Timothy P. Spira: Hiking Rainbow Falls Trail

Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes, by Timothy P. SpiraWe welcome a guest post today from Timothy P. Spira, author of Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes. If you love waterfalls, here are some of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachians. And if you love plants—or simply would like to learn more about them—you will be in hiking heaven: naturalist Tim Spira’s guidebook links waterfalls and wildflowers in a spectacularly beautiful region famous for both. Leading you to gorgeous waterfalls in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, the book includes many hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As he surveys one of America’s most biologically diverse regions, Spira introduces hikers to the “natural communities” approach for identifying and understanding plants within the context of the habitats they occupy—equipping hikers to see and interpret landscapes in a new way.

In today’s post, Spira highlights one of his favorite Appalachian hikes.

One of my favorite waterfall hikes in the southern Appalachians is the Rainbow Falls Trail in western North Carolina, just south of Lake Toxaway. Beginning in Gorges State Park, the 4-mile (round-trip) trail soon enters Pisgah National Forest, where it follows the Horsepasture River (a designated Wild and Scenic River) along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Four waterfalls occur along this stretch of the river, including Rainbow Falls, a near-vertical cascade about 125 feet high with a large plunge pool at the base. Few waterfalls in the southern Appalachians are as spectacular (and powerful) as this one. When the water levels are up, the falls hitting the plunge pool create a thunderous roar. A slight breeze carries the mist upslope, soaking hikers at the viewing platform across from the falls. If the light is right, you may see a long arching rainbow in the mist.

Rainbow Falls photo by Timothy P. Spira
Rainbow Falls (photo by Timothy P. Spira)

Just past Rainbow Falls is Turtleback Falls, a short but wide waterfall that drops off a ledge that resembles a turtle’s back. In summer, you’ll likely see people (mostly teenagers) sliding off the “turtle’s back” into the cold-water pool below. Continue on the trail another 0.2 miles to Drift Falls. Here the water slides, rather than falls, about 40 feet down smooth bedrock.  The fourth waterfall, Staircase Falls, cascades over a long series of steps and ledges where the Horsepasture River has cut into the gorge.

Along this moderately difficult trail, you’ll encounter a diversity of wildflowers and plant communities with peak flowering from mid-April through May. The trail starts out in a pine-oak-heath community. Oaks and pines dominate the overstory, with dense heath shrubs in the understory, including mountain laurel, gorge rhododendron, and lowbush blueberry. American chestnut also grows here, as does its close relative chinquapin. There aren’t many wildflowers along this section of the trail due to the dense shrub layer.

The vegetation changes to oak hickory forest just before a signpost indicates you’re leaving Gorges State Park and entering the national forest. Breeding birds such as wood thrush, ovenbird, and black-and-white warbler like to nest in oak forests such as this.

About a mile into the hike, the trail begins to follow the Horsepasture River upstream. Look for galax, partridge berry, and poke milkweed along the trail in this acidic cove forest. If you look closely, you may see brightly-striped monarch butterfly caterpillars feeding on the leaves of poke milkweed. By feeding on milkweed plants, monarch caterpillars accumulate chemicals that protect them (as caterpillars and as adult butterflies) from predators (mostly birds). Common shrubs include rosebay rhododendron, gorge rhododendron, and mountain laurel. You can explore the Horsepasture River, including several nice pools, via short spur trails. The river is typically loud as the fast flowing water tumbles over and around endless boulders.

The viewing area for Rainbow Falls is especially rich in spring wildflowers including Catesby’s trillium, Solomon’s seal, dwarf iris, wood anemone, and yellow star grass. In summer, look for wild sweet William, whorled coreopsis, cutleaf coneflower, and other members of the sunflower family.

Before beginning the hike, you may want to stop and explore the interesting exhibits at the recently opened visitor center (on your right, about a mile after entering Gorges State Park). A small picnic area, information kiosk, and toilets are located near the trailhead. If you’re looking to camp, a walk-in campground is located 0.5 mile from the trailhead.

If you want to experience another nearby waterfall, from Gorges State Park drive south on N.C. 281 for 8 miles to Whitewater Falls. It’s one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern United States with two sheer drops and cascades totaling 411 feet. A short trail takes you to the upper viewing area of the Falls. The trail continues down to the Whitewater River, passing through a rich cove forest with abundant spring wildflowers, including three species of trillium.

Timothy P. Spira is professor of biology at Clemson University. He is author of Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes (2015) and Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia (2011).