I needed to hike last weekend, despite a hostile weather forecast. The National Weather Service was calling for a cloudy Saturday in the Brevard area, with highs in the 20’s and a chance of snow. The wind chill was expected to be below zero. That dissuaded my wife and most of my friends from joining me. However, Jack and Johnny weren’t afraid of a little cold. They agreed to join me for a hike on Saturday.
Johnny suggested hiking the Horsepasture River in Gorges State Park. I normally consider that area to be too far to drive for a dayhike. However, I hadn’t been there in 7 years, and I was eager to see Rainbow Falls after all of the recent cold weather. I knew Rainbow Falls emits constant spray, and I was anticipating some impressive ice from it. Under the circumstances, I felt like it would be worth the long drive to see it.
Unfortunately, Johnny came down with a cold on Friday. Jack and I decided to stick with the original plan, and met in Spartanburg Saturday morning. Jack drove from there, and we made good time following highways 11 and 281 to the new entrance to Gorges State Park. I was looking forward to seeing the newly remodeled state park. At my last visit, the park was completely undeveloped.
Generally, I’m in favor of keeping this state park undeveloped. However, there has been some construction, as well as a few improvements. Most notably, a new trailhead parking area has been built on Grassy Ridge Road. From the trailhead, an improved trail now runs down to the Horsepasture River downstream from Rainbow Falls. This new trail replaces the old route, which is an eroded gully that reaches the river at Turtleback Falls farther upstream. In addition to the parking area and trail, there is a new, paved loop road. The new road connects the previously mentioned trailhead with trails to an overlook of Bearwallow Falls and an access route to Bearwallow Creek. Future plans call for a developed campground along this road.
We found an empty parking lot at 9:45 Saturday morning. We gathered our gear quickly, and were surprised to find much warmer conditions that we’d anticipated. It was a sunny, blue sky day, and it was actually rather comfortable out in the sun. As we started towards the new trail, I began to question my decision to wear long underwear.
At the new trailhead we found an information kiosk. Self-registration permits are now available for backcountry camping along the Horsepasture River. I was excited to see this, as parking in the state park and camping overnight along the river (which is on U.S. Forest Service property) used to be forbidden. Now that backpacking along the Horsepasture is legal again, I’m looking forward to an overnight trip in the area.
We headed down the new trail, which is wide and well-graded. After a few minutes we joined an old road and began following a gentle grade towards the river. This road also continues in the opposite direction, coming out on Grassy Ridge Road a few minutes down from the new trailhead, and just a short distance uphill from the trail leading to the top of Windy Falls.
We kept a quick pace, despite having to avoid several icy areas. Aside from the ice, the old road was in good shape. There was only a light dusting of snow on the ground, and it started to disappear as the sun climbed higher.
A bit later we rock hopped a small stream, and then passed a junction with a primitive shortcut trail down to Stairstep Falls. This trail isn’t really marked, but it is directly behind a sign pointing towards Rainbow Falls, which is on down the road. We decided to continue on to Rainbow Falls first, with plans to visit Stairstep Falls on the way out.
We crossed another small stream and passed a campsite before reaching the river. From here we headed upstream, climbing steeply at times. We passed several side paths running down to cascades, swimming holes, and small waterfalls. We skipped those though, as we were both eager to get to the main attraction.
After one final steep climb, a thick layer of ice indicated that we were approaching the Rainbow Falls overlook. The overlook consists of a wooden boardwalk on an open hillside across from one of the finest waterfalls in the southeast. At Rainbow Falls, the Wild and Scenic Horsepasture River cascades 150’ into the gorge below. It’s a scenic spot at any time, but it was particularly stunning today. The constant spray from the falls had frozen onto every surface, including the trees, shrubs, grass, and the overlook itself. The ice absolutely sparkled under that brilliant January sun. The river was raging, thanks to the recent wet weather, and the sun provided the waterfall’s namesake rainbow. We enjoyed seeing all of this under a crisp, blue sky.
Conditions were almost perfect for photography. All of the elements were there – even lighting, falling water, blue sky, ice, and a brilliant rainbow. There were a couple of problems though. First, we had to negotiate the icy overlook. We managed that – carefully –without having to use our Yaktrax ice cleats. Then, I couldn’t find a reasonable place to set up my tripod, thanks to the railing. I quickly gave up on it, but it wasn’t really necessary thanks to the sunny weather. The biggest problem though was the spray. Without the spray, we wouldn’t have had the rainbow or all of that spectacular ice. Standing in a constant spray on a 25-degree day wasn’t pleasant though, and it certainly made the photography difficult. I was wiping my lens filter off after each photo, but even that was only marginally effective. I had to resort to guerilla photography – before each shot, I’d cover the lens until I was ready to press the shutter. Despite these precautions, after only a few minutes I noticed a layer of ice forming on my lens filter. That was a first – my camera was actually freezing over.
