Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Rainbow Falls

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Hiking the Smoky Mountains
The Rainbow Falls Trail

One of several trails (see the map below) that will take you to the peak of Mt. LeConte, Rainbow Falls Trail is also the oldest route to Mt. LeConte. This is a challenging trail, but it has its rewards. It's a great place to rest and provides a spectacular view of Rainbow Falls.

Summary: If completed all the way to Mt. LeConte, you'll find the Rainbow Falls Trail to be fairly challenging. It takes about an hour and a half to hike to Rainbow Falls and four hours to Mt. LeConte. Hikers should be prepared to gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they reach Mt. LeConte.

Point of Departure: Cherokee Orchard Road - In Gatlinburg, turn at light No. 8 and follow the Airport Road approximately one mile out of Gatlinburg into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Airport Road will change into Cherokee Orchard Road. Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area about 2.5 miles after entering the park. The trailhead can be found at one edge of the parking area.

Features of Interest: The 2.8 mile point is where you'll find your first reward when you arrive at Rainbow Falls. There is an Alum Cave Trail junction at the 6.6 mile point. A left will lead you 0.1 mile to the LeConte Lodge - 6.7 miles from where you began and the only lodging found within the park. If you choose to stay overnight at LeConte Lodge, they do require a reservation, which should be obtained weeks or even months in advance by calling (865) 429-5704.

Rainbow Falls Hiking Map

 The Rainbow Falls Trail

Hikers can expect a short jaunt to Rainbow Falls followed by a challenging climb to Mt. LeConte on The Rainbow Falls Trail.

The Rainbow Falls Trail gains nearly 4,000 feet in 6.7 miles, making it one of the park's more uniquely challenging climbs. The original Rainbow Falls Trail is arguably the oldest route to Mount LeConte, and follows the LeConte Creek on its eastern side. LeConte Creek was known as Mill Creek because of the great number of grist mills that once operated along the creek.

The Rainbow Falls Trail begins along the stream. Though one mile above Cherokee Orchard, the trail twists away from the stream and you find yourself on an exposed ridge. The trail does return creekside, however the hiker must cross by way of a footlog, before climbing a series of switchbacks.

You'll spot the high cliff from which the falls descend after you cross the stream a second time. The cliff itself is surrounded by a growth of hemlocks and a thicket of rhododendron.

At this point LeConte Creek is fairly narrow, thus forcing the water outward and into a heavy mist before settling some 82 feet below. A rainbow effect is created by sunlight reflecting off the mist which gives the falls their name.


Crossing LeConte Creek for the third time, Rainbow Falls now comes into full view. If you're able to navigate over the rocks, it will allow for a closer approach, and a better view, of the falls. For the hiker who has yet to get his or her fill, the trail continues past Rainbow Falls, becoming steeper, before leveling off to an easier course on the way to the LeConte terminus. Rainbow Falls Hike Photograph of AstersJust remember while you're out on the trail, as the path moves up the mountain and into the cooler upper reaches of LeConte, temperatures can drastically change and unprepared hikers could discover themselves in surprisingly cool temperatures, especially if it's raining. Plant life changes as well in this type of climate. Spruce, mountain ash, and balsam dominate the trees, and crimson bee balms, Indian Pipes, asters, and monkshoods are also evident.

  Rainbow Falls Hike Photograph
[ Larger image 40k ]

The Alum Cave Bluff and Bull Head trails intersect the Rainbow Falls Trail a short distance from the summit of Mount LeConte. You will be only a few hundred yards from the top of Mt. LeConte and LeConte Lodge at this point.

Note: Hikers can check weather conditions and temperatures at different elevations if you have Internet access prior to your departure. But use the Internet as only a guideline because conditions can change abruptly in the Smokies. In all, the park averages 90 inches of rain on an annual basis.

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