So you’re headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Interested in tackling a hike while you’re there? Maybe see a waterfall? And you’re staying on the north side of the park? Enter the Rainbow Falls Trail.
Now this is one of the park’s most popular trails. But it’s easy to understand why. The Rainbow Falls are impressive. They tumble down 80 feet into a small pool below. (A pool some decided to stand under to feel the spray..in October!!.) So, to say the least, this is one big waterfall. And I do love me some waterfalls.
Okay the Rainbow Falls Trail is popular, but it’s also pretty intense. It’s 2.7 miles uphill to the falls. The trail itself keeps going to the top of Mt. Le Conte, but most day hikers turn around once they reach the falls. So know this going in…this isn’t exactly just a walk in the woods. Expect some switchbacks.
Though we had every intention of waking up early, after making breakfast and driving to the falls, we weren’t on the trail till about 11:20am. Now parking at the trailhead is going to be tight if you go during peak times (like we did). There are only two main parking lots about .3 miles apart. We ended up parking along the side of the road leading into the second parking lot. And most end up just finding a level spot along the road to pull over into.
One you’re on the trail, it starts out relatively easy as it ascends alongside Le Conte Creek. The trail is also very wide here and well maintained. Though there are just a few steps.
Then the trail will swing to the left and here is where I really started to feel the uphill. But startlingly that wasn’t the main thing I noticed during this section of the trail.
Instead I noticed the fire damage.
In November 2016 several wildfires spread throughout the park. And at this point into our weekend, we had barely seen any damage. But hiking up through this part of the trail was shocking. Trees were bare of limbs and leaves. And some were barely even sticks. And then there was the ground, burned black in some areas.
But life was also returning to the area. Small green plants were shooting out of the dark ground. Racing towards the sun above. And it was this that made me feel just a little bit better. I know that fires are needed in some areas, but sometimes it’s still hard for me to see. And this return of life made that easier.
After this section, the Rainbow Falls Trail swings back to the right towards the creek and then over it via a very narrow little wooden bridge. A footbridge if I may. And the railing is only on one side, so be careful.
Then more switchbacks (yay). And finally, when you think you should be there, you’ll cross back over the stream again at a very small little waterfall (6 feet high or so). When we reached this small crossing (and it is a crossing since there are no bridges – think rock hopping instead), there were plenty of people resting. Many were considering turning back.
But the falls were only .2 or so miles further. And so we trodded on.
This last section before the falls is especially boulder-y. And wet when we went through. But, before you know it, you’ll finally reach the falls!
Go ahead and scramble up the boulders to get closer if you feel comfortable doing so. We made our way up until we found a nice spot to sit back and relax.
At one point I crossed over to the other side of the falls to get a better angle. I had expected this to be easy. Long story short…it wasn’t.
The rocks are quite slippery and the water in certain places looks deeper than it is. And at one point when I was in the midst of losing my footing, I had to plant my shoe into the stream and really test the waterproofness of my hiking boots.
Yep the stream was about 8 inches deep.
And though my boots didn’t get soaked, they did get wet. Because they were completely submerged. Overall though I have to say Iwas impressed with how they handled it.
But I did get some great shots of the falls from the other side. So worth the wet boot? Maybe.
After stopping for about an hour or so, we headed back down the trail. I especially loved the smaller cascades below the main Rainbow Falls. And the photo I got of one of them is actually my favorite from the whole hike.
Okay obviously the hike down is easier. Though I still had to go a little bit slower due to my knees, Ryan and I made excellent time coming down. In the end it took us 2 hours to reach the falls and 1.5 hours to return.
And by the time we reached the car at 4pm, the crowds were really starting to thin out in the parking lots.
But overall the crowds didn’t bother me too much. Though there was a bunch of people at the falls, the area was big enough for everyone to get their own little space. And considering that October is one of the most popular months for the Smokies, I wasn’t too offput by the amount of people. (Really want to beat the crowds? See my tips below!)
Overall I think the Rainbow Falls Trail was a great first hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s popular for a reason.
Looking for a scenic drive back to Gatlinburg? Make your way there via the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This narrow one-way road will weave you down through forests and has lots of historic buildings along the way. We bought a small guide right at the entrance to the trail ($1) which told us all about the various stops along the way.
Do you tend to gravitate toward waterfall hikes like the Rainbow Falls Trail?
Cost. Free! There’s no cost to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail.
Dogs Allowed? Nope. You’ll need to leave Fido at home.
Want to avoid the crowds? This trail is popular. So peak times for the park (think the summer and October) are especially bad. So are weekends. Try hiking it during the week or hit the trail early (before 9am) or late (after 4pm).
Parking. There are only two main lots for the trail. Here is the first one. And here is the second. Many people end up pulling off to the side as well.
Closures. The Rainbow Falls Trail was actually closed during the week when we visited. It was only open on the weekends. Make sure to check the park’s closures before you head out.
3 thoughts on “The Rainbow Falls Trail: My First Hike in the Smoky Mountains”
We hiked this trail this past weekend (January 26,2019). It was a beautiful hike and yes all uphill going but coming back down you make better time. The fire reminents are still visible though new life is bursting through. We started out at normal January temperatures and the higher we got we encountered massive mud, then snow then ice. It was great for our kids to experience the difference. Great hike! Everyone should put this one on their hiking bucket list
I’m glad you and your family had a good time hiking this trail! I’m not surprised you hit snow – I’ve even heard that the waterfall sometimes freezes in the winter if it gets cold enough.
I definitely agree it’s one of the best hikes in the Smokies!
There is a “snow gate” on Cherokee Orchard Road that is sometimes closed in winter. If it is, you can hike up the road past the Bud Ogle Cabin to the trailhead, but it will add about 5 miles (round trip) to the hike. There’s minimal parking at the snow gate, but there typically isn’t anyone attempting this hike after a snowfall. Too bad, because the woods are “silent, dark, and deep” then! PS: I’ve never seen Rainbow Falls frozen.
Bundle up and make sure you have a hat and gloves.