Windy Falls (9-8-18)
With hundreds of waterfalls to choose from, the mountains of Western North Carolina offer almost endless possibilities for adventure to the individual who seeks to visit these awesome natural wonders. All have characteristics that make them unique and special but some, inevitably, stand out as singularly majestic. Whether it be due to a remote or rugged location, their sheer height or volume, or another intangible quality these cascades stand above the rest. Which waterfalls in particular might populate this elite list is a matter of debate, of course, but some that stand out in my mind would be Big Falls on the Thomson River, Flat Creek Falls, Dismal Falls, Steels Creek Falls, or the waterfalls of the Upper Whitewater River. We can debate which ones could be included but I think everyone should be able to agree that the particular waterfall I was seeking out this trip deserves a spot among the greats as well…that would be the mighty Windy Falls of the Horsepasture River. Flowing only 18-miles from the highlands of Jackson County down to Lake Jocassee in South Carolina, the Horsepasture is a masterpiece of water and rock as the river tumbles nearly a vertical half-mile along its course. The stretch of river lying in the four-ish miles between NC Highway 281 and the State Line in particular is home to some of the most beautiful cascades in the state. Drift, Turtleback, Rainbow, Stairway, Sidepocket, and many others of unofficial names lie along this incredible stretch of river. Windy Falls, however, is the undisputed king. In a distance of perhaps a quarter-mile the Horsepasture here drops a staggering 700+ feet in a series of cascades all but unmatched in their power, size, and ruggedness. If there’s one drawback it’s that there is no good way to see the falls in their entirety except from the air or distant ridges. Up close it has to be enjoyed piecemeal…but trust me, its “pieces” rival most other waterfalls of the area just on their own. All that said, you might say it sounds like Windy Falls is a place you’d like to see. I’d take a good long pause first and browse this report/album first. Windy Falls IS NOT A PLACE FOR NOVICES. I don’t mean to sound harsh saying that, it’s a matter of safety. One can reach the top of the falls without too much difficulty but if you want to get to the bottom, as we did on this trip, you need to be supremely confident in route-finding in rugged terrain, climbing and descending near-vertical ledges with rope, and simply be in shape enough to descend and climb the extremely steep route this hike follows. This is some of the most remote and rugged terrain in North Carolina…full stop. If you are injured or incapacitated in some way on this hike it will take a long, long time for help to arrive. There are also more than a few places at Windy where a lack of respect or knowledge of the terrain will simply get you killed. There, that’s my PSA for the album…let’s get to the hike shall we?
The route to Windy Falls begins at the busy Rainbow Falls Trailhead (formerly, the Grassy Ridge Trailhead) at Gorges State Park which is also the access point for all the other popular falls on the Horsepasture River. On a quick side note, Windy Falls isn’t actually inside Gorges State Park but rather the adjoining Toxaway Game Lands. I realize this might be misleading as I included it among my State Park albums but to avoid confusion on my site I like to organize my hikes based on the location of the trailheads. Thus, I’ve included Windy among my Gorges hikes although technically it should be elsewhere. I digress though…the route begins by starting down the popular Rainbow Falls Trail for an uneventful quarter-mile before turning left onto the Raymond Fisher Trail which leads to one of the parks backcountry campgrounds. In another tenth of a mile the Raymond Fisher intersects the Chestnut Mountain Road (a four-wheel-drive route popular with hunters, fisherman, and jeep enthusiast) onto which the route makes a right, or southward, turn. The Chestnut Mountain Road offers more gentle downhill walking before, about a quarter-mile later, you’ll reach a small gravel pile on a slight left-hand bend. On the outside of the curve a faint path enters the laurels…this is the trail to Windy Falls. It’s important to note at this point that this isn’t an officially maintained trail, meaning that the conditions we found along it might not be the same as what you’ll find on a future visit. I’m fairly confident it will remain a fairly obvious trail to find and follow into the future (Windy Falls is infrequently visited but certainly not unknown) but just know trail conditions can change dramatically since the park doesn’t devote resources to keeping it open. About 100 feet in from the road the trail passes a large solitary boulder and starts a gentle descent through a dense laurel thicket. The grade starts dropping a bit more as the trail eventually starts to follow a deep cove which drains towards the Horsepature far below. There’s nothing really to note along this stretch of the hike but the surrounding woodlands are beautiful and the walking, for the most part, is easy. About ¾ of a mile from the road the path reaches the end of the ridge it has been following and curves around to make its final drop to the river. This is a steep bit of hiking but it doesn’t last long and soon the trail emerges alongside the Horsepasture at a large campsite. A nice little cascade sits just upstream from the campsite, offering a first look at the river and a good place to take a short break before tackling the route to come. A path, slightly fainter than the one that led to the campsite, enters the woods heading downstream. Almost immediately, however, it pops out onto a huge sloping rock ledge with wonderful views downstream. This is the uppermost brink of Windy Falls. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the terrain, the view of the falls itself is a bit limited. This may tempt you to keep wandering farther out the rock face to find a better vantage point. DON’T DO IT. I’ve been told the views are no better and the slope of the rock is deceptive, meaning you could quickly find yourself in a lot of trouble wandering too far down. If you fall here you won’t survive. It’s that simple. It’s a pretty enough spot from the top without risking your life. This is also a good spot to turn around if the technical portion of this hike, which I alluded to earlier, doesn’t sound appealing. The easy part of the hike is over at this point.
