★ 8.5/10: Great Experience

Hiking Rainbow Falls in North Carolina: Complete Guide

Note to my fellow wanderers: This guide was written from my first-hand experiences. I try my best not to over-glamorize any location I travel to because I want HappyWander’s content to be as authentic as possible. My goal is to provide you real information so that you can have the best possible adventures wandering the world. Enjoy!

I hadn’t heard much about Rainbow Falls until a couple friends posted to their stories on Instagram and recommended that I go. I’m certainly glad I took their recommendation! I was quite surprised how large Rainbow Falls was for a waterfall in North Carolina. I was even more surprised to learn that Rainbow Falls is 150 feet tall, which makes it a very big waterfall for North Carolina. But Rainbow Falls isn’t the only attraction. In fact, Turtleback Falls seemed to be far the busiest area of the hike. In this guide, I review everything you need to know about hiking Rainbow Falls, with a review at the end.

Overview of Rainbow Falls in North Carolina

Located in Western North Carolina partially on Gorges State Park and partially on Nantahala National Forest, Rainbow Falls offers breathtaking views, especially when sunlight creates rainbows in the mist at the bottom of the falls. Rainbow Falls offers beauty rarely found by other waterfalls in North Carolina. But on this hike, you get a huge added bonus of having Turtleback Falls nearby. Turtleback Falls was by far the busiest section of the hike because it allows visitors a great place to swim on a hot summer day, with a 20 foot slide into the water. In this section, I highlight all the essentials you need to know about hiking Rainbow Falls.

Hiking Rainbow Falls Map

This is a map (via alltrails.com) of the route I did.

Where to Park

The most convenient place to park next to the Rainbow Falls hike trailhead is Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Trailhead:

Here is the address: Lake Toxaway, NC 28747

Distance Traveled

According to Alltrails.com, I traveled over 5 miles on this hike. Your hike at Rainbow Falls will likely be less because I had to circle back to the parking lot early on. I also went all the way to Drift Falls.

How Long Does it Take to Hike?

I arrived at around 10:30 AM and left close to 1:30 PM. I spent about 30 minutes or more at Rainbow Falls, away from the majority of the people who were at Turtleback Falls swimming. If you choose to swim (and you totally should!), you should prepare for at least 4 hours on this hike.

Elevation Change

According to Alltrails.com, I climbed over 900 feet (945 feet to be exact). I will note that I added some feet in elevation because I turned around back to the parking lot early on to retrieve my camera stand.

Rainbow Falls Hike in North Carolina Elevation Map

Elevation Map for Rainbow Falls in North Carolina (via alltrails.com)

Difficulty

If you exercise regularly this hike is not too difficult. However, don’t underestimate it. Some portions of this trail are will test your cardio. However, I saw a ton of children and older hikers taking in this adventure, so I think you’ll be fine on this hike.

Overall, I’d give this hike a 5 / 10 in difficulty.

Permits

There are no permits for this hike.

Cost

There is no cost to park or hike at Rainbow Falls. My favorite types of hikes!

When to Go

I went in June and it was perfect for getting into the water. At around 82 degrees, this hike was more than manageable because most of the hike is in the shade, and the sunny parts are next to the swimming area(s). I think summer would be best for Rainbow Falls, but it could be hiked anytime of the year. However, you probably won’t enjoy this one in the Winter as much.

Recommended Gear

Having the right gear can make or break your hiking experience. In North Carolina, preparing accordingly will help you maximize your adventure. I’ll highlight the gear that I brought hiking Rainbow Falls in June, as well as additional gear that might benefit you:

