Turtleback Falls at sunrise in Gorges State Park
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Guide to Visiting Gorges State Park | Activities, Restaurants, & Lodging

Gorges State Park in Transylvania County of North Carolina is the “Land of Waterfalls” with 26 cascades in the park and dozens more nearby.

The park abuts the South Carolina state line, while the state line meeting point with Georgia is not too far away. Here, you’re deep in Appalachia and at the escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Escarpment: əˈskärpm(ə)nt (noun): A long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights.

It’s fitting that the name sounds like “gorgeous.” The cliffs, gorges, and rivers of the park are a natural spectacle, and you might even find some sapphires in the rock.

Gorges State Park is an hour from the Smokies and geared toward more adventurous hikers, but you can still find family-friendly fun. Here are the “Cliff Notes” of the water-carved park at the Carolina state lines.

Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via warwomanrunner

Getting to Know Gorges State Park

Gorges State Park is the newest and westernmost park in North Carolina, covering 8,000 acres, 56 miles of hiking trails, and more than two dozen waterfalls. This slice of natural beauty wasn’t a state park until 2009, and the history has as many twists and turns as the rivers that run through it.

The Park’s History

Like many stories in Appalachia, the park’s history begins with the Cherokee who lived on the land for thousands of years but were eventually forced out during the Indian Removal Act of 1839. As settlers moved in, they had to use the waterways to navigate before roads and trains made their way here.

Similar to Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the area around the Toxaway River became an escape for the elite to enjoy cooler temperatures in a resort town. In 1916, the earthen dam that held the magic together crumbled after extensive rain from post-hurricane storms.

Then, the Singer Sewing Company bought up the land cheaply and logged it. In the 1940s, Duke Energy stepped in to seize the power of the water falling from the cliffs. The energy company transferred the land to the state for conservation in 1999, and it was another decade before the park officially opened.

Transylvania County??

Yes, Gorges State Park is in Transylvania County, but it has nothing to do with vampires. Transylvania means “beyond the woods” and was first used in 1078 for a central Romanian region. Fast forward to 1861 when the same name was given to this county in North Carolina.

It wasn’t until 36 years later when Brahm Stoker’s Dracula was released — set in the Romanian Transylvania where the vampire lived. Since then, Transylvania has been associated with gothic horror and vampires more directly than beautiful places like Gorges State Park.

Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via meganssweetadventures

What Makes Gorges State Park Special?

This question comes with tough competition as every national forest or park nearby covers at least half a million acres. Nearby, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is habitually the most visited national park in the nation with as many as 14 million people visiting each year.

Nevertheless, here are some standout factors about Gorges State Park:

  • SIZE: The volume of waterfalls, sheer cliffs, and scenic views is in a much smaller area with smaller crowds, giving a great experience without driving hours from one side to the other.
  • MICROCLIMATE: This section of the Blue Ridge escarpment drops 2,000 feet in short order, offering dramatic cliff views and impressive waterfalls around every corner.
  • RAINFOREST: With more than 60 inches of rain each year, this is a rainforest in the South with unique plants and animals different than the tropical rainforest you might think of when you hear the word “rainforest.”
  • BACKCOUNTRY: Gorges State Park is built around the backcountry experience, offering a more rugged and intense landscape than most parks and forests that cater to everyday travelers.
Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via erinpridgencrane

5 Quick Things to Know About Gorges State Park

Gorges State Park has some rules and regulations that don’t always align with local or national public lands, so let’s hit the highlights.

Entrance Fee

Gorges State Park is free for day use, and all trails, waterfalls, and scenic views can be accessed without paying a dime. The only fees charged are for camping or pavilion reservations. Be sure to book a campsite at least a day or up to six months ahead of time.

The park has two entrances, and they are 13 miles apart. The Grassy Ridge access is in Sapphire where the popular Rainbow Falls is close by. Frozen Creek access is through the town of Brevard.

NOTE: interagency passes, like the America the Beautiful Pass, will get you access to national parks and forests but not state parks. And, North Carolina State Parks have an annual pass covering state-owned properties.

