The trailhead is the same as for Rainbow 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.
Turtleback Falls is a short distance upstream from Rainbow Falls. Hike to Rainbow first by starting 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 Rainbow Falls about 0.5 mile from the creek crossing.
At the end of the fence, the trail forks. To the left is the lower viewing point for Rainbow. Go right, ascend to the top of Rainbow, then continue following the path upstream. You won’t miss Turtleback Falls.
You won’t question how this waterfall got its name, as it’s easy to picture a turtle’s back here. Another old name for it is Umbrella Falls, also appropriate. The gently sloping waterfall has been a popular hangout for local teenagers and more than a few adults for as long as anybody can remember. Those who didn’t have the moxie to slide down Drift Falls came here instead. Years ago, a large tree stood near the big rock in front of the falls. A swinging rope attached to one of its limbs provided daredevils with the ultimate experience in pool crashing. If they didn’t get it just right, they crashed on the rocks instead. Since Bill McNeely shut down access to Drift Falls, the crowds at Turtleback have thinned, but it can still get stuffy here on summer weekends.
If you decide to play, keep in mind that Turtleback Falls has claimed a number of lives over the years. The pool below the falls—called the Chug Hole—possesses strong currents that can easily overpower weak swimmers, particularly when the water’s up. And while the tree with the swinging rope no longer stands, people still jump from the rock into the pool, taking a chance on hitting something besides deep water.
Turtleback Falls is unique in that photographers can shoot it well from three different angles, using several different compositions at each angle. From the top, you can make great profile shots. From the front, you can shoot either vertical or horizontal compositions. And from the flat rocks downstream, you can make interesting compositions that include potholes and cascades in the foreground. From this latter viewpoint, I also like to shoot scenes looking downstream toward the brink of Rainbow Falls.
Turtleback Falls claimed the dignity of a certain waterfall photographer—who shall remain nameless—in a waterfall photography DVD. It should go without saying that you should never stand in the river at the top of a waterfall to make your photos.
See the Horsepasture River Basin introduction for general information about the river and its waterfalls.