North Carolina’s Rainbow Falls is gorgeous with it’s perpetual rainbow, the trail isn’t nearly as crowded as other nearby waterfall hikes, and you get to see multiple waterfalls along one short trail. This one is a must-do.
The trip to Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls begins in Gorges State Park before sneaking into Pisgah National Forest where the waterfalls actually are. People living in this mountainous section of Western North Carolina are spoiled for choice when it comes to amazing waterfalls. Read on to learn about one of the most rewarding hikes in the area.
Mist blasting up from the roaring water as it crashes into the Horsepasture River creates a perpetual rainbow in sunny conditions. The beautiful phenomenon gives Rainbow Falls it’s name.
If you are adventuring along this trail you can stop here and head back or continue on to Turtleback Falls and Drift Falls at the end of the trail.
Rainbow and Turtleback Falls Hike
Length: 3.9 miles out and back Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 770 ft
Great For: kids, photography, swimming
General Location: Gorges State Park
Best Time To Visit: Spring or Summer
How We Rate It: 5/5, this is a must do hike. It’s beautiful!
The trail head is easy to find once you get to Gorges State Park, and there is a very large parking lot. We’ve been here a few times and never had any issue with parking, but I would still recommend getting to the hike by mid morning on weekends and holidays just in case.
A couple port-o-potties are available in the parking lot and you’ll pass right by the visitor center so you have options if you need a restroom before or after the hike.
Hitting the Trail
There is a clearly marked trail and trail board at the beginning of the hike. It has an easy to read map so you shouldn’t have any trouble following the trail.
The trail to Rainbow Falls is mostly downhill. It isn’t too steep but for those of you that don’t love gaining elevation try not to think about the trip out.
After a short distance the trail splits and you will head right. No need to worry about missing it – everything is well-marked along the trail. You’ll be on the orange dot trail for the remainder of your hike. Once you leave the state park and enter Pisgah National Forest the dots change to traditional blazes but they’re still orange.
Along the hike there are a few small water crossings to be navigated. A series of boards, rocks, or logs serve as makeshift bridges across so watch your footing. Little ones may need help but the crossings aren’t too challenging.
Shortly before you trek up the stairs on the way to Rainbow Falls, there is a spur trail on the left. If you follow the trail, you will walk along the river to a short ten-foot waterfall.
This waterfall isn’t the main event and we’ve managed to miss it each time we’ve hiked here, but hopefully we’ll remember to look for it next time.
There is also a calm section of the river here where you can take a dip if you like.
There’s a brief but intense climb as you get close to Rainbow Falls and you’ll ascend many wooden steps before reaching the viewing area.
You can stand along the railing on the trail to view Rainbow Falls or go down a narrow trail to a lower viewing platform.
You’ll likely get doused with mist on the lower platform but sometimes that’s exactly what you want. This is the most dramatic view on the hike. Beyond this the river calms and it is very peaceful.
Our most recent outing here was in the spring and the water was really rushing.
The hike continues up and around Rainbow Falls and along the river. In just a few minutes, you’ll arrive at Turtleback Falls.
The first time we came here we read several hiking guides suggesting you could swim at Turtleback Falls. We even saw pictures of people sliding off the waterfall into the river below. We were surprised when we got here and saw how close Turtleback Falls was to Rainbow Falls. There are signs between Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls warning against swimming in that section and we have learned since then that several people have been swept off of Rainbow Falls. This is all to say don’t swim at Turtleback Falls.
Beyond Turtleback Falls the river slows and more importantly you get some distance from Rainbow Falls. These areas are safer to get into the water and make it much less likely to be caught up by the current, but of course use your own judgment and pay attention to river conditions.
There are a few spots where you can relax along the riverbank. These areas are great for little explorers that want to play for a little while.
The trail ends abruptly at a fence marked private property. Drift Falls is easy to view here from the edge of the National Forest land.
There are several no trespassing signs along the edge of the private property so I wouldn’t try to venture closer to the falls and you really don’t need to for a great view.
Our kids found a tiny beach at the end of the trail and my wife and I were able to relax for a bit while they played. This was an excellent place for a snack before we headed back.
The hike back out is a climb, but it’s still only moderately strenuous.
It took us and our three children about three hours to do this hike and that was with a fair bit of stopping to take pictures and let them play.
If you got an early start, you should be able to complete this hike and still do some other things nearby.
If you are coming from the Brevard area, this is an excellent opportunity to head to the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. There are several drive-up waterfalls along a short stretch of highway and Rainbow Falls is only about 45 minutes from the Byway.
If you are hungry and want to eat before you tackle the drive, the town of Cashiers is on the way and there are several great dining options. We really enjoyed our lunch at Cornucopia.
We’ve hiked quite a bit in this area and would put Rainbow Falls on the top of the list for waterfall hikes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out some of the other waterfalls in the area, and there are many, but it does mean if you can only hike to one, make it this one.
If you love waterfalls you are going to want to see our list of the best waterfalls on the Blue Ridge Parkway.