Park Hours

The park opens at 7 a.m. daily year-round but closes between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. depending on the month. The latest opening months are from May through September, which applies to day-use guests, not campers.


Gorges State Park is a “trash-free” park, so anything that you carry in should be carried out. Recycle bins are available because North Carolina law requires that all plastic bottles and aluminum cans be recycled. Pet waste and human hygiene products should be carried out as well.


Speaking of pets, leashed dogs are allowed at the park and certain campsites. Dogs must be well-behaved and leashed at all times or else the owner will be fined. Not using a leash risks dangerous situations like going over waterfalls or cliffs, which has led to deaths in the park.


Reservations are required in the designated campsite areas of the park. Some reservations require a two-night minimum stay during holiday weeks or weekends.

But, backcountry camping is free and first-come, first-served. You could go anywhere from a half-mile to 5 miles into the wilderness to camp if you choose. Please review the rules and regulations with the park beforehand.

Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via melindadevenouges

Trails of Gorges State Park

Most of the trails in the park are designed for hiking only, but you can find sections where biking (17 miles) and horseback riding (12 miles) are allowed.

FAIR WARNING: The park’s 56 miles of trails include 11 options, and only three are deemed “easy.” Three more are moderate, and the remaining five are strenuous.

Trail NameDistance (one way)Accessible fromDifficultyTime Required
Bearwallow Falls Trail0.2 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterStrenuous15-30 minutes
Lime Kilns Trail0.25 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterEasy15-30 minutes
Picnic Connector Trail0.4 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterEasy15-30 minutes
Heath Pine Ridge Trail0.4 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterEasy30-45 minutes
Indian Camp Trail1 mileGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterModerate45-60 minutes
Winter Green Trail1.1 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterModerate45-60 minutes
Bearwallow Valley Trail1.15 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterModerate45-60 minutes
Rainbow Falls Trail1.5 – 2 milesGrassy Ridge Access & Visitor CenterStrenuous1.5 hours
Canebrake Trail5 milesFrozen Creek AccessStrenuous3-5 hours
Foothills Trail6.7 milesFrozen Creek Access, Grassy Ridge AccessStrenuous4-6 hours
Auger Hole Trail7.2 milesFrozen Creek AccessStrenuous4-6 hours

TIP: Be prepared for changing weather conditions, rain, mud, insects, and stream/river crossings along the way. And, bring water shoes to wear when crossing the watery passageways.

Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via melindadevenouges

Waterfalls of Gorges State Park

A handful of waterfalls are easy to locate on one trail in Gorges State Park. The best investment of time comes on the Rainbow Falls Trail, which takes you into Pisgah National Forest along the Horsepasture River. The cascade is 1.5 miles into the trail, but you can continue on another half-mile to pass Turtleback Falls and see Drift Falls.

NOTE: You must stop at the viewing platform for Drift Falls because the waterfall is on private land.

Take a half-mile detour on the way to or from Rainbow Falls to Stair Step Falls, but be prepared for steep, tough terrain. Hidden Falls is also just off the main trail on the final climb to Rainbow Falls, with calmer waters but a less impressive cascade.

Upper Bearwallow Falls is a short but strenuous trail to a viewing platform over the waterfall. While the park rangers call this trail strenuous, it feels moderate at worst. Some would consider it easy.

NOTE: This isn’t the same as the Rainbow Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

You’ll notice that the Gorges State Park map doesn’t show many more waterfalls than that, while the Hike Western North Carolina website shows more waterfalls without paths.

Whether the park plans to add trails to other waterfalls or if they remain bushwhacking access points only, you should always check with the park before attempting any hike.

Several waterfalls are along the Horsepasture River, which is technically part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. Those waterfalls include Rooster Tail Falls and Windy Falls, which are among the most challenging, dangerous, and elusive waterfalls in the region.

Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via jesseebeckerr

Other Activities at Gorges State Park

Fishing is among the most popular things to do in the robust waters of Gorges State Park. Review the state rules on licensing and where fishing is allowed before you go.

At this time, it does not appear that rock climbing is allowed here. You can find a popular spot less than an hour away at Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest, bearing a slight resemblance to Half Dome at Yosemite. Reach out to an outfitter like Pisgah Climbing School for more information on the best hiking spots.

