Rainbow Falls

Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, USA

About Rainbow Falls


Hiking Distance: 3.2 miles round trip (to Rainbow Falls); 4.2 miles round trip (to Turtleback Falls)
Suggested Time: 2-2.5 hours (to Turtleback Falls)

Date first visited: 2012-10-16
Date last visited: 2012-10-16

Waterfall Latitude: 35.09071
Waterfall Longitude: -82.96585

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Rainbow Falls (the one we’re talking about here is on the Horsepasture River) was true to its name as we happened to show up a little after high noon when it produced bright rainbows.

This 125ft waterfall had quite a bit of flow during our visit.

Rainbow_Falls_025_20121016 - Rainbow Falls and namesake rainbow
Rainbow Falls and namesake rainbow

In fact there was so much mist that the closest overlook in front of the falls was completely blasted with spray making photography down there a real risk for water damage to the camera.

But perhaps it was this flow that got Julie to declare this waterfall to be her favorite one on this particular day where we happened to be visiting many such waterfalls in Western North Carolina.

Many waterfalls on the Horsepasture River

Now while Rainbow Falls is the signature waterfall on the Horsepasture River, it turns out that there were many other waterfalls along this river.

We only happened to visit Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls (also known as Umbrella Falls).

Rainbow_Falls_045_20121016 - The rounded drop of the Turtleback Falls further upstream from Rainbow Falls
The rounded drop of the Turtleback Falls further upstream from Rainbow Falls

However, we did notice a sign for Stairway Falls as well as mentions from other folks we talked to on the trail for Drift Falls.

We even talked to one couple wielding a waterfall book saying they intended to visit at least five waterfalls on the Horsepasture River all on the trail we were on!

Apparently in the past, you used to be able to park along Hwy 281 and hike barely a half-mile down towards Drift Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Rainbow Falls.

That said, since weren’t able to exercise this option anymore, we’ll just break down how we were able to do it during our visit.

The Hike to Rainbow Falls

Rainbow_Falls_003_20121016 - Julie starting the hike to Rainbow Falls from the Grassy Ridge Trailhead
Julie starting the hike to Rainbow Falls from the Grassy Ridge Trailhead

From the Grassy Ridge Trailhead (see directions below), it was a 1.5-mile V-shaped hike (3 miles round trip).

That meant we had to descend from the trailhead then ascend towards the Rainbow Falls before having to repeat this V-shaped elevation profile on the way back to the trailhead.

So it definitely wasn’t an easy hike despite its relatively short to moderate trail length.

Nonetheless, given the amount of people we saw, the physical exertion required apparently didn’t diminish its popularity one bit!

Rainbow_Falls_014_20121016 - A pole near the bottom of the 'V' with markings for the Rainbow Falls Trail, which we heeded and pursued that waterfall. I believe the left fork descended to Stairway Falls
A pole near the bottom of the ‘V’ with markings for the Rainbow Falls Trail, which we heeded and pursued that waterfall. I believe the left fork descended to Stairway Falls

The descent from the trailhead began by heading towards a trail junction where we turned right and continued descending on the Rainbow Falls Trail (turning left would’ve headed to some campground).

Throughout this next part of the hike, we followed the Horsepasture River upstream.

Somewhere well into this descent, there was a fork with a rather confusing signpost for what we believe was Stairway Falls (which we didn’t do).

Eventually, the descent bottomed out close to the river, then the trail climbed up a combination of steps and uphill slopes.

Rainbow_Falls_016_20121016 - After the trail bottomed out, we then had to go uphill again as we got closer to Rainbow Falls
After the trail bottomed out, we then had to go uphill again as we got closer to Rainbow Falls

The climb persisted until we’d eventually reach some wooden guard rails in the front of Rainbow Falls.

Just beyond a very wet spot on the trail (prone to being blasted by the waterfall’s mist), there was a fork where the left path descended towards a lower overlook.

It was at that lower overlook where we found it difficult to take photos without risking serious water damage to our electronics (including the camera).

The right fork continued climbing, which provided access to the top of Rainbow Falls when the climb flattened out.

Rainbow_Falls_026_20121016 - A colorful view of the Rainbow Falls with a nice bold rainbow in its mist
A colorful view of the Rainbow Falls with a nice bold rainbow in its mist

From up here, we were better able to appreciate the waterfall’s height in addition to the Autumn colors surrounding the basin.

