The Horsepasture River, located in Western North Carolina, is nothing short of a behemoth. The 18.1 mile National Wild and Scenic river stretches between two states, boasts at least 12 significant waterfalls, and a chunk passes through Gorges State Park – 4.5 miles of which is designated as a State Natural River!
Many are familiar with the popular Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River but one specific stretch I haven’t seen, or really read many trip reports of, is a boulder-choked, half mile chunk between Sidepocket Falls and where the Windy Falls Trail meets the river.
During a drought period in late summer of 2019, I was accompanied on an exploratory hike of this section with friends Thomas “Badger” Mabry, Kitty “Rock Sprite” Myers, and “Famous” Amos Mitchell. The goal was to route a loop from the new(ish) Sidepocket Falls Trail to the river, heading downstream until we reach the Windy Falls Campsite, and then take the Windy Falls Trail back out. This journey totaled 3.5 miles and featured some of finest summer swimming holes!
The loop started at the popular Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Trailhead, located in Gorges State Park.
There are two options on how to start. From the parking area, you can head down Chestnut Mountain Rd (the gravel road) for 0.5 miles until you reach the Windy Falls Spur; or you can head down the Rainbow Falls Trail for 0.3 miles until you reach the intersection with the Raymond Fisher Trail, turn left (heading towards the campground) for 0.25 miles until you reach the gravel Chestnut Mountain Rd, and then turn right for another 650ft until you reach the Windy Falls Spur. If you’re the type that enjoys walking in the woods for the sake of walking in the woods, then I’d recommend taking the scenic route in and Chestnut Mountain Rd on the way out.
The start of the Windy Falls Spur can be a bit tricky to spot if you aren’t looking carefully. Specifically, it is located at (35* 4.9193′ N, -82*57.0355′ W), but there is also a fairly large gravel mound on the side of the road right where it starts that you can use for a landmark. The spur begins as a rhodo tunnel but will soon open up to be an old logging grade. Once a little down the grade, you’ll notice another road just below you on your left – it will eventually join the Windy Falls Spur in about 0.25 miles. Make sure to remember this as you head back out and to take the higher road!
About a quarter mile down from Chestnut Mountain Rd, at (35*4.8013′ N, -82* 57.2003’W), the split for the Sidepocket Falls Spur starts on your right. The beginning is obscure to find but at about 2640′ elevation, the eastward ridge is “relatively” flat-ish before the Windy Falls Spur begins to descend the remaining 600ft+ to the Horsepasture River. Here, you want to head diagonally right. Very shortly after leaving the trail, you should begin to pick up a faint path cut out. In about 500ft, you’ll reach another old logging grade heading towards your right. Continue to follow that more directly east. From there, the path should be manageable to follow if you’re watching for the cut/flagging tape (but don’t count on the flagging tape to be there).
Around 2480′ elevation the path gets steep as it snakes down through rhodo tunnels and loses just over 200′ in elevation.
Once the path decsends to the river it will turn right (north) for about another 200ft before spitting you at the base of the bottom drops of Sidepocket Falls.
Head upstream on river left for another 50 yards to reach the base of Sidepocket Falls. Note that in high waters, the boulders get completely soaked/the river rises above them and ascending this point would be unsafe.
Of course, the sun was blaring hard on this day. But at least it makes for a killer swimming hole!
From here, the goal is to (not so) simply head downstream via the path of least resistance. I’ll be honest, there isn’t really a solid way other than rock scrambling and full body river crossings/wades the entire way. Bushwhacking around sections of the river would be miserably masochistic or swing you around so wide that it wouldn’t be worth it. Save yourself the hassle – be prepared to get wet and only attempt this section with optimal weather on your side.
In about 250ft from the base of the bottom drops of Sidepocket Falls, the river bends to the left and will begin to enter a rocky narrow. Very shortly, you will be forced to cross onto river left in order to proceed downstream.
After the Horsepasture enters the rocky narrow, it will go over a small falls and long chute/narrow slot that kayakers call Highway to Heaven.
