Horsepasture River Basin

Ask anyone to pick their favorite mountain streams, and if he or she has seen the Horsepasture River, that’s a name you’ll probably hear. The Horsepasture Wild and Scenic River is among the most rugged and scenic rivers in the Appalachians. It has been popular among hikers, swimmers, anglers, and waterfall lovers forever. It’s scary to think that in 1984, a 6-mile stretch of the river was nearly lost when Carrasan Power Company of California received preliminary approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a “run of river” power plant on the Horsepasture. That type of plant has no large reservoir and diverts nearly all of a river’s flow through its turbines to generate electricity—electricity we didn’t need at the time, according to local power companies. The news reached Bill Thomas of nearby Cedar Mountain. Largely through his efforts, a massive grass-roots campaign resulted in a 4.5-mile stretch of the river being designated a State Natural and Scenic River in 1985 and a National Wild and Scenic River the following year.

Since then, the Horsepasture has seen more changes. When I wrote the first edition of this book, people accessed the river by parking beside the road near Drift Falls and scrambling down the bank. If you ever drove NC 281 on a weekend back then, you know exactly the place I’m talking about, since cars and hikers were all over the place. That came to an abrupt halt in 1998 after a land transaction that still has many people shaking their heads. Bill McNeely, who owns the quarry across the road, purchased Drift Falls and the old Bohaynee Beach area upstream. After acquiring the property, McNeely promptly posted No Trespassing signs and prohibited access to his property.

It’s not just Drift Falls you can no longer access. You can’t park anywhere along a several-mile stretch of NC 281 from the entrance to Gorges State Park to where the road crests the ridge near Rocky Knobs. If you’re considering parking along the road anyway, I wouldn’t suggest it. You might think all you’ll get is a simple parking ticket, since law-enforcement officers have better things to do than track down parking violators. But you’ll be wrong. I speak from experience. Not long after this fiasco started, I parked my truck in the one spot without a No Parking sign and hiked down to the river, being careful to remain on national-forest property. It wasn’t long before I became acquainted with a Transylvania County sheriff’s deputy, who escorted me out of the gorge. The deputy handed me a $100 parking ticket and ordered me to move my vehicle. Within a couple of days, a No Parking sign was at the spot where I had parked.

In all honesty, the old access situation had to be addressed. Too many people were parking all over the place and walking along the road. Because of increasing traffic, especially the numerous dump trucks coming and going at the quarry (sometimes much too fast, I might add), the situation was ripe for serious accidents. Also during that period, the quarry was blasting near the road. From what I understand, falling rocks were a safety concern. McNeely’s actions eliminated the safety issues and allowed the roadsides to revegetate.

For a period, there was no good way to see the waterfalls on Horsepasture River short of having someone drop you off by the road and pick you up later. And even if you tried that, you were wise not to slow to a complete stop, or else you might get a parking ticket. Soon after Gorges State Park was established, the park built an interim parking area near NC 281, providing a legal way to access the falls. Today, much of the park’s infrastructure is complete, and hikers have a wonderful new trailhead for accessing the Horsepasture River.

The Horsepasture begins on the southwest side of Sheep Cliff, near Cashiers. It flows rather peacefully for 12 miles before the fun starts at Drift Falls. In that distance, the river drops about 1,200 feet in elevation. Half of that comes within the first 0.75 mile, when the river is a small stream flowing down the steep mountain. In the 4 miles or so from Drift Falls to Lake Jocassee, the Horsepasture falls 1,700 feet. As you would imagine, numerous high waterfalls figure heavily into that elevation loss.

The entire run of the river from its start to Drift Falls is on private property. I know of three notable waterfalls in the stretch, but each is inaccessible to the public. From the base of Drift Falls to Stairway Falls, the river flows through Pisgah National Forest. This stretch also features Turtleback Falls and Rainbow Falls. The latter is among the more spectacular waterfalls in the state.

From Stairway Falls downstream to Lake Jocassee, the river flows through Toxaway Game Land, owned and managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. That stretch features the ruggedly wild Windy Falls, as well as Sidepocket Falls and Rooster Tail Falls.

No part of the Horsepasture River is in Gorges State Park. However, the access for all the waterfalls from Drift Falls to the lake is from the park. It’s a unique situation, since many of the park’s visitors come to see waterfalls that are outside the park. Understandably, this creates a management headache for park officials and a drain on park resources. Park officials have no control over safety issues at the waterfalls. But when someone gets hurts on the Horsepasture, rangers with Gorges State Park are the first to respond. Read the introduction for Gorges State Park before visiting the Horsepasture River waterfalls, since you’ll have to pass through the park to reach them.