Mount LeConte is one of the most hiked peaks in the Smokies. To get there, many hikers go by way of the Rainbow Falls Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of course, the trail is popular due to the Rainbow Falls break point. And while it’s not exactly in Townsend, hikers coming through town usually mark the Rainbow Falls trail as a “must see” on their list. The trail is actually closer to Gatlinburg, but still a wonderful local hike. It’s a challenging hike to say the least, but the reward of experiencing Rainbow Falls makes it all the more worth it.
As previously stated, the Rainbow Falls Trail is fairly challenging if you’re hiking all the way to the top of Mt LeConte. From the start, it’s about an hour and a half hike to Rainbow Falls and four hours to Mt LeConte. You’ll gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation hiking to Mt. LeConte.
The Rainbow Falls trail is one of the oldest routes to Mount LeConte and begins along LeConte Creek. One mile above Cherokee Orchard, it twists away from the stream to a ridge before returning creek side. From here, you’ll definitely notice a set of switchbacks as you make your way along the trail.
Crossing the stream a second time, you can see the high cliff from which the falls descend surrounded by rhododendron and a hemlock growth. LeConte Creek is fairly narrow at this point, forcing water outward into a heavy mist before settling 82 feet below. Sunlight reflecting off this mist creates the rainbow effect which gives the falls their name.
When you cross the LeConte Creek for the third time, Rainbow Falls comes into complete view. Navigation over the rocks allows a closer approach, and a better view of the falls. The trail continues beyond Rainbow Falls, becoming steeper, before settling into a more even-keeled route. Temperatures can change considerably at the this point and unprepared hikers might find themselves in a bit of a pickle – especially if it’s raining. With the change in altitude and temperature, plant life changes as well. Balsam, spruce, and mountain ash dominate the trees, and crimson bee balms, asters, Indian Pipes, and monkshoods are also evident.
A short distance from the summit of Mount LeConte the Bull Head and Alum Cave Bluff trails intersect the Rainbow Falls Trail. At this point, you will be only a few hundred yards from the top of Mt. LeConte and LeConte Lodge.
Starting point: Cherokee Orchard Road – Turn at light No. 8 in Gatlinburg and follow Airport Road one mile out of Gatlinburg and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along the way, the road will change from Airport Road to Cherokee Orchard Road. About 2.5 miles after entering the Park, Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area where you can walk over to the Rainbow Falls trailhead.