Rainbows and hikers are a combination made in heaven. Rainbows are one of the great natural wonders and a special treat for the hikers who see them. Like me, you might have figured that there was just one kind of rainbow, but actually there are six. More about those half-dozen varieties of bows in a moment.

The Trailmaster captured this rainbow over the Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara.
The Trailmaster captured this rainbow over the Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara.

I was out hiking in the rain in the local backcountry—the Santa Ynez Mountains back of Santa Barbara—and, just after the rain stopped and I returned to the trailhead, out popped a rainbow. Wow!

Rainbows have long held a revered place in religion and mythology. In the Bible, one of the very few times God speaks directly to people, it’s to Noah and he talks about a rainbow. A rainbow in the clouds is the sign of the promise between the Almighty and earth.

Chumash Indians tell the Legend of the Rainbow Bridge, a glorious bridge leading across the ocean to a promised land. Those Chumash who heeded the god Hicka’s warning (Don’t look down or you’ll fall!) reached this land, while those who looked down fell into the sea and became dolphins.

In Ireland, where there’s lots of good hiking, much rain and many rainbows, stories abound about bows. The Irish believe that a leprechaun makes a rainbow and puts a pot of gold at the end of it. As legend has it, whenever a leprechaun is too rich for words, he makes rain, then sun, then a rainbow and puts the pot of gold at the end.

Rainbows: Six Different Kinds

Primary Rainbow The most common rainbow, this one is a broad arch of bold colors.

Secondary Rainbow The second most common rainbow, it’s a broad arch of rather faint, light colors.

Dew Bow Sometimes a raindrop or dew drop on the ground is large enough to display a little rainbow around or through it.

Double Rainbow Two rainbows—a primary rainbow and a secondary rainbow—make up a double bow. The primary rainbow is usually the one inside the double, while the secondary one is the usually the one on the outside.

Who can forget the Yosemite hiker and his famed Double Rainbow Video of 2010?

Some thought the hiker’s outpouring of emotion at witnessing a double rainbow a natural response to a magnificent natural phenomenon, while others thought his ecstasy a bit over the top.

Fogbow The water droplets in fog are very small and unable to refract light very well so fogbows are usually white. Fogbows are usually about twice as wide as other rainbows.

Lunar Rainbow You are very lucky if you see one of these faint rainbows lit by the moon—in fact seeing one is supposed to bring the observer love. Lunar rainbows appear not only in the usual color spectrum, but also in rose, pink and other pastel colors.

A Moon Bow is a special rainbow indeed, particularly at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall (photo Brocken Inaglory)
A Moon Bow is a special rainbow indeed, particularly at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall (photo Brocken Inaglory)