Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hike to Great Smoky’s ‘highest’ waterfall

Rainbow Falls. Photo courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains NPS.
Topo map for Rainbow Falls Trail, Plate 1
Topo map for Rainbow Falls Trail, Plate 2
Topo map for Rainbow Falls Trail, Plate 3

Rainbow Falls drops 80 feet near Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Families can hike to Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s highest waterfall on the Rainbow Falls Trail in Tennessee.

The 5.4-miles round trip does come with an asterisk – there are several other falls in the park that are taller, but Rainbow is the highest single-drop waterfall. To see it, you must traverse a 1500-foot gain in elevation, which is enough that temperatures will vary a few degrees between the parking lot and the falls.

To reach the trail, from U.S. Hwy. 441 in Gatlinburg, drive south on Historic Nature Trail, which becomes Cherokee Orchard Road as entering the park. These are segments of a set of roads that form the famous Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. After a couple of miles in the park, the road loops; once on that, look for Rainbow Falls parking lot signs.

Le Conte Creek
The trail leaves from the lot's southwest corner at about 2575 feet elevation. It heads through an old-growth forest and in short order crosses the Trillium Gap Trail.

From there, the trail curves south over a boulder-strewn path and then parallels Le Conte Creek. Portions of trail here are rocky, so be sure to wear a good pair of hiking boots and bring trekking poles.

The trail crosses the creek a few times, as well as two tributaries. The gurgle of a number of cascades on the creek fill the air, and along the way you’ll be sure to find some great spots to picnic.

Most of the cascades are due to the creek flowing down a steep grade. The trail actually is heading up a side of Mount Le Conte, the park's third highest peak. The ridge on the creek's north side is the mountain's Rocky Spur.

Rainbow Falls
At last, the trail arrives at Rainbow Falls, which makes an 80-foot drop. The falls’ lip sits at 4326 feet elevation, and a footbridge crosses the creek below the falls.

Spring marks the best time to see the falls, as the water flow will be the greatest. Mount Le Conte receives about eight feet of rain per year. It’s also worth waiting for a sunny afternoon to make the trek, as a rainbow then forms in the mist, giving the trail its name.

Winter can offer its own delights, though, as ice formations sometimes build up around the falls during cold spells.

As tempting as it may be, stay off the rocks near the waterfalls. They are slick from the mist and algae, and over the years several people have fallen off them to their deaths.

Turn back at the waterfalls. If you have some extra energy, you can continue on to Mount Le Conte, however, for an additional 8-miles round trip and a significant ascent.

Final tip: If you bring a camera with you to catch a picture of the falls, leave early in the morning. The sun’s position in the late morning and early afternoon will adversely effect the photo, and a number of other hikers are likely to get into your shot.

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.