One of the standout trails (of many standout trails) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hike to Rainbow Falls is a must-do if you’re physically capable to tackle its moderate difficulty. It’s a very popular trail, and it’s not hard to see why given the majesty of the waterfall it reaches and the access it provides to a famous Smoky Mountain peak.
Here are six reasons to give this 5.4-mile round-trip trek off the Roaring Fork Nature Trail near Gatlinburg a go:
1. You’ll See One of the Champion Waterfalls of the Great Smokies
With its 80-foot peal over a rock face, Rainbow Falls ranks as the tallest single-drop waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Superlative aside, this gorgeous plunge is simply a stunner: one of the many natural wonders the Smokies come so packed with. A prolonged stretch of rainy weather supercharges Rainbow Falls to its fullest potential.
2. Sometimes the Waterfall Lives Up to its Name
Rainbow Falls earns its label honestly, though the namesake phenomenon only happens under certain conditions: On sunny afternoons, particularly in summer, the sunshine on the wafting mist of the waterfall produces a rainbow effect that’s spectacular to witness. Maybe you’ll luck out!
3. A Cold-weather Hike Can Turn Up Another Visual Treat
In winter, you’ve got an extra-special incentive to carefully walk the Rainbow Falls Trail: Ice formations along the waterfall chute create their own beautiful spectacle, just as magical in their way as the rainbow apparitions of summer days. Your best chance of seeing Rainbow Falls in peak icy guise is during or just after a protracted cold snap. (The hike should keep you warm, too, in the chilly weather!)
4. It’s a Primo Picnic Spot
Rainbow Falls makes a homerun spot for tucking into a picnic together amid the sylvan glories of the Great Smoky Mountains. Pack along some grub and treat yourself to a memory-minting waterfall-side feast!
5. You’ll Get a Nice Workout
With some 1,500 feet of elevation gain and an occasionally rough, rocky tread, the Rainbow Falls Trail makes a hearty but manageable workout across its 5.4 miles.
Considering the scenic payoff at the turnaround point—not to mention the considerable charm and beauty en route, including frothing cascades, footbridges, and, in spring, prolific wildflower displays—we’d say this sort of exercise is a fair bit more pleasant than your run-of-the-mill gym session.
6. You Can Extend Your Hike With a Walk-Up One of the Highest Peaks in the Great Smokies
Besides the waterfall itself, the Rainbow Falls Trail makes one of the prime routes for hiking up to the summit of Mount LeConte: at nearly 6,600 feet, the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains, and the sixth-highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. By trekking four more miles beyond Rainbow Falls, you’ll get to stand atop this massive “Southern Sixer” (as the 6,000-plus-foot peaks of the Southern Appalachians are nicknamed) and earn some extra bragging rights (and calorie-burning achievement) besides visiting the biggest single-drop falls in the park—though it’s the scenery and mountaintop atmosphere you’ll experience that really counts.
Visit Rainbow Falls
We hope we’ve convinced you of the value of hiking the Rainbow Falls Trail for yourself. We’ll close with a few caveats: Remember to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots on this somewhat challenging route, and don’t climb and clamber around on the rocks at the waterfall, no matter how tempting—they’re slippery and potentially very dangerous.
With those notes in mind, steer your way to the Rainbow Falls trailhead on your next visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and experience one of the most celebrated hiking adventures this most popular U.S. national park has to offer!