TO THE TRAILHEAD: From Gatlinburg, take traffic light #8 which is Historic Nature Trail Road (formerly Airport Road). You will follow this road until the road splits. You should stay to the right at this point to go into the national park. The turn is 3 miles from the traffic light in Gatlinburg. After another half-mile, the parking lot for the trailhead will be on your right hand side (there is overflow parking just up the road.
THE HIKE: Rainbow falls is one of the most challenging waterfall hikes in the Smokies. Steep grades, uneven trail, roots, and more make this hike difficult despite the relatively short mileage. The hike is also very popular. It is not uncommon to see a full parking lot upon arriving to the trailhead. However, you will often see those crowds diminish greatly the longer you hike. Many people underestimate this hike and as a result turn back to their cars long before they have reached either Rainbow Falls or Mt. LeConte.
You won’t have to worry about numerous trail intersections or stream fording on this trail. Instead, you will be concentrating on your legs, footing, and the hard breathing that will happen as you gain elevation. If you do look around, there is some wonderful scenery. Water guides your way as you go and there are many opportunities to see and hear the water from LeConte Creek.
You will know that you are finally getting close when you cross your second footbridge. You only have .3 mile until you reach the falls at this point, so you can pick up your pace. The falls themselves are not a massive flow of water. However, the 80 foot drop from the top of the falls does create an impressive sight. If you catch the falls at the right part of a sunny day, you will see a rainbow created by the mist continuously coming off of them. Winter is another great time to visit the falls, as ice forms along the edges the waterfall.
If the falls are your final destination, you will backtrack to the trailhead for a total of 5.4 miles. You can continue this hike for another 4 miles to get to the summit of Mount LeConte. In my opinion, this is the toughest hike to the summit of LeConte. The constant uphills, difficult footing, and lack of substantial checkpoints and major milestones along the way can make this one tough to conquer. That is not to say it is not a great hike. It certainly is. However, if my main objective is Mount LeConte, I would go via the Alum Cave Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, or Boulevard Trail first.