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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > North Carolina Mountains > The Nantahala Mountains > Horsepasture River Trail and Waterfalls

Horsepasture River Trail and Waterfalls

[Fig. 32(20)] The Horsepasture River is, perhaps, the crowning jewel of North Carolina's mountain rivers, not for its size but for its waterfalls. This river, designated a Wild and Scenic River, lies within one of several extremely rugged river gorges that drain into the equally wild Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. Five spectacular waterfalls, some consisting of a series of cascades, occur alongside a 2.8-mile stretch of the Horsepasture's churning currents and are connected by a main trail with short spur trails to each falls.

The name "Horsepasture" is derived from the name of the alluvial plain created by the river's confluence with Toxaway River and Laurel Fork Creek. Now flooded by Lake Jocassee, this level area was once referred to as the Horse Pasture, its steep mountain walls serving as a natural corral for livestock.

The Horsepasture gorge supports a variety of wildflowers which take advantage of the sunny openings created by the river. Delightful colonies of bluet (Houstonia caerulea) occur on the moist banks and amid grassy islands in the river. Sweet white violet (Viola blanda) often occurs in these areas, and nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum) can usually be seen on wooded slopes near some of the waterfalls during spring.

Birds commonly seen or heard high in the tree canopy during late spring and summer include the red-eyed vireo (Vireo flavoviridis), downy woodpecker (Dendrocopos pubsecens), hooded warbler (Wilsonia citrina), ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), and northern parula warbler (Parual americana). Year-round resident species encountered range from the tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor), white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), and Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) to the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), northern cardinal (Richmondena cardinalis), and rufous-sided towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). Bird-watching is best away from the falls, since these produce a roar that drowns out any bird calls.

In spite of its rugged beauty, the river was almost lost to an electrical power project. Congress, in an attempt to curb its infamous pork barrel water projects tradition that had resulted in ecologically destructive and expensive dams and reservoirs, encouraged the renovation of old, small-scale mill and power dams for new sources of energy. Unfortunately, a loophole in the law also allowed for construction of dams in areas previously undisturbed.

In 1984, the California-based Carrasan Power Company obtained permits to build a water-operated turbine facility on this stretch of the river. Rather than using a reservoir, the plant would divert all of the river's water for its generators. Area power companies insisted that the resulting electricity would not be needed. A local resident, Bill Thomas, quickly organized a group called Friends of the Horsepasture that gained the attention of other citizens, organizations, business interests, and congressional representatives and ultimately stopped the project. Because of their efforts, 4.5 miles of the Horsepasture were included in both state and federal Wild and Scenic River Systems, giving the area permanent protection.

The five waterfalls of the Horsepasture are Drift Falls, Second Falls (or Turtleback Falls for its turtleshell-like rock formation), Rainbow Falls, Stairstep Falls, and Windy Falls. Drift and Turtleback falls occur near the trail access point on Bohaynee Road (NC 281). They are popular scenic falls and are used as swimming and sliding rocks from spring through fall.

Rainbow Falls, located in the southwestern corner of Transylvania County, is among the most spectacular in North Carolina. Its waters drop nearly 200 feet into a deep pool, pounding out a thunderous roar and producing a rising mist that forms beautiful and varied rainbows under the midday sun. The falls can be viewed at the bottom near a grassy bank that also supports a wildflower community. A strong railing has been installed here for safe viewing and to provide a site for excellent photography. The mist created by the falls is blown by a strong wind through a gap in the gorge, soaking those who observe from the railing.

Viewing the next two sets of falls is not easy. The side trail to Stairstep Falls is somewhat confusing, while the final 1.3 miles to Windy Falls is dangerous and recommended only for the most experienced and hardy hikers. Stairstep Falls is appropriately named since it consists of a series of seven cascades that resemble steps 10 feet wide. Once again, photographers will find good sites from which to shoot pictures of these falls. Windy Falls is another matter entirely. Even if one manages to overcome the extremely strenuous trail, it is not possible to photograph the entire falls. The series of cascades at Windy Falls tumbles a combined total of 700 feet down a narrow gorge, creating strong wind-tunnel like air currents.

Warning! It should be noted that the main trail along the Horsepasture River and the short spur trails to the waterfalls can be dangerous. Rain and ice make the trail surface treacherous, especially where bare rock or precipitous ledges occur. Drift Falls and Turtleback Falls may offer good swimming opportunities, but deaths have occurred when swimmers were knocked unconscious against the rocks and then drowned in the deep pools. Some swimmers, unable to stop after sliding down Turtleback, have been swept over Rainbow Falls just downstream, and hikers stepping too close to the top of Rainbow Falls have plummeted to their deaths, as well.

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Published (print): 1999, Published (Web): December 2000, Revised (Web): November 2002, ISBN: 1-56352-463-5
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