We gave up after a few minutes and shuffled across the overlook. From there, a short but stout climb took us to the top of Rainbow Falls. Just beyond, we reached Turtleback Falls, which is small yet elegant. The lighting was uneven here, so we decided to stop there on our return after the sun climbed a bit further. We hiked on upstream, before reaching the end of the trail at a fence and an assortment of “No Trespassing” signs. There we followed the fence down to the river, where we took in a view of Drift Falls. Drift Falls is pretty nice, but it doesn’t really compare with those further downstream, and the “no trespassing” signs definitely mar the beauty of the area. We only spent a few minutes here before we doubled-back downstream.
We stopped at Turtleback Falls for an early lunch and more photography. I enjoyed warm soup from a thermos, which was enjoyable even though the weather was much warmer than expected. We had just settled in there when Boone began barking. A few moments later, another dog joined us on the rocks downstream from the falls. The dog preceded a huge group of hikers. There must’ve been 15 of them, which was rather startling after seeing nobody all morning. Meanwhile, another large group passed by, heading upstream. Where had all these people come from, and didn’t they see the weather forecast?
The other hikers were friendly enough, and eventually they headed on upstream towards Drift Falls. They returned about the time we were leaving, and we followed them back down to Rainbow Falls. There, we took some time to explore the lower overlook. The view of the falls isn’t as good there, but we had a great look at the rime ice covering the hillside.
From there, we continued on downstream to Stairstep Falls. Once the old road started climbing away from the river, we found the primitive but obvious path continuing downstream. We made an easy hike to a campsite, where we found the shortcut trail leading back up to the old road. We continued ahead though, crossing a small stream. From here the path was a little difficult to follow, thanks to some steep stretches and a few fallen trees. At the top of Stairstep Falls we passed the large group of hikers once again. They were exploring the top of the falls, and we continued on. I hurried ahead, eager to get some photos of Stairstep Falls without a huge crowd of people in the foreground.
We had the Stairstep Falls to ourselves for a few minutes. I’ve always liked this waterfall, although it’s typically overshadowed by Rainbow Falls and Windy Falls, which is a mile or so downstream. The other hikers arrived a few minutes later, and hung out for a bit before continuing downstream. They were hoping to get to Sidepocket Falls, and possibly the top of Windy Falls, before heading home. I’ve been to Windy Falls several times, but I’ve never attempted that route. From everything I’ve read, it requires a long, wicked bushwhack.
We hung out for a few minutes before hiking directly back to the trailhead. From there, we took a brief tour of the park road, and noted that the gate on lower Grassy Ridge Road was open. At this point, it was only mid-afternoon. We decided to check out a couple of additional waterfalls before heading for home.
Our next stop was on highway 281 just before the Thompson River. From there, we made the short hike down to White Owl Falls. White Owl Falls is just downstream from the road, but both Jack and I had failed to find it on our last (separate) attempts. Once we found the trail down, we each realized that we had previously descended at the wrong spot. This time the path took us right to the top of the falls. From there, it was an easy descent to the base of the falls.
White Owl Falls isn’t big, but it is pretty. Unfortunately, the best views (and photos) are from the other side of the river. Neither of us was interested in wading in this weather, so we settled for the view from where we were. It was cold down there in the shade along the river, and we didn’t loiter long. Instead, we doubled-back to the car, and headed on to our final stop of the day.
I suggested a visit to Twin Falls on the Thompson River for three reasons. First, I thought it would be a good place for icicles. Second, I’d only seen Twin Falls once before, and it was during a period of low water. I was expecting it to be far more impressive on this occasion. Finally, Twin Falls is located on private property. On my previous visit, I’d noticed that the area around the falls had been subdivided into lots. I knew that once houses are built, the waterfall will be inaccessible. I wanted to see it one more time while I could.
We drove Upper Whitewater Road from 281, crossing Mill Creek just above the brink of Slippery Witch Falls. This waterfall is also on private property, but the area is undeveloped. We considered stopping there on the way out, if time allowed. For the moment though, we were eager to get to Twin Falls. We continued on to the bridge over the Thompson River. The lot just before the bridge now features a huge McMansion overlooking the falls. The “house” is still under construction though, and the lots on the far side are still undeveloped, except for a steep, gravel road that now leads down to the river. The road offers a much easier route to the base of the falls than the old, rugged trail. Unfortunately we didn’t discover this until after we were already down there.
Jack parked on the opposite side of the road, and we grabbed our cameras and tripods. We were looking forward to checking out the falls and / or looking at the available lots. That was our official excuse in the unlikely event that we were questioned about our presence there. After all, who’s to say that we couldn’t be shopping for mountain property? If you like waterfalls, I highly recommend doing a little shopping for mountain property of your own. Twin Falls is spectacular, and it won’t be accessible for much longer.
At Twin Falls, the Thompson River splits into two channels before spilling over a 100’ high cliff. It’s a breathtaking sight, even with that giant, ugly house under construction on the opposite side of the river. We spent about 30 minutes there enjoying the falls and taking photos. I was glad to have the chance to see this waterfall one final time.
Jack and I enjoyed a great hike on a lovely winter day. I was glad Johnny talked me into it, but I regret that he wasn’t able to join us. Hopefully we’ll catch up with Johnny next time!
Back to The Jocassee Gorges
Back to North Carolina
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!