, above. It’s around 3,000 feet here, not super high by the standards of the Smokies, but there are some pretty impressive peaks nearby — some of which have transmission towers, so the cell-phone reception is good.
Trail maps rate the Rainbow Falls hike as a strenuous three-miler. Note that’s a mile and a half each way if you hike to the falls and turn back. The trail descends for about three-quarters of a mile to this creek crossing (be ready to get your feet wet), then heads up the canyon, eventually tracking the Horsepasture River.
Here’s the river. Pretty enough in its own right. Just when the climb has you almost out of breath….
…. you turn a corner onto this breathtaking view. Look closely and you can see the faint rainbow at the bottom right. A decent (but steep) use path goes down near the base of the falls, but it starts getting extremely muddy and slippery. I was tempted to break out my rain poncho.
Pictures can’t do justice to the experience of standing less than 20 yards from the pounding behemoth of a waterfall like this one. There’s nothing like the sensation of cool mist hitting the skin after a hot, steep ascent.
The waterfalls I’ve seen in Transylvania County would not put Yosemite out of business, of course, but they do have some of that spine-tingling greatness.
Another Gorges State Park trail goes down to Upper Bearwallow Falls. I walked a paved road that was closed to motorized traffic, so I had this part of the park all to myself. The pic here is just some sky along the way.
The road continued down to a crosswalk with a right turn down to Bearwallow Falls, above, and a left turn to an observation deck overlooking the nearby terrain. OK, so after Rainbow Falls it was a bit of a letdown.
And the view up here was less than stupendous — mainly because there’s a clear-cut for power lines that I’ve cropped out of the image.
The west side of Gorges State Park is promising and will no doubt improve in the years to come; a trail from the east side looks like it dives deep into some rugged wilderness, so it could be worthy of extended explorations.
Links for this hike
- EveryTrail GPS tracks
- North Carolina State Parks page
- Trail map (PDF download)
- NC Waterfalls guide to Gorges State Park
- More at hikingthesmokies.com
- Even more on the park at Blue Ridge Highlander
View 4-10-11 Gorges State Park in a larger map