Gorges State Park’s unique geographical position on the edge of the Blue Ridge escarpment makes it a hot spot for waterfalls. Here the topography grows rough and streams quicken as they rush through narrow gorges and plunge over cliffs forming falls, cascades and cataracts.
What’s the draw?
There are more waterfalls here than in any other N.C. state park, but trails are still being planned and constructed to carry hikers to the more remote falls in this 7,500-acre park west of Charlotte in Transylvania County.
National Geographic recognized Jocassee Gorges as one of their “50 Last Best Places to Visit,” noting the biodiversity and stunning landscape of this temperate rainforest that spans the border of North and South Carolina and includes Gorges State Park and Lake Jocassee among the reasons for the honor. A dozen endangered or threatened plant and animal species are among the 125 or so rare species you’ll find in the park, including some tropical plant species and several types of rare mosses, ferns and the Oconee bell, an endangered wildflower.
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Taking in the dazzling array of flora is a must, as is paying a visit to as many of the waterfalls as you can. Fortunately, combining the activities is a no-brainer. Hike to Upper Bearwallow Falls via a short, but tough, trail starting at the White Pines Picnic area, or head to the Bearwallow Valley Overlook to get a sense of the scope of the landscape. You should also hike to Rainbow Falls; this 3-mile round-trip hike goes by the Horse Pasture River, and some waterfalls there, on a strenuous circuit. On each of these hikes you’ll spy rare flora, especially as you near the falls.
Flora near those falls, as well as throughout the park, is one reason more trails haven’t been established yet. Additional trails and overlooks – including those to other waterfalls – are in discussion, but as evaluations of the park continue, part of the consideration is maintaining sensitive habitats while serving the public’s hunger for wild places.
Mountain bikers and equestrian enthusiasts, take note: The 7.25-mile Auger Hole Trail (from Frozen Creek to Turkey Pen Gap) is yours to ride. You’ll share the path with hikers and the route is at times strenuous, but it’s tough to beat a 14.5-mile round-trip ride in mountains like these.
Long hikers should take a look at the 10.4-mile Canebrake Trail, which follows the eastern boundary of the park. Canebrake provides access to the Foothills Trail, which is a long-hiker’s dream. Foothills Trail (www.foothillstrail.org) is 76 miles and spans the North and South Carolina border as it weaves through state parks in both Carolinas, past some of the prettiest waterfalls both states have to offer, and gives hikers opportunities to see the Oconee bell and stunning Lake Jocassee. There’s around 3.5 miles of the Foothills Trail in Gorges State Park, a mile or so following the shores of Lake Jocassee, before connecting with Auger Hole Trail. Much of the route in Gorges State Park is notable for its steep and frequent ascents and descents, so be ready for a workout.
Gorges State Park, 976 Grassy Ridge Road, Sapphire, is open 7 a.m.-midnight daily, with the picnic and day-use areas open 8 a.m.-dusk and the visitor center open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Camp in one of eight primitive campsites for only $10 per night; book online at www.northcarolinastateparks.reserveamerica.com. Park admission is free. Info: 828-966-9099 or www.ncparks.gov.
In May, Brevard’s most famous resident gets the celebrity treatment with live music, a street fair and a town full of fans. The White Squirrel Festival (May 27-29; whitesquirrelfestival.com) will give you a taste of the town’s creative vibe. Be sure to grab lunch at Rocky’s Grill & Soda Shop (www.ddbullwinkels.com/Rockys), a retro restaurant where you can get a shake, malt or ice cream soda to-go with your dog or burger.
For dinner, try Hobnob Restaurant (www.hobnobbrevard.com); its food is delicious and interesting (the sweet chili beurre blanc, served with pan-seared salmon, comes to mind). Have drinks at Brevard Brewing Company (www.brevard-brewing.com) or Oskar Blues Brewery (www.oskarblues.com). And if you’re looking for a place to lay your head, Sunset Motel (www.thesunsetmotel.com) is the place to go.
Area info: www.visitwaterfalls.com.