Rainbow Falls, Rainbow Falls Trailhead, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Rainbow Falls - 4.6 Miles
Rainbow Falls Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||4.6 Miles|
|Start-End Elevation:||2,645' - 4,195' (4,195' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+1,550' net elevation gain (+1,608' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
Rainbow Falls drop 80' down a vertical rock face along Le Conte Creek. This tall, light flow cascade earns its names from rainbows that form at its misty base when lit just right. The hike to Rainbow Falls is relatively short but demanding, a rocky trail that gains 1,550' in just 2.3 miles.
Visitors will enjoy multiple access points to Le Conte Creek, wildlife viewing on its wide lower banks, and lush hardwoods forests en route to Rainbow Falls.
The Rainbow Falls Trail begins on a moderate grade beside Le Conte Creek. Look for deer and bear along wide, thinly treed banks over the first half mile. At .5 miles (2,923') the trail bends away from the creek and steepens 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') and passes a cascading tributary that's an ideal turnaround point if time runs short (1.95 miles : 4,015'). It grows increasingly rocky to a second bridge (2.25 miles : 4,130'), and switchbacks to a third bridge 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 and secondary falls. The Rainbow Falls drop pool is shallow and unsuitable for swimming, but the spacious rock amphitheater between the bridge and falls provides ample room to play and explore.
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 up and away from creek
- N35 40.035 W83 28.708 — 1.0 miles : Steep, steady, rocky 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
- Northern Hardwood Forests range from 3,500'- 5,000' in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These are the highest elevation deciduous forests in the eastern United States with over two dozen tree species including American beech, yellow birch, and maple. Northern Hardwood Forests produce brilliant autumn colors - consider the Rainbow Falls Trail in mid-late October for peak foliage.
- Look for salamanders along rock ledges and side pools near Rainbow Falls.
- Be mindful of social trails that split off the main trail; while easy to decipher on the way up, the correct path can be less obvious on the descent.
- Enjoy waterfalls from a safe distance, and be mindful of slippery surfaces in the vicinity. Do not attempt to climb the falls. Deaths have occurred at numerous falls throughout the Park.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- There are no designated backcountry campsites on the Rainbow Falls Trail. The Mount Le Conte Shelter is 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. until 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 Rainbow Falls and 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)