  • Shorts / Bathing Suit: This is one of those hikes you’ll want to wear a bathing suit on. I purchased exercise shorts that can double as swim trunks (fine netting), so they work great for hikes like this where swimming is possible.
  • Hiking backpack with straps: If you don’t have a backpack with straps, I recommend you get one. They aren’t too expensive on Amazon. Your shoulders and back will thank you later. This hike is pretty tough depending on the speed you go up it, which can pay your body a toll without the proper gear.
  • Portable charger: If you take a lot of photos / videos like me, you’ll want to bring a portable charger for your phone. I also use the alltrails.com app to navigate so having enough battery is important.
  • Water bladder: If you want to save on weight and also help your backpack be more balanced than carrying a big bottle of water in your bag, a water bladder is important. I personally use a 3L water bladder and I drank about 50% of it on this hike. It was pretty warm, especially going up parts of the hike with elevation.
  • Hiking shoes: Hiking shoes that are waterproof will benefit you if you go in on this trail. There are plenty of muddy, wet sections of the hike, so having the right hiking shoes is important. There are also a few creeks you’ll need to cross, so it’s always better to have waterproof shoes.
  • Snacks: Who doesn’t like snacks? While hiking, even on a medium-length hike like this, you burn lots of calories. My personal go-to’s on this hike were: Honey roasted peanuts, gummy bears, protein shakes, and protein bars. I also had some pepperoni sticks that provided some electrolytes the body craves in such a situation as a hike.
  • Bug spray: I didn’t experience bugs on this hike, so this wasn’t really needed.
  • First aid kit: It’s a good idea to bring Band-Aids, a bandage, and some cut cleaning items. I have needed band-aids in the past from slipping on rocks, but I did not on this hike.
  • Sunscreen: Summer time in North Carolina requires sunscreen. While a lot of this hike is in the shade, the water areas are very sunny. I’d recommend applying sunscreen on before your hike and maybe during the hike if you stop at the swimming areas for more than a little while.
  • Flashlight: If you go anytime near sunrise or sunset, I’d recommend having a flashlight.

Nice to Have Gear:

Here are a few items that would make your hiking experience even better:

  • Shoe impact insoles: These can help as you traverse hard rocks along the way.
  • Phone tripod: If you go alone or with a group and want great pictures, a phone tripod is key. I use one on every hike I go on. You may not need to use one very often because there were quite a few people on this trail that you could ask to take a picture for you.
  • Water shoes: While not necessary, water shoes could help protect your feet when you’re walking through shallow waters. You never know what kind of sharp rocks you could step on, so I like to bring a pair of lightweight water shoes and hang them from my backpack.

The Play By Play: My Route Hiking Rainbow Falls in North Carolina

So what’s it like hiking Rainbow Falls? Read my hiking guide play by play below:

Parking Lot

The Rainbow Falls parking lot is easy to navigate to in Gorges State Park and there are plenty of spots. However, I did hike this one on a Friday so there weren’t as many people as a weekend would probably bring. If you do go on a Saturday or Sunday, I’d recommend getting there early to beat the crowd to ta spot, as the lot is not massive.

Rainbow Falls Hike in North Carolina Parking Lot

Rainbow Falls Trail

Rainbow Falls Trail is located right next to the parking lot, so that’s very convenient.

For the first mile or so on Rainbow Falls Trail, you can expect mostly downhill hiking through the forest as you descend towards Horsepasture River. At some point on this initial part of the trail before you get to the river, you’ll see a sign that you’re exiting Gorges State Park and entering Nantahala National Forest.

Hiking Along Horsepasture River

About half of this hike treks beside Horsepasture River, which adds a lovely nature soundtrack to the hike. As you get closer to Rainbow Falls, you’ll start ascending in altitude.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls was definitely the most impressive and beautiful area of this hike in my opinion. There are quite a few vantage points you can get of this waterfall, starting as you climb a hill and get a glimpse of the waterfall. As you continue forward, you’ll start climbing down to face off with this beauty:

The next vantage point is from the bottom of the waterfall, which is quite easy to get down to. I posted up down here for about 30 minutes as it offered seclusion. Almost no people came down to the bottom, and I was positioned next to a giant rock that offered privacy from the view of other hikers passing by:

I very much enjoyed my spot soaking in some vitamin D next to this powerful beautiful waterfall:

Laying in the Sun at the Bottom of Rainbow Falls in North Carolina

Finally, there’s a cool little section of the hike about midway up the waterfall that takes you up a staircase / ladder right on the side of the falls:

Rainbow Falls is an awesome spot, and you’ll probably see a small waterfall at the bottom of the falls from the mist.