To continue downstream one has to go back to the woods where you emerged onto the open rocks and pick up the narrow but obvious path which climbs the hill above. It may not at first seem like it’s headed in the right direction but after a short ascent the path turn downstream again following a large sloping cliff face. The terrain here is very uneven and occasionally steep as the path first follows alongside the cliffs before making a series of steep descents through the laurel towards the river once again. After perhaps a quarter mile the path once again emerges atop yet another huge rock-face with the Horsepasture River rushing down the far side. Directly across the way is a truly impressive sight. A boulder the size of a small house, known as Bear Rock, sits askew on the open slope. Just upstream is a pretty series of broken cascades tumbling from the rock ledge from earlier far above. Technically the middle portion of Windy Falls, I’ve also been told this series of cascades goes by the name of Bear Rock Falls. It’s a wonderful sight to see, just be careful skirting the open rock face up to see it…once again this isn’t a place you’ll want to make a slip. At this point the route gets even more technical. To continue downward the path should be noticeable as it skirts the open ledge down from where you first stepped out onto it, just inside the wood-line. Take care here as the terrain is getting ever steeper. Within a couple minutes the path arrives at an almost sheer 30-foot broken cliff. This is the first spot where rope is handy, if not necessary. Some might be comfortable scrambling down this ledge but it's damp and having a rope makes things much much easier and safer. Once at the bottom of the ledge the trail again skirts down along the base of a high cliff before emerging into a jungle of large boulders. A couple short scrambles later the route emerges onto the top of an enormous boulder sitting right alongside the huge lower drop of Windy. The view here of the falls and the rocky pool below is incredible. To get down there, though, requires the most technical portion of the hike. On the upper (or, right) side facing the falls is a tiny cleft in the rock, where a small opening gives access to a small ledge beneath. This is the famous "Keyhole Route" of Windy Falls. The Keyhole provides the easiest access to the base of the falls. Passing through the opening, which is at best 12-inches wide, one lands on a small ledge beneath which is an almost sheer 20-foot drop. It's best to string a rope through the keyhole and down this cliff to aid in the descent. Luckily there are plenty of handholds here so careful scrambling should deposit you at the bottom with little trouble. Once at the bottom look left down the sloping rock. Beneath the massive boulder you just descended from is a small cave which, it turns out, passes all the way beneath it providing access to its far side without having to swim around it. After passing through the cave, and then making a quick hip-deep wade through the water along the cliff edge, the trek to the base of Windy Falls is complete...and what a place it is...
Thundering down the sloping cliff upstream is the 100+ foot lower drop of Windy Falls. To its left a massive curving wall of sheer rock, and to its right is the two-story-house-sized boulder descended from by way of the keyhole. It's an majestic natural tapestry of rock and water the likes of which I've witnessed at few other places during my life. The sheer power of the natural forces which formed this place are awesome to contemplate. I'm sorry...words just fail to express the scene adequately...pictures, like what you'll see in this album, only portray the scene slightly better. The of Windy from the rocks you arrive first at is awesome...the view from the rocks on the opposite side of the river is even better. Just be careful if you decide to cross. The currents of the Horsepasture are surprisingly strong, even at relative low water like when we went. The reward is spectacular, however, as you're able to see the full sliding drop of the lower falls as it cuts down the side of the cliff. Downstream the churning waters of the river continue their tumultuous drop towards Lake Jocassee. The massive cliffs line the far side of the river as the Horsepasture tumbles down yet another large cascade and disappears into the gorge below. On my visit I burned an hour down here without even thinking about it. It was incredible, awe-inspiring, and humbling to stand in such a place of this.
The return journey simply involves retracing the route in. If you're like me though it'll seem far shorter as your mind will likely still be reeling and reminiscing over the sights it has just enjoyed. One thing that will grab your attention though is the climb. If you hadn't noticed how far you had descended on the way in, you'll certainly be aware of it on the way out. It's a haul, but from my perspective that's appropriate...no place as wondrous as Windy Falls should be too easy to visit. It's part of what makes the place so special. I pray it stays that way always. It's no surprise then to say I loved this hike. It surpassed my expectations in every way. It's nature as I always hope to experience it...powerful, pristine, and wild. It's places like Windy Falls that continue to inspire me to explore. So...come along with me as I finally make the trek to the incomparable Windy Falls of the Horsepasture River. I sincerely hope some of the joy and wonder I found in this place can be shared with you in some small way...and, as always, enjoy...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.088811, -82.951810
Route Type: Out-and-back Difficulty: EXTREME
Hike Length: 5.0 miles Hike Duration: 6:00
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: NONE!!!
Min. Elevation: 1,750' Max. Elevation: 2,950'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,200' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 480' (all on return)
Trails Used (blaze color/shape): Rainbow Falls (orange circles), Raymond Fisher (blue circles), plus other unblazed/unofficial paths