No question about how Rainbow Falls got its name!Somewhere over the rainbow is the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, which drops 101 feet over a rock ledge. Rainbow Falls is the happy result of this plummet and is the destination for a popular hike.
Rainbow Falls is not only a popular hike, but an easy one. From the trailhead, the path descends to its destination—contrary to most High Sierra hikes. From the Ranger Station to Devil’s Postpile is 0.8 mile round trip; to Rainbow Falls is 5 miles round trip.
Geologists tell us that once upon a time, part of the San Joaquin River temporarily left its bed—migrating a quarter mile west–and carved a swatch through the cliffs. Later the river abandoned this detour and returned to its first course, dropping into its original bed over Rainbow Falls.
If you want to get right to Rainbow Falls (and many people do—lots of touristas), begin at the signed trailhead on the road just outside Reds Meadow (shuttle bus stop #10, end of the line).
For the hiker looking for an easy exploration of the national monument, a more enjoyable option is to take the shuttle bus to Stop #6 at the national monument visitor center, a tiny information center with water and restrooms. It’s an easy hike to visit the awesome postpiles and then you follow the lovely John Muir Trail toward Rainbow Falls.
To visit the national monument, you must use the Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile Shuttle. Certain exceptions apply (for example, early or late in the hiking season), but for the most part you should plan your hike with the shuttle schedule in mind.
The hike: Tramp the well-traveled pathway from the meadow near the ranger station along a mellow forest trail to the Devils Postpile. After exploring the basalt columns, join the way-marked trail at the base of the formation toward Rainbow Falls.
Wander past lodgepole pine along the San Joaquin River. The path meanders into Inyo National Forest for a time then back into national park service domain. Keep straight at a junction, where a path branches left to Reds Meadow Resort. As you get closer to the falls you’ll see wildfire devastated slopes with ghostly trees still standing.
After crossing a bridge, the path drops to a viewpoint at the top of the falls. When the light is right, enjoy the waterfall’s characteristic rainbows projected in the pool below the cascade. You can descend steps and a path to the base of the falls and get another perspective on this beautiful cascade.