However, we had to be very careful here as there were no guard rails and the river was flowing fast!

Continuing past Rainbow Falls to Turtleback Falls

Continuing on the trail barely a couple hundred yards or so was Turtleback Falls (whose profile could also be seen from the top of Rainbow Falls).

This was our turnaround point, but like I said earlier, there were more waterfalls further upstream (including Drift Falls).

Rainbow_Falls_041_20121016 - Looking over the brink of Rainbow Falls after going up past the main viewing area of its front
Looking over the brink of Rainbow Falls after going up past the main viewing area of its front

However, I’m not sure about private property issues concerning Drift Falls and didn’t feel like testing it.

Overall, we spent a little over 2.5 hours encompassing both the hike, all the photography, and even engaging in some conversations with some friendly folks sharing both the trail and the falls with us.

Authorities

Rainbow Falls resides in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard in Transylvania County, North Carolina. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Rainbow_Falls_008_20121016 - Julie descending the initial section of the Rainbow Falls Trail, which coincided with another trail as evidenced by the red and blue markers
Rainbow_Falls_009_20121016 - Beautiful Fall colors along the trail leading us to Rainbow Falls from the Grassy Ridge Trailhead
Rainbow_Falls_017_20121016 - When the stairs ended as the Rainbow Falls Trail started ascending again, the hike still remained uphill
Rainbow_Falls_019_20121016 - Finally at Rainbow Falls, where you can see the context of the viewing area and the falls together in this photo
Rainbow_Falls_021_20121016 - Rainbows got brighter or fainter depending on how much mist was thrown from the Rainbow Falls as seen from the fenced lookout along the trail
Rainbow_Falls_022_20121016 - Portrait view of Fall colors backing the Rainbow Falls and namesake rainbow
Rainbow_Falls_029_20121016 - A different composition of the Rainbow Falls with rainbow
Rainbow_Falls_039_20121016 - Mist assaulting the lower overlook of Rainbow Falls
Rainbow_Falls_047_20121016 - Further upstream from Rainbow Falls, I managed to make it to the attractive Turtleback Falls
Rainbow_Falls_054_20121016 - An interesting-looking big worm seen somewhere between Turtleback Falls and Rainbow Falls

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When we visited Rainbow Falls, we were staying in Brevard, North Carolina so we’ll describe the directions from there.

So from Brevard, we went southwest on Hwy 64 (Rosman Hwy) about 17 miles or so to the southbound Hwy 281 junction on the left.

Turning left to go south on Hwy 281, we then took the 281 for just under a mile where there was a signposted turnoff for Gorges State Park on the left.

Rainbow_Falls_001_20121016 - There were plenty of parking spaces at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead, which made me wonder if we didn't pick the best starting point for Rainbow Falls
There were plenty of parking spaces at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead, which made me wonder if we didn’t pick the best starting point for Rainbow Falls

Turning left, we then followed the main park road for about 1.5 miles or so (passing the Visitor Center en route) and parked at a large elongated lot at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead.

On our particular visit, we happened to come here from Lower Whitewater Falls.

So from there, we drove north on Hwy 281 from Bad Creek Rd for about 8.3 miles, then turned right into the entrance for Gorges State Park, and then we followed this road to the aforementioned Grassy Ridge Trailhead.

For context, Brevard was 35 miles (under an hour drive) south of Asheville, 47 miles (90 minutes drive) northwest of Greenville, South Carolina, and 126 miles (2.5 hours drive) west of Charlotte.

Bottom up sweep of the falls


Bright top down sweep of the falls being fronted by a rainbow


Fixated on the falls with a nice rainbow


Backwards L-shaped top down sweep of the falls from near the closest lookout showing that very lookout get blasted by the mist of the falls


Right to left sweep following the river's water towards the edge where it makes its dramatic drop over its top


Backwards L-shaped sweep starting with the top of the falls then panning downstream


Fixated on the falls while simultaneously having a discussion with the folks from Mississippi that I met

Trip Planning Resources


Nearby Accommodations




Tagged with: pisgah, national forest, horsepasture river, transylvania county, brevard, asheville, highlands, north carolina, waterfall, stairway falls, drift falls, turtleback falls, grassy ridge



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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