Mount Le Conte via the Rainbow Falls Trail, Rainbow Falls Trailhead, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Mount Le Conte via the Rainbow Falls Trail - 12.4 Miles
Rainbow Falls Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||12.4 Miles|
|Start-End Elevation:||2,645' - 6,593' (6,593' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+3,948' net elevation gain (+4,068' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
Mount Le Conte (6,593') is the 3rd highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and tallest from base to top in the eastern United States. Of five routes leading to the summit, the Rainbow Falls Trail is arguably the most challenging. But with the extra effort come a few compelling distinctions:
There are 5 forest communities in the Park, and you'll touch them all on the 4,000' climb to Mount Le Conte. The Rainbow Falls Trail features the eponymous falls, an 80' cascade along Le Conte Creek. Rhododendron lines much of the trail, making this a preferred route during peak blooms. Horses are not permitted on the trail, and crowds thin considerably beyond Rainbow Falls.
Hikers will enjoy ecological diversity, exceptional blooms, sensational views, light traffic, and a memorable stop at Rainbow Falls en route to Mount Le Conte.
The Rainbow Falls Trail begins on a moderate grade beside Le Conte Creek. Look for deer and bear along wide, thinly treed banks on the first half mile. At .5 miles (2,923') the trail bends away from the creek and climbs into a Northern Hardwood Forest. Hemlock are notably large is this arboreal transition zone.
The trail crosses a rail-aided bridge (1.5 miles : 3,720'), grows increasingly rocky to a second (2.25 miles : 4,130'), and switchbacks to a third spanning Le Conte Creek at the base of Rainbow Falls (2.3 miles : 4,195'). The falls are set back from the trail, so hikers must negotiate tree roots and boulders for up close views of its drop pool.
The trail steepens considerably and is unabatedly rugged beyond Rainbow Falls. You're now passing through overlapping Northern Hardwood, Pine-Oak, and Spruce-Fir communities on the rapid climb from 4,000-5,000'. Note the phasing of beech, birch, and maple in favor of red spruce, Fraser fir, yellow birch and mountain ash. Rhododendron and laurel still dominate the trailside and understory.
The trail relaxes from 3.6 - 4.1 miles (4,955' - 5,220') on a winding course with northerly views through breaks in the forest. Views south from the Rocky Overlook Spur are of Mount Le Conte's west ridge, but not the summit itself.
Steep grades resume to the Bull Head Trail junction (5.2 miles : 5,985'), where you'll turn left toward Le Conte Lodge on the mountain's exposed west ridge. Here the landscape changes dramatically in a predominately (and relatively diminutive) spruce-fir forest. Despite 85 inches of annual rain, these well-drained slopes dry quickly and are more susceptible to fire, an important part of the ecosystem's regeneration.
Bull Head Trail eases past the Alum Cave Trail split (5.65 miles : 6,348') to the Le Conte Lodge (5.7 miles : 6,360'). Enjoy open space and great views of the summit as you pass by the lodge, two connections for the Cliff Top Trail, Trillium Gap Trail (5.8 miles : 6,395'), and Le Conte Backcountry Shelter (5.95 miles : 6,455').
Note that you're officially traveling on the Boulevard Trail once past the Trillium Gap split, and be mindful of misleading social trails in the area. The Boulevard Trail keeps a steady, moderate pace as it wraps northeast to the summit.
Curiously, no signs mention the summit on this final approach. The summit - sometimes referred to as 'High Top' - is marked only by a large rock pile just off trail (to the right) in a cluster of pine (6.2 miles : 6,593').
While views are limited from this point, rangy panoramas can be had from clearings near the second Cliff Top Trail connection, or by continuing on to Myrtle Point.
About Le Conte Lodge
The Le Conte Lodge was founded in 1926 by Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer. The Huff family operated the lodge until 1960, which is presently managed by Stokely Hospitality Enterprises under the auspices of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The lodge has capacity for 60 guests per night in one of 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 multi-room lodges. All rooms have kerosene lanterns, propane heaters, a wash basin and bucket, linens, table and chair, and a mirror. Lodging + Meal rates begin at $116 per night per adult, and $85 per child.
Day hiker services are available 7 days a week from March 21 - November 22. Day hikers may reserve a $9 sit down lunch served from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm. Reservations and prepayment are required at least 48 hours in advance. Sack lunches and beverages are also available.
