Horsepasture River

North Carolina

At 4.2 miles, the designated segment of the Horsepasture is one of the shortest rivers in the National System in the continental United States. Cascading out of North Carolina's rugged forests, it is an exceptional example of an escarpment river, with five major waterfalls within two miles and numerous cascades, rapids, boulders, and rock outcroppings. Rainbow Falls is the largest of the five falls along the river's course, with a vertical drop of approximately 125 feet. The falling water generates a great deal of spray, and a rainbow can be seen when the sun is at the proper angle. The view downstream from the top of the falls is panoramic. A hiking trail that can be accessed from national forest land provides excellent viewing opportunities. Please respect private property and only use this access point.

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Designated Reach

October 26, 1986. From Bohaynee Road (N.C. 281) downstream to Lake Jocassee.

Outstandingly Remarkable Values


The river gorge has a great variety of microenvironments relative to plant species and communities. It is most noteworthy for its mosses and ferns. A remarkable number of disjunct and endemic bryophytes and tropical ferns have been observed. The spray zone of Rainbow Falls has a wetland habitat unique to this area characterized by grasses and herbaceous species. The lower gorge is one of few known locations of the Oconee bells (Shortia glacifolia), a state endangered species. 


The Horsepasture River gorge is the narrowest, steepest, and most vertical of the gorges in the southeastern Blue Ridge escarpment. It transects an extensive stratigraphic section and several important and problematic geologic structures. The exposed rocks significantly illustrate geologic processes and offer excellent opportunities for geologic study. 



The river has outstanding passive recreation value associated with viewing the waterfalls and surrounding scenery. It also provides opportunities for water-oriented activities and recreational experiences unique to a river environment, such as sliding that occurs at Drift and Turtleback Falls. This popular activity is unique to this area and can occur only because of the character of the river. Other attractions include swimming, and fishing, and primitive camping. 


While many rivers in North Carolina possess more spectacular waterfalls, none contain the number and variety of falls within a short segment that is found in the Horsepasture River gorge. The five major falls within a two-mile stretch vary in height (20-125 feet), type of drop (vertical, slide, or flume) and surrounding views. Numerous minor falls, cascades, rapids, boulders, rock outcrops, and aesthetically pleasing vegetation combine with these falls to create a unique and dynamic viewing experience. 


Managing Partners And Contacts


Public Law 99-53045.29 KB


Recreational Scenic
Recreational — 0.6 miles; Scenic — 3.6 miles; Total — 4.2 miles.
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