Here’s where you can enjoy the wild in a big way.
Gorges State Park – west of Brevard and also in Transylvania County – is the westernmost park in the North Carolina system. It’s also one of the newest (established in 1999) with many amenities added the past couple of years to make visiting more enjoyable.
The nearly 8,000-acre park on the South Carolina border provides excellent opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, boating and camping.
The park entrance is on N.C. 281, a mile south of Sapphire on U.S. 64. There are no signs for the park at the intersection: Look instead for the sign to Whitewater Falls.
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A trail opened last fall that makes the walk to the Bearwallow Valley Overlook quicker and and a lot less strenuous. The trail is so new, in fact, that it’s not even shown on the free park map given out at the information desk. (You’ll need to ask the staff about this shortcut.) The overlook itself is 3,200 feet above sea level and offers views of the valley and lakes Jocassee and Keowee to the south. Shutterbugs should be aware that the view, though impressive, is somewhat marred by power lines and towers. To enjoy the view from a different vantage, drive down a one-way paved road to the Gorges Overlook.
A half-mile trail, rated strenuous, leads to Upper Bearwallow Falls, a 200-foot cascade.
The park’s most popular destination is Rainbow Falls, though the waterfall itself is actually outside the park in the Pisgah National Forest. The rugged, 3-mile roundtrip path is well-shaded but definitely strenuous. There is also a creek to cross – this ford has no footbridge, but stones have been lined up to ease its crossing. Exercise caution and choose your stepping stones wisely. Less than a quarter-mile beyond the picturesque Rainbow Falls is Turtleback Falls, less photogenic but worth seeing.
Everything mentioned so far is in the Grassy Ridge Access Area in the western section of the park. The Frozen Creek Access Area, in the park’s eastern section, is much more remote and features several longer trails that will appeal to more experienced hikers. This is also where horse and biking trails are located. Bear Wallow Creek and Toxaway River flow through the park, providing for some good fishing; Rainbow trout and smallmouth bass are among the common catches.
Lake Jocassee straddles the N.C./S.C. state at Gorges State Park and boat access is at Devil’s Fork State Park in South Carolina.
Primitive camping is offered in several areas of the park.
Gorges State Park (www.ncparks.gov) opens daily at 8 a.m.; closing hours vary seasonally. Admission: free.
In the area...
Allow yourself time to make the 8-mile drive south on N.C. 281 to Upper Whitewater Falls. There is a $2 per vehicle fee for parking at the lot. Picnic tables and rest rooms are located here. The Whitewater River, etching its way through the Jocassee Gorge, provides spectators with an awe-inspiring cascade – a drop of 411 feet.
If you’re hungry/thirsty..
On Main Street in downtown Hendersonville. Mike’s on Main is a ’50s-era ice cream and soda shop that also serves sandwiches. Hannah Flanagan’s (www.theoriginalhannahflanagans.com) is a pub offering plenty of beer choices and a tasty selection of soups, salads, sandwiches and sides. The Gamekeeper’s Tavern, a few miles west of Gorges State Park on U.S. 64, provides upscale dining, with an exotic menu and an incredible selection of fine wines (www.gamekeeperstavern.com).