Hiking in Gorges State Park

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gorges State Park is a 7500-acre state park in Transylvania County, North Carolina. The land along Jocassee Gorges was purchased by the state from the Duke Energy Corporation in 1999. The park lies adjacent to the Nantahala National Forest and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Toxaway Game Land. It’s now North Carolina's westernmost state park, and one of the newest in the state.

Gorges State Park is characterized by plunging waterfalls, rugged river gorges, sheer rock walls and one of the greatest concentrations of rare and unique species in the eastern United States. With an elevation that rises 2000 feet in only four miles, in conjunction with rainfall in excess of 80 inches per year that creates a temperate rain forest, helps to support the numerous waterfalls the park is famous for.

Several plant species more typical of the tropics thrive where the constant spray from the park's waterfalls and plunging whitewater streams shower the rock walls and talus slopes with mist. Scientists aren’t sure how these plants are able to grow so far from the tropics. One theory is that spores from the tropics blew north and settled in the region. Another explanation is that these species remained in the region from tens of thousands of years ago when a warmer climate existed in North America. Examples of the tropical plants found in the park include Carolina Star Moss, Oconee Bell, Small Whirled Pomona, Fraser’s Loosestrife and Pringle's Aquatic Moss.

Many animals can be found within Gorges, including black bear, wild turkey, fox, coyote, wild boar and deer. North Carolina's largest known population of green salamanders can also be found in Gorges. The secretive salamander hides in the damp, shaded crevices of cliff faces.

The forests of the park provide for abundant habitat for neo-tropical migratory birds as well, including the largest population of Swainson's warbler in the mountains of North Carolina.

Hiking in Gorges State Park

Gorges State Park offers rugged terrain that will challenge any outdoors enthusiast. Hikers who traverse the steep, backwoods trails will be rewarded with views of dazzling waterfalls or perhaps an encounter with one of the numerous rare species of the park.

Trails from the Grassy Ridge parking area:

Bearwallow Falls is a moderate 3.2 mile trail.

Bearwallow Valley Trail is a moderate 2.5 mile trail that takes hikers to one of the highest overlooks in the park. At 3,200 feet above sea level, you’ll enjoy views into South Carolina as well as Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee.

Waterfall Overlook Trail leads to a small observation platform overlooking a long cascade on Bearwallow Creek.

The Rainbow Falls Trail really has two "trailheads", but it officially starts in Gorges State Park before entering into Nantahala National Forest. Running for three miles, the trail descends to the Horsepasture River above Stairway Falls, and then proceeds to Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls, before ending at the National Forest boundary just below Drift Falls. After meeting with the river, the trail narrows and becomes much steeper and rougher up to the falls. Please note that the steep, rocky, eroded side trail up to NC 281 is no longer part of the official trail.

Trails from the Frozen Creek parking area:

Auger Hole Trail is a strenuous 12-mile roundtrip multipurpose trail that bisects the heart of the park and ends at the Foothills Trail. Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders are allowed on this trail. There are two river fords where hikers are likely to get their feet wet.

Buckberry Ridge Nature Trail is an easy, 0.75 mile walk.

Canebreak Trail is a moderately strenuous 10-mile roundtrip trail that ends at Lake Jocassee and the Foothills Trail. The trail follows an old forestry road along the entire route. The lake can be seen from the suspension bridge on the Foothills Trail. Camping is permitted at the Cane Brake campsites on Lake Jocassee.

The Foothills Trail runs 6.7 miles through Gorges State Park, and is one of the park's most popular pathways. The trail winds along the southern portion of the state park and wraps around Lake Jocassee where primitive campsites are available. This section of trail is actually one of the more popular segments of the larger 77-mile path that runs through Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina.

Ray Fisher Place is a 5.4 mile moderately difficult hike to a primitive campsite with six sites.

In addition to hiking, visitors have opportunities for mountain biking, horseback riding, camping, boating and fishing in the park. Mountain biking and horseback riding are currently permitted on the Auger Hole Trail from the Frozen Creek Access to Turkey Pen Gap on the western boundary of the park.

Key Links:
Gorges State Park
Gorges Park Map
The Foothills Trail


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