Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Rainbow Falls Trail – Day #4

My long hike for Day #4, and my hardest hike of the entire week, was Rainbow Falls Trail.  I first heard about the hike in my guidebooks and map – some listed it as moderate, while others said it was strenuous, and the maps all listed the trail as different lengths (2.6 miles versus 2.8 miles one-way) but all said the view was amazing: on sunny days, the 80 ft falls create a rainbow, giving them their name.  I’m a sucker for waterfalls, plus I really wanted to challenge myself with a new hike on this trip, so I decided to hike it on Day #4, that way, if it completely wiped me out physically, I was heading home the next day anyway.


I hit the trail at 2:30 pm, which in retrospect was too late in the day, but more on that later.  There was one other middle-aged couple that started at the same time I did, but they quickly fell behind, and since I never saw them again going up or down, I have to assume they gave up and turned around at some point.  For awhile, the trail followed the river, peaceful and serene, but it then moved away, further into the mountain.


The thing about Rainbow Falls you won’t get from reading a general guidebook is a good sense of why it’s strenuous (and yes, after completing the hike I would definitely classify it as such).  Sure, it’s only 2.8 miles one-way, nowhere near the longest hike in the park, and no, it’s not a crazy steep incline like Clingman’s Dome or Laurel Falls, but what makes Rainbow Falls different from the previous hikes I’d done earlier in the week is three-fold.

  • First, unlike some other trails, Rainbow Falls Trail is a constant incline – no straightaways, no brief dips downward before climbing again, nothing but incline – which means even when you stop to rest, breathe, take a picture or get some water, you’re never on a flat surface.  The muscles in your legs and back are constantly working; for someone not in the best shape (read: me. myself and I), it’s taxing.
  • Secondly, combine the fact you’re hiking near a river, you’re headed to a waterfall, you have to ford a couple of streams, and it’s the summer in the mountains which equals rain, and you have mud.  Lots and lots of mud.  My shoes and the back of my legs were caked in it.  You try to skip around it as much as possible, but there are many places were you just don’t have a choice.  Sloshing through mud makes you feel so much heavier and lethargic than you really are.  Add in the humidity of a Tennessee summer and you being to feel bogged down.
  • Finally, past the initial trailhead, nothing on the trail is marked.  There are several places where the trail splits and there’s no indication of which way to go (Hint: when in doubt, choose the path that looks the most travelled, which always isn’t as easy as it seems).  The last thing you want to do is get lost, charging down what you thought was a man-made path and then realizing it was probably formed by a deer or a bear.  The other difficulty associated with a lack of trail markers is in determining how far you’ve gone/how far you still have left to go.  I’ve become pretty decent over the years at estimating how far I’ve hiked without the use of a pedometer or GPS, but only when I’m moving at a relatively constant rate.  If I have to stop several times, like I did on this hike to rest and catch my breath, it throws off me of my game.  thankfully, about 3/4 of the way I came across a lovely older couple (maybe mid 60s?) on their way down the mountain who informed me the bridge is exactly 2.0 miles.  That one simple piece of information single-handedly helped me get my bearings again.
The 2.0 mile mark!
The 2.0 mile mark!

It took me 2hrs 15min to reach rainbow falls, at which point I was ready for a break.  Although there are signs warning people to climb on rocks at their own risk, I think everyone probably does it.  I found a nice giant rock vacated by a young couple as I was arriving, climbed on top, thew my backpack off and stretched out.  The only thing that kept me from lying completely down was the fear I’d fall asleep and wake up hours later after the sun had set (I don’t power nap, never have been able to manage it).  So instead, I ate some food, drank a lot of water and enjoyed the falls.


Sadly, there was no rainbow the day I visited, but it was still beautiful.  There were a few other people there at the same time I was who climbed further up the rocks to get closer to the water.  One couple even brought a hammock with them, tied it to a couple of trees and were relaxing in style.


Rainbow Falls + hammock
Rainbow Falls + hammock

It was while I was stretched out on my rock that I made a discovery: my right foot, specifically the heel, which had felt fine while I was hiking up the trail, was now in pain.  Confident nothing was twisted or sprained, I took of my shoe and sock to reveal the biggest blister I’ve ever had.  The size of nickel and puffed up to the point of near explosion, it was located on the left side of my right foot (there will be no pictures of the blister – you can thank me later).  I’ve hiked in those particular shoes many times before and haven’t had any problems, making me think a rock or something similar must have gotten in and irritated it for the majority of the hike.  Now I had a dilemma.  Like I said at the beginning, I had started hiking at 2:30pm.  It had taken me over 2 hours to reach the falls, and I had been resting on the rock for a good 15-20min.  The sun had been setting around 8:30pm every night, but on the side of a mountain, surrounded by tall trees, I really needed to be off the trail and back at my car by 7:30pm at the latest to have enough light were I wouldn’t have to worry about tripping over a rock and twisting my ankle or worse.  Even though it’s easier for me to hike down a mountain than up, my entire right heel was aching and I knew it was going to be rough to hike on it.  So for the choice:  Do I rest up some more, try to get the swelling to go down, and then race down the mountain as quick as I can?  Or do I leave right now, risk the blister bursting, but have the luxury of taking my time down the mountain?

I chose Option #2, leave now but take my time.

My mantra going down the mountain was, “It’s not a race.  The only thing you have to beat is the sun.”  If you’ve ever walked with a blister on your heel, you’ve probably tried to twist your foot a bit so you wouldn’t step directly on the blister, and you’ve also probably tried putting as much weight on the other foot as well.  That’s all well and good for walking on a flat surface, but when you’re on rocky ground, taking large steps downward and your feet have to absorb the shock every time, it doesn’t work so well.  By the time I was halfway down the mountain, both of my feet were aching in major pain and my pace had really slowed down.

What kept me distracted from the pain and the setting sun, though, were the other hikers I encountered climbing the mountain while I was coming down.  I was amazed at how many people started hiking this strenuous so late in the afternoon!  There was the Arabic family (mom, dad and two small boys) only two or three tenths of a mile from the base of the falls discouraged because they didn’t know how close they were; not speaking any of the same languages, we played an interesting game of charades to exchange information on the remaining distance they had to go and the size of the falls.  There was the man I met shortly before I reached the bridge marking 2.0 miles going the other way; he was standing at a split in the trail, staring at both options until he saw me coming and asked me if the path I was on was the official trail or not.  And there was the lady I came across about halfway down the mountain; a very large woman using two trekking poles to help her hike, she asked me if she was “close to anything,”  I tried to encourage her by telling her she was only a half a mile to the bridge, but she looked more defeated than anything.



I finally made it back to the trailhead a little past 7pm.  Relieved I made it back before the sun got too low, I was surprised to see a family of 4 walking towards the trail – no water, no provisions, no headlamps, just the mom’s purse.  Inwardly thinking, “There’s no way in Hell they’re starting this trail at this hour totally unprepared – I must be mistaken,” I asked Rainbow Falls Trail?  When they answered yes, I told them I wasn’t sure it was the best idea – it had taken me around 2 hours to hike to the falls, not including the hike back down.  The dad stared at me like I was an idiot and said, “The sign says it’s only 2.6 miles.”  I replied with the same tone of voice he’d just used with me, “Yeah.  ONE-WAY.”  Ultimately they decided to get back in their car and as they left I heard the dad talking about trying to find a closed trail so he could wrestle a bear.  Really hoping he was just joking…


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