The Horsepasture River is (at the time of this post) the shortest river in the Wild and Scenic Rivers category of the National Park Service at 4.2 miles long. It is also chock full of major waterfalls lying as it does directly across the Blue Ridge Escarpment. We visited these falls long ago when you had to park along a busy road and work your way in. It’s a longer hike now but it’s worth it. The access to the upper Horsepasture is from Gorges State Park which has a beautiful new visitor center. The trail head is for Rainbow Falls despite the fact that Rainbow Falls is not in the park. It’s around 1.5 miles to the falls, and halfway there you’ll leave the state park and enter Pisgah National Forest.
There are a hundred photogenic spots along the Horsepasture river on this hike. Even at high water levels there will be several dry slabs of granite stuck out into the river where you can get a better view. This is Rainbow Falls at a pretty high water level. It’s a very moist experience as the main viewing area is also the main spray zone. If the water is this high, you’ve already had to ford two creeks to get here though.
A quarter mile past Rainbow is Turtleback Falls which is swimmable at some water levels. We’ve seen people in the water every time we’ve been here, even when it’s dreadfully cold. Please keep in mind this a quarter mile of fast moving river above Rainbow Falls. We say this on all our waterfall pages but waterfalls are still dangerous. People have died here. There are wiser places to swim in this river.
Speaking of dangerous, the trail is a bit exciting as well at Turtleback. After the full frontal view of the falls, the trail snakes around a cove and comes directly at it from the side before climbing further up the hill.
The furthest waterfall upstream is Drift Falls. People swim this as well. There are private property signs all around warning you not to do this. However, there are good views of the falls from within the forest boundary. Total distance to Drift Falls from the trail head in Gorges State Park is in the 2 to 2.5 mile range.