The Rainbow Falls hiking trail in the Smoky Mountains is one of several that will take you to the top of Mt. LeConte. It is also the oldest, or earliest known, route to reach Mount LeConte. The trail can be challenging for many, but it also offers an intermediate reward in that it gives you a rest at the beautiful Rainbow Falls waterfall.
About the Rainbow Falls Hiking Trail
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 at least four hours to reach Mt. LeConte. Hikers will gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they get to Mt. LeConte, so it’s a steep trail, and generally not good for children or older adults.
Directions to Rainbow Falls
Take 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 national park, Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area. You will find the trailhead at one edge of the parking area.
Features of the Rainbow Falls Trail in the Smoky Mountains
At the 6.6 mile marker, you will come upon an Alum Cave Trail junction which leads left 0.1 mile to the LeConte Lodge, nearly 7 miles from where you began.
The Rainbow Falls trail gains nearly 4,000 feet in 7 miles, making it one of the more uniquely challenging climbs in the Smoky Mountains. 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 were 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 foot log, and then begins a series of climbing switchbacks.
After you cross the stream a second time, you can spot the high cliff where the fall descends. 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, moist upper reaches of LeConte–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. This trail is also beautiful in the springtime because it fills with many wildflowers. At this point, you will be only a few hundred yards from the top of Mt. LeConte and LeConte Lodge, where you will end your hike.