As a child, our family “accidentally” hiked to Rainbow Falls. We parked at the wrong trailhead thinking we were doing an easy hike to Grotto Falls and ended up doing a strenuous 5 mile hike – and my family was not really a ‘strenuous hike’ family. I am pretty sure it scarred my sisters’ view of hiking for the rest of their lives. But, I hadn’t been back to hike this trail since that day over 15 year ago. So, I figured, why not hike this trail on the way back down from LeConte.
Rainbow Falls is a relatively popular and, like I mentioned, difficult trial. The trail has a total elevation gain of almost 4,000 feet, meaning we lost almost 4,000 feet of elevation over about 7.5 miles.
Most people hike an out-and-back from the trailhead up to Rainbow Falls (about 2.5 miles one way and 1,500 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead), making the trail from LeConte to the falls very quiet and serene. The entire trail gains almost 4,000 feet of elevation. (Yes, the knees on the downhill were rough!) This trail was heavily affected by the fires a few year back. Not too far from the top of LeConte, you’ll see a huge area of burned trees and shrubbery, looking eerily post-apocalyptic. Around that same area, you’ll also see beautiful vistas and even Gatlinburg down below.
As the trail winds down the mountain, you’ll cross LeConte Creek a few times before you come across Rainbow Falls, which is the highest free-falling waterfall in the park. I hear that it’s much more impressive when you go after a big rain, but it wasn’t much more than a trickle when we visited. The last part of the trail is the busiest (and the dirtiest: pack out what you pack in folks!) because its a popular day hike. And while I love waterfalls, my favorite parts of the trail were closer to the top and the smaller cascades along LeConte Creek.
Many people consider this a must-do trail in the Smokies. And while I believe any time spent outdoors is great, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Rainbow Falls as one of my top hikes in the Smokies. But again, catch this fall after a good rain and it may just make all the difference!
Practice Leave No Trace. Pack out E V E R Y T H I N G. Pick up trash. Follow signs about staying on the trail. This trail was decimated. I had filled up my entire 15L dry sack full of trash and I couldn’t get everything. Also, so much toilet paper, like seriously, how was there that much TP. These Smoky Mountain trails are getting so heavily loved, so let’s love them back. Hold yourself and others accountable while on trail.
Distance from Nashville: 4 hours
Trailhead: Rainbow Falls Trailhead, 2 parking lots – A & B – along Cherokee Orchard Road
Trail: Entire Rainbow Falls Trail from LeConte
Link to trail map: Mt LeConte via Rainbow Falls
Length of Trail: We clocked 7.5 miles total
Camping: LeConte Shelter or Lodge
Overview: Steep and difficult trail up (or down) from Mt. LeConte (3,800+ ft) featuring the Smokies highest waterfall, views and some exposure due to wildfire damage