Turtleback Falls

Less than 1/4 mile past Rainbow Falls is Turtleback Falls. I had no previous knowledge about Turtleback Falls before I arrived, but it was by far the busiest section of the hike. At Turtleback Falls, you find happy hikers (kids, teenagers, and even a few adults) sliding down the 20 foot waterfall into the river or just hanging out in the refreshing water. Here is the view towards the back of Turtleback Falls:

A lot of kids took their shoes off up here so slide down the 20 foot waterfall and enjoy a swim. Below is a video of how Turtleback Rock looks like from the front. You’ll see there are some nicely connected ropes that allow swimmers to climb back to the top of Turtleback Falls quickly to slide over and over again:

The level of excitement out here is palpable. If you have kids or just enjoy sliding down waterfalls, you’ll love this spot. Here is what the entire Turtleback Falls looks like from a higher altitude along the hike:

Drift Falls

Drift Falls is about 1/4 mile past Turtlerock Falls. I highly recommend you skip this part of the hike, but if you do venture out to see it, this is how it looks:

Once you reach this point (which is quite far from the falls), you’ll see a sign that says it’s private property. Nothing to see here!

About My Experience Hiking Rainbow Falls

Overall, hiking Rainbow Falls in North Carolina was great. I had a lot of fun and was pleasantly surprised how big and beautiful Rainbow Falls was. I also enjoyed seeing a bunch of kids enjoying the 20 foot slide at Turtleback Falls. In this section, I highlight some of my favorite parts as well as a few parts I didn’t love.

Favorite Parts

Here are a few of my favorite parts of hiking Rainbow Falls:

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls was quite impressive compared to other hikes I’ve experienced so far in North Carolina. Even 1 month after seeing some of Iceland’s best waterfalls, Rainbow Falls still impressed me. Rainbow Falls is quite big, and the way it is revealed to you as you hike over a hill is wonderful. I also enjoyed the ease getting to the bottom compared to other hikes such as Wailua Falls in Hawaii.

Turtleback Falls

Turtleback Falls, while not exactly impressive in height at 20 feet tall, is full of people having fun. It was by far the busiest area of the hike, and for good reason. The waterfall served up a perfect 20 foot waterslide that looked quite fun to go down.

Shaded Hike

Some hikes in North Carolina heavily expose you to the sun. This hike is mostly in the shade except for the waterfall areas. When you are in the water, the sun is lovely. However, when you’re going up big hills, the sun is not your friend and can make hiking unpleasant experience in the Summer. I greatly appreciated the beautiful green trees that provide shade along most of the hike.

Least Favorite Parts

Here is my least favorite part of this hike:

Drift Falls

Drift falls is definitely not something to see on this hike. It’s about 1/4 of a mile past Turtleback Falls, and while you will be able to get a view of the falls, it’s from very far away. You won’t be able to get much closer as there is a sign that says it’s private property.

Overall Score

Overall, Rainbow Falls is one of my favorite hikes in North Carolina for waterfalls. While Grandfather Mountain is still my favorite hike, this one may be in my top 5.

I give this trail a 8.5 / 10.

Hiking Tips for Rainbow Falls After the Fact

Here are some hiking tips for Rainbow Falls that I learned after the fact that can help you have the very best adventure:

  • You can skip Drift Falls. I don’t recommend you hike past Turtleback Falls because there’s nothing really to see (you will see Drift Falls from a distance, but nothing special) and there was a sign that said it was private property.
  • I don’t recommend trying to swim at Rainbow Falls. There aren’t any great entry points and There are giant rocks leading down into the water. I was looking to get in and swim here but it’s probably best you don’t.

Final Thoughts on Hiking Rainbow Falls in North Carolina

If you enjoy waterfalls, sliding down, and swimming, you’ll love Rainbow Falls! I was pleasantly surprised hiking Rainbow Falls, it’s a great hike to escape the busyness of your regular life, and the hike can be done pretty quickly. If you’re near the Western side of North Carolina, I highly recommend you give Rainbow Falls hike a shot.

Happy wandering to you!

Anthony Bart
Author: Anthony Bart

Hello! Welcome to HappyWanders! My name is Anthony, I'm on a mission to live a life full of adventure and to help you to do the same. As an ex-corporate worker and current entrepreneur, I've been working to design a life with more time for adventure and less time for the 9-5 grind. If you're ready for an adventure, you're my type of person!

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