On our adventure day last week, Tom and I, and our nephew Devon and his girlfriend Darien who were visiting, headed to Gorges State Park in North Carolina. Devon said he had never been to the Smoky Mountains, so we drove the two hours west to the mountains.
Gorges State Park is a relatively new state park. Its 7,500 acres were set aside in 1999, but it didn’t have any development until a few years ago when a Visitors Center was built (restrooms!) and trails developed. It is located off NC 281, in a pretty remote area of the state. Most of the park is still wilderness and there are only a few back-country campsites available. The Foothills Trail, a 76 mile long National Scenic Trail, runs through a section of the park.
When we told Devon and Darien where we were going, they misunderstood the name and thought we were saying Gorgeous State Park. Well, that name isn’t far off. Gorges State Park is a gorgeous state park. The Visitors Center is perched on the top of a hill with fabulous 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. There is a very nice little natural history museum in the Visitors Center. We got a map of the hiking trails and headed out.
The only way to go in the park from the Visitors Center is down, so we headed down to the Rainbow Falls Trail. The ranger told us it was a 600′ elevation change. What he didn’t mention was that we would go down 900′, up 300′ to the falls, and then reverse that to get back up to the trailhead. The trail was well-marked and there were plenty of people on it, so it wasn’t a difficult trail, but I had to stop a few times to catch my breath on those uphill sections.
We crossed from Gorges State Park into Pisgah National Forest on the trail and were amused by all the signs warning us that straying from the path could lead to death on the steep trails and cliffs. We could hear the Horsepasture River flowing beneath us, but couldn’t really see it until we got close to the falls.
Rainbow Falls was spectacular. The water roars over the 100′ falls and plunges through rapids as it makes its way down the river. There was plenty of water in the falls on the day we went and you could feel the mist from the falls in the observation landing. We climbed around on the rocks around the falls a little, despite the warning signs, and even saw a snake sunning himself on the rocks by the falls. On our way back we took a little time to sit on some rocks in the river and marvel at the beauty all around us.
There are many waterfalls in Gorges State Park, but only a few are accessible from the trails. Tom wanted to hike down to Bearwallow Falls, but the rest of us were complaining about our legs being tired and we had another waterfall we wanted to see further down the road. We will have to save Bearwallow Falls for another day.
I’m sure, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park so close by, that many people have never even heard of Gorges State Park, but it is well worth a visit. In fact, you can skip the crowds and find great beauty in some of the out-of-the-way places close to the National Park. Rainbow Falls rivals anything you will find in the Smoky Mountains and has plenty of beautiful, challenging hiking without the crowds.