Keep an eye on Gorges State Park. This relatively new North Carolina State Park has at least 20 waterfalls, and park literature suggests more may be awaiting discovery in uncharted terrain. In the last few years the park has gone from having essentially no facilities to a state-of-the-art visitors center, picnic shelters and well-blazed trails.
Gorges State Park is just up the road from Whitewater Falls in Sapphire, North Carolina. Sapphire is a small town between Brevard and Cashiers on Highway 64. The park is right off 64 on 281 north of Whitewater Falls. Whitewater Falls, by the way, has reopened!
The visitors center offers cool interactive education for the kids. My kids loved the “Please DO Touch” sign on the bear fur. An LED and wire waterfall sculpture greets visitors as they learn about the types of waterfalls. An interactive water table with rocks allows children to experiment with how waterflow changes with rock position. Listen to recordings of residents describing the by-gone mountain lifestyle.
Everyone will enjoy sitting around a cozy fire during chilly months. The stone fireplace is flanked by massive windows showcasing the mountain views.
In past years, Greenville County Schools has uncannily scheduled fall break right at peak autumn color in this area. My family prefers two hikes at this park – a one-mile hike to a single waterfall and a four-mile hike to three waterfalls.
The short hike is Bear Wallow Falls, only one mile, roundtrip. Driving from the visitors center, the signage is awkward because it isn’t clear you’ve taken the correct turn until just after you turn. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once trying to reach the Bear Wallow picnic area and trailhead.
The trail is marked strenuous, but I consider that an overstatement. It’s all downhill to arrive at the falls, so that does make the uphill hike back a little tougher. However, it’s only half of a mile uphill with a few benches for resting. It’s nothing like a truly strenuous hike, such as the summit of Table Rock. My 4-year-old needed to rest a bit, but she never got too exhausted.
The end of the trail has a wooden viewing platform with rails. Part of me wished I could get closer, but I appreciated the safety precautions for my children.
The crown jewel of the hike is Rainbow Falls, a spectacular 150-foot waterfall on the Horespasture River. Just downstream are also Turtleback Fall and Drift Falls. We hiked all three for a total of four miles round-trip. We went with another family, and the kids were 6 and 7 years old. Although they enjoyed themselves overall, there were some whining moments, especially on the return. A long break for a picnic lunch helped. This is another trail labeled strenuous that I’d consider moderate.
First-time visitors may find planning their hike confusing. New features have been added recently to the park. There are plenty of copies of outdated park maps online, and even the park website doesn’t have the newest copy of their map! The website map only shows Rainbow Falls while the paper maps which the park distributes include both Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls. The best map is the complete North Carolina trail map because it includes all three falls. If you don’t hike often enough to make the purchase worth it, at least look at it. You can snap a photo of the Horsepasture River section with your cell phone and mark Drift Falls on the free park map. A physical copy of the map is smart in case your phone dies on the hike back. Switch to airplane mode if you need to conserve your battery, as you won’t get much signal.
Like the maps, online descriptions with access instructions are obsolete. Access to these falls used to be different a few years ago. Make sure to ask park staff for help clearing up any confusion.
Rainbow Falls is a three-mile hike. The orange blazes end at the falls, where visitors actually leave Gorges State Park to enter the Pisgah National Forest. If you’ve come that far, the extra half mile to Turtleback is worth the efffort. (There is an unsettling warning sign when you leave Gorges, but don’t panic.) Turtleback Falls may not officially be in Gorges Park, but it does appear on physical copies of their map and Gorges website includes information about Turtleback.
The last feature of our hike was Drift Falls. Despite not being included on the map, the site is well-known. The falls are private property, and trespassing is strictly enforced. Hikers are only allowed on the trail. Because the owner is such a stickler, park staff doesn’t recommend this waterfall. If you go, pay attention to the signs and stay on the trail.
If you are the serious waterfall aficionado, don’t miss Drift Falls. If you have limited time, you’ll still have a great hike if you only visit the first two falls.