Smoky Mountain Trail: Rainbow Falls Trail

Smoky mountain car road trail in fall autumn yellow golden trees scenic

Rainbow Falls Trail – 6.6 miles, from Rainbow Falls Parking Area on the Cherokee Orchard Road to the summit of Mt. Le Conte. Rainbow Falls is 2.7 miles from Trailhead

Highlights: Rainbow Falls, panoramic views, spring and summer wildflowers

Cautions: Trail may be icy in winter

Trailhead: Take Airport Road {traffic light #8 in Gatlinburg} into the park. At 3.4 miles just after the road becomes one-way, turn right into the Rainbow Falls Parking Area. The trail is a few yards south of the woods, opposite the paved road.

This trail goes up to Mt. Le Conte. It starts close to the same spot where a group started walking to Le Conte in 1924 to ascertain whether the Great Smokies was a fit place to establish a national park. The park was established in the early 1930’s.

After a mile or more, the trail temporarily switches left from the creek and goes through an area where rosebay rhododendron, galax, trailing arbutus, teaberry and mountain pepper bush grow. Look in this area for pink lady’s slippers.

The trail switches to the right again and you travel in the general direction of the creek, which you reach and cross on a footbridge about 2.0 miles from where you started walking. Within a quarter hour or less, you’ll cross, without help of a bridge, a small tributary of Le Conte Creek.

Then will come the second and third bridges across Le Conte Creek. The third is just below the falls. In mid summer look for the blooms of pink turtlehead. It’s a pretty, high altitude wildflower. If you’re here in mid winter during a period of prolonged extreme cold, look for the falls to be frozen into an hour glass shape. This is one of the most spectacular sights of the Great Smokies.

The trail follows a reasonable grade to the right, up and around the bluff. Along this section in July and August look for the blooms of crimson bee balm and yellow hydrangea of cornflower. You will also see the white blooms of wild hydrangea and white snakeroot.

At one point you can stand on a natural stone lookout and see surprisingly close the Space Needle and the Park Vista Hotel in Gatlinburg. The trail crosses the Rocky Spur crest at about 4,880′ elevation and swings abruptly eastward along the North Slope of the ridge.

The trail climbs gradually 5,000-5,200. At about 5,400′ it curves south and then west and soon crosses the crest to the south side near the 5,450 elevation. Moving across the upper valley of Le Conte, a very shallow valley at this point. It is so high that in dry weather you may find no water at the crossing.

Soon after, you will reach the point where the Rainbow Falls and Bull Head Trails meet, just under West Point. After the two trails intersect at 6.1 miles, the single trail continuing up hill to the left, toward the Lodge still carries the Rainbow Falls name. You still have more than a half mile of walking before you reach the Lodge, and the first part of it is pretty steep.

About a half mile beyond the Bull Head trail intersection you will see another trail coming in from the right. This is Alum Cave Trail, continue on the rainbow Falls trail a little more than 0.1 mile and you will reach the LeConte Lodge. You will also reach the intersection of Trillium Gap Trail coming up from the north. At that point the name of the trail you’ve been walking changes from Rainbow Falls to the Boulevard Trail.