Gorges State Park Waterfalls – 2/23/13 – 5.5 Miles
Sneaking out of town for a February weekend in the mountains with Jim. Rain, says the weatherman? A great time to look for waterfalls, says I. Our destination: Gorges State Park in Transylvania County, North Carolina (known as the “Land of Waterfalls”). The only state park west of Asheville, Gorges consists of 10,000 acres as part of Jocasee Gorges and includes many waterfalls, some accessible, some still hidden.
Okay, so the trip had been planned for a while, but rain is not a deterrent to a good time outdoors. In fact, rain keeps the crowds away, hence increasing enjoyment for hardy souls. See how smart (lucky) I am?
Jim and I spent Friday meandering towards our weekend destination, browsing and eating in Brevard, NC. Next we stopped at the visitor center for Gorges State Park to pick up maps and get the lay of the land. The VC is brand spanking new, open since October 2012 and it is spectacular, reminiscent of a great lodge with high ceilings and covered wraparound decks. Nobody there but us and a couple of park rangers, who were a great help in getting us oriented and making a plan for Saturday.
Before dark we found our home-away-from-home, a delightfully cozy cabin at Cabins at Seven Foxes in Lake Toxaway, NC. I can’t say enough good things about this little gem. There are multiple cabins, all placed out of sight of each other on the steep mountainside, and the managers have established little walking trails in and around the property with vignettes to surprise and delight. Around one corner are toy dinosaurs climbing a tree. Around another is a “bathroom” scene complete with a claw foot tub, toilet, pedestal sink and mirror, all planted with ferns. There is a tremendous (and very high up) tree house to be investigated. Highly recommended and we plan to visit again.
Saturday morning, the trifecta for keeping most people indoors: drizzly, chilly and foggy. Let’s go find some waterfalls!
In his book, North Carolina Waterfalls, Kevin Adams says, “If you could only see one waterfall in North Carolina, Whitewater Falls would be a good candidate. To many people it’s the most spectacular waterfall in the East.” But the fog was a ruling factor today. You can’t just walk up and take a shower under Whitewater Falls – the viewing deck is across a small valley. There was a chance we would only hear it today. We were doubtful as we drove southbound on scenic NC 281 to the access area as visibility distance was short. But what’s this? Looks like a pullover to a view, perhaps?
Still, lots of clouds below us so a view of the falls was still iffy. There were no cars in the parking lot on this Saturday morning, not a good sign. We walked the quarter-mile paved trail and descended multiple sets of steps for this view. No blue sky and a little misty, but not bad, eh? I’ll trade that for solitude any day.
Close-up of the upper part of Whitewater Falls
Flowing water is mesmer- izing, the patterns that form and then change, and the sound crashing over the rocks. This is one big waterfall, 2,560 feet high.
Encouraged by seeing Whitewater Falls and only the slightest drizzle of rain now, Jim and I drove back to the entrance to Gorges State Park. Next up: five waterfalls on the Horsepasture River. Many years ago Jim and I visited some of these waterfalls, but since then a private landowner closed access through his property. People were parking all up and down NC 281, jumping over the guard rail, eroding the mountainside and generally making a nuisance so he wisely (I think) posted and enforces no trespassing.
In his book Kevin Adams gives an alternate access route via an old forest service road that marks some of the property line between Gorges SP and the private landowner, still a little sketchy for a rule follower like me. Now for the good news: now Gorges SP has a dandy little trail that gets you legally (technically) everywhere you want to go. (This post-dates Adams’ book).
From the parking area for backcountry camping, the Rainbow Falls Trail got us started. The park map shows this trail ending at Rainbow Falls (3 miles roundtrip), but the very informative lady ranger told me that the trail keeps going, crossing the park boundary into Pisgah National Forest (side note: I tell ya, that Pisgah NF gets around, it is spread all over western NC). The blazes end at the boundary and the trail narrows but there is no doubt about where it’s going.
Hidden Falls, a tease of what’s coming along the Horse- pasture River. This waterfall could be easily missed because it's down a little side scramble with nothing to indicate what's there. Notice the mist near the center top of the photo.
Rainbow Falls is a powerhouse. Because of the preceding days of rain, we heard the thundering storm long before we reached it, and the wind created by the flow quickly saturated our clothes. I hastily snapped one sorry photograph before putting my camera away to protect it from the moisture. On sunny days the mist creates multiple rainbows near the base of the waterfall. Today the spray was so forceful that we couldn’t even stand there and look at it. Wow.
Continuing on, we crossed the park boundary and followed the trail along the river to Turtleback Falls.
Turtleback Falls head on
Turtleback Falls is located at an almost 90-degree right turn in the Horse- pasture River, rather incredible. We hung out here for a while, enjoyed a snack and watched big chunks of trees bob around in a whirlpool at the base of the falls.
Climbing up past Turtleback, the old trail is clearly now not accessible. The new trail skirts the edge of the river, hugging the public forest/ private land boundary. Now we were headed to Drift Falls, on that fella’s private land so we could only gaze from a distance. Drift Falls was commonly referred to as Bust-Your-Butt Falls because many people enjoyed sliding down it. Not no more.
Here at the base of Drift Falls the river was running high and spread out wide so we could not get near the middle for a head-on photograph.
Retracing our steps along the trail was as much fun as going up in the first place. I just love walking beside moving water, don’t you? And we had another waterfall that we saved for last on the return leg: Stairway Falls. The park ranger also gave me this scoop about a side trail off of the Rainbow Falls Trail and again going outside the boundary line down to the Horsepasture River.
Found the side trail, quite steep and rugged
Always on the lookout for interesting fungi
Close-up – what does it look like to you?
At the bottom of the steep trail, beside the river was a large flat campsite with multiple fire rings and Jim said, “Doesn’t look like much of a waterfall to me.” Ah, Grasshopper, look for more signs. I picked up the trail as it continued downriver and after another quarter-mile of even narrower, steeper trail we found this charming, peaceful place.
So…five waterfalls (six counting Whitewater Falls) and zero people on the trails. I call that a great day.
Bonus #2: On Sunday morning the skies were blue again and Jim headed off on his trusty bicycle for a couple of hours. Thumbing through Adams’ book, and now understanding the layout of the area, I couldn’t resist looking for one more waterfall. Found this sanctuary off of NC 281, a scramble less than .2 miles below the Thompson River Bridge (thus the Thompson River). You just have to know where to look.
“Good luck and good work for the happy mountain raindrops,
each one of them a high waterfall in itself, descending from the cliffs and hollows of the clouds to the cliffs and hollows of the rocks, out of the sky-thunder into the thunder of the falling rivers.” ~John Muir