Contact and Reservations
Le Conte Lodge
250 Apple Valley Road
Sevierville, TN 37862
GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84View these GPS points on a Google Map
- N35 40.539 W83 29.142 — 0.0 miles: Rainbow Falls Trailhead
- N35 40.238 W83 28.965 — .5 miles : Trail bends away from Le Conte Creek
- N35 40.035 W83 28.708 — 1.0 miles : Steady, moderately steep climb
- N35 39.788 W83 28.263 — 1.5 miles : Cross bridge over Le Conte Creek
- N35 39.739 W83 27.852 — 2.3 miles : Rainbow Falls
- N35 39.862 W83 27.772 — 3.1 miles : Steep, rocky climb through diverse forest
- N35 39.990 W83 27.667 — 3.6 miles : Trail moderates with partial views
- N35 39.888 W83 27.221 — 4.2 miles : Trail steepens through 5,200'
- N35 39.717 W83 27.147 — 4.6 miles : Strenuous climb in thinning forest
- N35 39.457 W83 26.899 — 5.2 miles : Bull Head Trail split - turn left
- N35 39.306 W83 26.541 — 5.65 miles : Alum Cave Trail split - keep straight
- N35 39.248 W83 26.434 — 5.8 miles : Trillium Gap Trail split - keep straight
- N35 39.202 W83 26.330 — 5.95 miles : Mount Le Conte backcountry shelter
- N35 39.251 W83 26.196 — 6.2 miles : Mount Le Conte summit (6,593')
- Be mindful of changing weather conditions and leave summits, open spaces, and exposed ridges before storms develop. Get an early start to secure parking and avoid storms.
- Consider continuing on the Boulevard Trail to Myrtle Point. This is a .7 mile, +180' roundtrip excursion to an adjacent summit with 270 degree views over the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You may also detour on the Cliff Tops Trail, a .3 mile spur that loops back with the Boulevard Trail. This is highly recommended for its southerly views and blooming sand myrtle.
- In the Smokies, only Clingmans Dome (6,643') and Mount Guyot (6,621') stand higher than Mount Le Conte. Clingmans Dome is the third highest mountain in the eastern US next to Mt. Mitchell (6,684') and Mt. Craig (6,647'), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina.
- Maintain a respectful distance from occupied cabins in the Mount Le Conte Lodge, and keep noise to a minimum as you pass through.
- Supplies for Le Conte Lodge are transported by llamas 3x per week during the season, and by helicopter for major transports at least once a season.
- Enjoy waterfalls from a safe distance, and be mindful of slippery surfaces. Do not attempt to climb waterfalls.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- There are no designated backcountry campsites on the Rainbow Falls Trail. The Mount Le Conte Backcountry Shelter and Le Conte Lodge are available by reservation (see related notes).
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit for all backcountry camping in the park. Backcountry permits are free and available at 14 visitor centers, campgrounds, and park office locations.
- Permit registration facilities are open 24 hours a day. Permits must be picked up in the park at designated locations. They are not available on the internet or through email.
- Advance reservations are required to camp at all Shelters and Backcountry Campsites 9, 10, 13, 17, 20, 21, 23, 24, 29, 36, 37, 38, 46, 47, 50, 55, 57, 60, 61, 71, 83, 86, 90, 113.
- Reservations for backcountry campsites may be obtained only by calling the Backcountry Office (865.436.1231). They are not available online or through email.
- If you do not plan to camp at a shelter or reserved campsite, then you only need to complete a permit.
- There is a 3 consecutive night stay maximum at any given campsite, and 1 night maximum at any shelter. The use of tents at shelters is prohibited. The maximum group size is 8 persons for sites and shelters.
- Open fires are prohibited except at designated sites and in established fire rings.
- All food and trash must be suspended at least 10' off the ground and 4' from the nearest limb or trunk, or stored as otherwise designated (e.g. bear box).
- The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. daily.
- Fishing is permitted year-round, from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset.
- The park allows fishing in all streams except Bear Creek at its junction with Forney Creek, and Lynn Camp Prong upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong.
- A valid fishing license from Tennessee or North Carolina is required to fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park, but may be purchased in nearby towns or online.
- Daily Possession Limits: Five (5) brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish. Twenty (20) rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit. A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.
- Size Limits: Brook, rainbow, and brown trout: 7 inch minimum. Smallmouth bass: 7 inch minimum. Rockbass: no minimum. Trout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken.
- Lures, Bait, and Equipment: Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod. Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used, with up to two flies on a leader.
Rules and Regulations
- Horses and stock are not permitted on the Rainbow Falls Trail to Mount Le Conte.
- There is no entrance fee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Pets, motorized vehicles, and bicycles are not permitted on backcountry trails in GSMNP.
- Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas and along roads, but are not allowed on park trails.
The Rainbow Falls Trailhead is located 3.5 miles from Gatlinburg TN in the north central quadrant of the Park.
From downtown Gatlinburg, turn south onto Airport Blvd from light #8. Airport Blvd turns into Cherokee Orchard Road as it enters GSMNP. Follow Cherokee Orchard Road to the Rainbow Falls Trailhead and parking lot on the right hand side of the road.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Visitor Information - Recorded Message
Backcountry Office - Camping and Reservations
The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8 am - 6 pm daily (EST)
Backcountry Information Office - Trip Planning Questions
The information office is open daily 9 am - 12n (EST)
Oconaluftee Visitor Center (North Carolina side - south entrance)
Sugarlands Visitor Center (Tennessee side - north entrance)