Although not overly large, these falls are some of my favorite from the whole trip. I especially love the long chute encased by the boulder shelf. Stay river left to descend further.
In about 400ft of boulder scrambling downstream, a low flow tributary feeds the Horsepasture River, at the bend, on river right. At the confluence, there is a small 20ft waterfall. After checking it out, I don’t really think it is worth the scramble up the hill or wade across the river to see.
About 160ft further upstream from that small falls is an even smaller 10ft waterfall. I came up on river right of the trib, but as with the first one, I don’t really think it is worth the effort.
Heading downstream from there proved easiest on river left. In about 350ft, you’ll reach a pretty notable waterfall that kayakers aptly refer to as Double Dose. Coming down the waterfall is a bit tricky, though. Heading river left, I was able to slide down the rock face in a small overhang crack to reach a big boulder in front of the waterfall, then climbed over it. At that point, it’s easier to reach a safer vantage point on flatter boulders in the river. The rest of the group deployed a rope to get down here and swam around the boulder instead of climbing.
This waterfall really reminds me of a smaller version of Stairway Falls, just further upstream on the Horsepasture River. It also has a good swimming hole that I can personally vouch for!
The next 350ft gets more technical. The river begins to get more choked out as the boulders get larger. There were a couple full body wades that we had to negotiate.
There are a few small cascades during that stretch, too. Some of them are nice and make good photo subjects. During this time, we rock hopped between sides of the river or staying in the middle – it just depended on which way was easiest at the moment.
Around 350ft downstream from Double Dose, the river begins a slight curve towards the right. You’ll want to make your way onto river right at this point because on river left there will be a 200ft bluff looming over the river.
The riverside bluff was certainly a real treat for our adventure. I knew there would be a cliff there, from studying the topo map prior to our trip, but I didn’t expect it to have such a “WOW” factor to it.
Much like the entire journey thus far, the best way to continue was more river rock hopping and wading when needed. In around 250ft, we found ourselves on top of another boulder choked waterfall, this time with a small riverside wall on river right.
As you can see from the photo above, the river splits the big boulder in the center. It was pretty hard to cross to river left or scramble down the boulders without taking rather big jumps. We bushwhacked around river right, just above the wall. It was fairly simple and not too brutal. At one point, there is a large keyhole that gives a killer profile view of the waterfall (Of which I did not get a photo. I don’t know what I was thinking, haha.)
This one is super cool. I absolutely love how in the photos above, the river is encased by rock and boulder – everything from walls on the sides, bluffs peaking through the treeline above, and river rocks jutting out of the river like fins. Even the 25ft waterfall has an overarching rock hanging above it, and you can even walk out onto it if you’re willing to climb the boulder.
At this point, the Windy Falls Campsite, and the consequent waterfalls above it, were only about 150ft further downstream. We proceeded river left, mostly, until the river splits and creates two separate drops. But the river left drop is a 15ft “pour” type that also splits as it drops between three massive boulders.
The river right fork is considerably more impressive than the river left one. It is worth the scramble and river crossing to get a good angle on it.
This 25ft drop makes a great photo subject, and I was pretty stoked to notice an opportunity to catch some swirls in my framing with some long exposures!
The base of this drop is also the brink of the lower waterfall, right at the Windy Falls campsite. To get to the above viewpoint requires crossing the Horsepasture right on the brink, so be sure to exercise caution and awareness.
The group proceeded down via river left because river right has another rock wall wrapping a beautiful swimming hole. I decided to head river right anyways because not only do you need to be on that side of the river to see the lower falls properly, but I also wanted to get a photo that captured both drops and forks!
From here, the Windy Falls Trail is on river left, at the campsite. We followed this steep incline up and out back to Chestnut Mountain Road, about 1 mile away. In 3/4 mile on your way up, you’ll pass the Sidepocket Falls Trail. Once back on the road, it’s a half mile hike to the parking lot.