Mountain biking is allowed on the Auger Hole Trail, which is accessible from the Frozen Creek entrance.

Panthertown Cafe-Sapphire
Panthertown Cafe | photo via pauleypa89

Restaurants Near Gorges State Park

You’re about a 10-minute drive minimum to the nearest restaurants or grocery stores at Gorges State Park, so stop before you head to the park entrance. If you head toward Lake Toxaway, you’ll have no trouble finding options.

  • Panthertown Cafe is the closest to the Grassy Ridge entrance, serving lunch and breakfast in a casual log cabin setting. Feel free to order online ahead of time.
  • Mexican food from Los Vaqueros gets rave reviews, and that’s on top of the view of Toxaway Falls.
  • Grand Olde Station might be one of the newest restaurants here, but it dates back to the early 1900s when it brought tourists to the region (before the flood). Comfort food and Southern classics reign on the menu.
  • The finest dining on the lake is at The Greystone Inn where you can enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch with amazing lake views. The drive is worth it even if you’re just grabbing a drink at the Mansion Bar.
  • The Sapphire Country Store offers groceries and last-minute items for hikers and campers, with Jim’s Place attached if you want a sit-down meal.
Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park | photo via melindadevenouges

Lodging Options Near Gorges State Park

Enjoying the full view of Toxaway Falls is challenging unless you love to bushwhack long distances or you stay at a cabin on the other side of the falls.

This Mountain Condo has three bedrooms and two baths with some of the best waterfall views. A walking path to the water and into the state park makes this location ideal. If you don’t need so much space, consider a condo like this one with one bedroom and the waterfall so close that it will lull you to sleep at night.

Meanwhile, every room is a suite at the Black Bear Lodge of Sapphire, and the welcoming rustic aesthetics make you feel right at home in the mountains.

FAQs About Gorges State Park

Can I stand in three states at one time near Gorges State Park?

Yes, the spot where North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia meet is accessible for those who love a good backcountry adventure. However, it’s nothing fancy like the Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.

The access point is along the Chattooga River Trail in Ellicott Rock Wilderness. It’s about a 20-minute drive to Burrells Ford Campground in Sumter National Forest where you can pick up the trail and hike 3 miles to the state’s meeting point in the middle of the river.

How far is Gorges State Park from Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The fastest route from Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Gorges State Park is 55 miles and takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes. That’s if you’re leaving from the Cherokee NC entrance (Oconaluftee Visitor Center) of the Smokies. Double the distance from Gatlinburg, even if you take the interstate around the park.

If you want to take the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina to Gorges State Park, that’s a 75-mile jaw-dropping drive with 44 miles on the Parkway. It will take at least two hours, but double that time with all the vistas, waterfalls, and hikes.

How dangerous are the waterfalls at Gorges State Park?

A quick Google about waterfall deaths in Transylvania and Brevard Counties will humble any idea you have of sliding down a waterfall. In 2016, six people died at waterfalls here, prompting the Be Waterfall Wise campaign.

As someone who loves waterfalls, I can assure you that the rocks around these beauties are as slippery as ice, even with hiking boots or ice spikes.

Are there bears in Gorges State Park?

Yes, bears are spotted throughout this region often. It’s important to bring bear-proof containers and store all food in them. Hang your belongings up high if you’re camping at night.

Bears have a sense of smell thousands of times better than humans, and they aren’t scared to tear up a camper or destroy a campsite looking for food. Carry bear spray on your hip at all times, even at night.

Turtleback Falls at sunrise in Gorges State Park
Turtleback Falls I photo credit Scott Alan Ritchie / Shutterstock

An Itinerary Full of Amazing Activities in Gorges State Park

Gorges State Park’s scenery competes with some pretty epic spots throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, don’t let the “state park” status make you think that it’s less worthy of a destination.

Although national forests were created more than a century ago and this park’s land was privately owned until about 25 years ago, there are tons of wilderness experiences to be had. Many trails lead between the different public lands across three states, offering expanded itineraries for adventurers.

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