Rainbow Falls has the distinction of being, at 80-feet, the highest single-drop waterfall in the entirety of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located along the trail named for it off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the waterfall is an easy one to visit as long as you can manage the 5-mile round-trip walk and a fairly significant elevation gain. The falls sit on the southern slopes of Mount LeConte and, in fact, if you are an ambitious individual you could climb all the way to LeConte's summit via the Rainbow Falls Trail. It should be warned though, that the climb to LeConte via this route is considered to be among the toughest day hikes in the Smokies. For most, the trek to Rainbow Falls is enough, as it was for me on this day.
This particular hike was a bit of an emotional one for me, as I'm sure it was for anyone visiting the Smokies from Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the spring of 2017. The reason for this was the devastating and tragic wildfire which swept through the park and community on November 28, 2016. The Chimney Tops Fire, as it was known, pushed along by 80+ mile-per-hour winds grew from a tiny fire in the center of the park to a monstrous conflagration which charred over 17,000 acres destroying forests, homes, and lives along its path. Rainbow Falls escaped the flames but the lower part of the trail to it was hit hard by the fires. During this visit, barely two months after the fire, the first mile-and-a-half of hiking was through a landscape of ash-covered ground, charred stumps, and bare rock. The trail was clear and easy to travel but I'm sure scars of the fire will take a few seasons to heal from. The upper part of the trail, including the falls, was untouched by flame. It was truly striking how fickle wildfires can be and how fine a line there is between life and ruin.
So, overall this hike was as enjoyable as I expected. The falls, of course, are among the most beautiful I've seen in the Smokies. Despite the deep scars of the fire on the forest the greens of the rhododendrons along the streams, the evergreen leaves of the hemlock, and the clear rushing waters of the many streams all tell of how life will return and flourish on even the most scarred mountain slopes. This was a hike quite unlike any other I've taken in recent years, and much more moving as well. As always...enjoy...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.675736, -83.485831
Mileage Hiked: 5.4 miles Hike Duration: 2:45
Trailhead Temp: 40'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 2,550' Max. Elevation: 4,220'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,560' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 578' (ascent)
P.S. I wasn't going to originally but I decided, at the last minute, to include some pics on the second page of the wildfire damage in the vicinity of Gatlinburg itself. The wildfire of November 26 destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and businesses and claimed the lives of 14 people. The wounds inflicted on the community will take a long time to heal. It's my hope that, if anything, these pics can be a reminder of the dangers of wildfire and provide some cause for reflection on how we can be better prepared the next time a fire season, like that of 2016, descends on us again.