Great Smoky Mountains Cabins, Gatlinburg Tennessee, Wedding Chapels

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 Rainbow Falls Hikers

Hiking the Smokies:
The Rainbow Falls Trail

Rainbow Falls Hike Smoky Mountains National Park
he Rainbow Falls Trail is one of several (see the map below) that will take you to the peak of Mt. LeConte and is also the oldest or earliest route to LeConte. The trail can be challenging, but also offers an intermediate reward in that it affords the hiker a rest at the beautiful Rainbow Falls.

Summary: The Rainbow Falls Trail is fairly challenging if completed all the way to Mt LeConte. Allow an hour and a half to Rainbow Falls and four hours to Mt LeConte. Hikers will gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they get to Mt. LeConte.

Point of Departure: Cherokee Orchard Road - Turn at light #8 in Gatlinburg and follow the Airport Road 1 mile out of Gatlinburg into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name will change from Airport Road to Cherokee Orchard Road. About 2.5 miles after entering the Park, Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area. You will find the trail head at one edge of the parking area.

Features of Interest: Your first reward comes at the 2.8 mile point when you arrive at Rainbow Falls. At the 6.6 mile point you will come upon an Alum Cave Trail junction which leads left 0.1 mile to the LeConte Lodge (the only lodging to be found within the Park), which is 6.7 miles from where you began. Overnights at LeConte Lodge require a reservation, which should be obtained weeks or even months in advance by calling (865) 429-5704.

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Rainbow Falls Hiking Map

 The Rainbow Falls Trail

A short jaunt to Rainbow Falls and a challenging climb on to Mt. LeConte await the hiker on The Rainbow Falls Trail.

The Rainbow Falls Trail gains nearly four thousand feet in 6.7 miles, making it one of the more uniquely challenging climbs in the Smokies. The original trail is arguably the oldest route to Mount LeConte, and followed the east side of LeConte Creek. At that time, LeConte Creek was known as Mill Creek-- because of the large number of grist mills that operated along the creek.

The Rainbow Falls Trail begins along the stream, and 1 mile above Cherokee Orchard, it twists away from the stream onto an exposed ridge. Shortly it returns creekside, the hiker crossing by way of a footlog, and then begins a series of climbing switchbacks.

After you cross the stream a second time, you can spot the high cliff from which the falls descend. The cliff is surrounded by a thicket of rhododendron and a growth of hemlocks.

LeConte Creek is fairly narrow at this point, and forces the water outward into a heavy mist before settling eighty-two feet below. Sunlight reflecting off this mist creates the rainbow effect which gives the falls their name.

 

When you cross the LeConte Creek for the third time, Rainbow Falls comes into complete view. Navigation over the rocks allows a closer approach--and a better view--of the falls. For the hardier hiker, the trail continues beyond Rainbow Falls, and becomes steeper, before changing again to a more easy course on the way to the LeConte terminus. The hiker should remember--as the trail moves up the mountain and into the cooler, Rainbow Falls Hike Photograph of Astersmoist upper reaches of LeConte--that temperatures can change considerably and unprepared hikers might find themselves in surprisingly cool temperatures--especially if it's raining. With the change in climate, plant life changes as well. Balsam, spruce, and mountain ash dominate the trees, and crimson bee balms, asters, Indian Pipes, and monkshoods are also evident.

  Rainbow Falls Hike Photograph [ Larger image 40k ]

 

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

Note: If you have access to the internet prior to departure, you can check the general weather conditions and temperatures at different elevations. Use this only as a guideline, however, because conditions can change abruptly in the Smokies, which average 90 inches of rain each year.


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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 10 degrees cooler than when you leave lower elevations. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don't judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter.

When traveling in the Smokies, it's a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Footwear should be chosen with care. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail, because most hikers who get lost do so when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point--either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don't weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don't start a hike if thunderstorms threaten--some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms which can be upon you with little warning.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don't let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most "incidents" occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear. Our own experiences with bears have proven this to be true.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the "off" season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to "discover for the first time".

ith a little care and planning, your trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

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