The trailhead is the same as for Turtleback Falls. From US 64, drive south on NC 281 for 0.9 mile and turn left at the entrance for Gorges State Park. Drive 0.95 mile to a stop sign at the visitor center. Turn left and drive 0.8 mile to the Grassy Ridge Parking Area, on the right.
Begin on the obvious trail at the kiosks on the south end of the parking area. You’ll come to a T junction in a little less than 0.3 mile. Turn right on the orange-blazed Rainbow Falls Trail. You’ll cross a small stream in less than 0.5 mile. At 0.25 mile beyond the stream, the trail forks. A left turn leads to Stairway Falls. Turn right and cross another stream in a little over 0.1 mile. It’s an easy rockhop in normal flows but could be tricky in high water.
You’ve been descending nearly the entire way to this point. Now, you’ll go on an undulating course, then climb steeply to the viewing point for the falls about 0.5 mile from the creek crossing.
Turtleback Falls is about 0.2 mile farther upstream.
People often ask me to name a favorite waterfall. Although I can’t possibly choose only one, Rainbow Falls usually comes to mind first. I’d guess I’ve seen it nearly 75 times, and I never get tired of it. In addition to its stunning beauty, it’s unique in that you have an open view from a midway point. In other words, you don’t have to crane your neck to see it. This higher viewpoint is what makes the long, arching rainbows visible on sunny days when the river is up.
Surprisingly, the open nature of the slope is a natural occurrence, although not a fully understood one. Obviously, the bombardment of spray from the falls has some effect, but trees don’t seem to have a problem in the spray zones at other waterfalls. Whatever the reason for its existence, the open slope provides a spectacular view. It’s also a fragile environment, highly susceptible to erosion and plant trampling. Please stay behind the fence.
You can view the falls from the lower overlook, but unless the water is low, you’ll get drenched in the process. Some people climb down to the river at the base of the falls, but I don’t recommend it. The best view is from the trail at the fence. Also, the rocks at the base of the falls are extremely slippery, as they stay wet constantly.
Rainbow Falls is sometimes cited as being unique in that not only rainbows but also moonbows are visible in the spray. A moonbow is the same phenomenon as a rainbow, except that light rays from the sun reflect off the moon before refracting and being reflected by the water droplets. Actually, moonbows occur at many waterfalls. If you can see a rainbow at a waterfall, you can see a moonbow when conditions are right. To see the moonbow at Rainbow Falls, you’ll need to be there within a couple days of the full moon and when the water level is high enough to create a lot of spray. The moon is in the right position beginning a few hours after it rises and lasting for a couple hours or so. Late at night, the moon is out of position for viewing the moonbow. The same thing applies to seeing the rainbow—except that, obviously, you’ll need to be there a few hours after the sun, instead of the moon, rises.
Rainbow Falls is one of many waterfalls in the state that has been called High Falls. Typically, that name is given to the tallest waterfall on a stream, or the one farthest upstream. However, neither of these applies to Rainbow Falls.
Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed that I listed Rainbow Falls as being in Nantahala National Forest in the last edition. That wasn’t a mistake. The National Forest Service recently restructured the ranger districts for Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests and in the process assigned the Horsepasture River to Pisgah. The Thompson River and the Whitewater River, just down the road, remain in Nantahala.
See the Horsepasture River Basin introduction for general information about the river and its waterfalls.