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Hike to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, California

Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in California. Located in Devils Postpile National Monument in the Eastern Sierra, Rainbow Falls tumbles 101 feet over a cliff, creating the perfect picture postcard.

Hiking to Rainbow Falls is one of the most popular things to do at Devils Postpile National Monument. On nice weather days, you will find lots of visitors enjoying the beautiful scenery on the trail to Rainbow Falls.

If you are considering the hike to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, read on to discover what to expect on the hike, plus things to know before you go!

TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Can You Expect on the Hike to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, CA?
Essential Facts About the Trail to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes
How to Get to the Trailhead for Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes
How Long Does It Take to Hike to Rainbow Falls, Mammoth Lakes?
What to Bring on the Rainbow Falls Hike
Tips for the Rainbow Falls Hike in Mammoth Lakes

What Can You Expect on the Hike to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, CA?

The hike to Rainbow Falls in Devils Postpile National Monument comes with a big payoff. Rainbow Falls is the highest waterfall on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, and you can hike to two scenic overlooks for beautiful photo ops, plus go down to the bottom of the falls for a superb view of the cascade.

Rainbow Falls is at its most spectacular in the early summer: June and July. If you visit then, you will see it as a powerful single curtain that plunges down into the frothy waters at the bottom. The flow starts dwindling by August, and if you visit then or later, you will likely see several gentler rivulets making their way down the cliff.

Rainbow Falls, Mammoth Lakes, California, in the Fall

We think Rainbow Falls presents a beautiful picture no matter when you see it: in our opinion, Rainbow Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in California! But if you want to see it at its most powerful, plan to visit in June, once the park opens, or in July. At that time of year, you will also see lots of wildflowers along the trails and by the falls.

The falls get their name from the rainbows that appear on sunny days in the mist generated by the falls. You are most likely to see the rainbows on sunny days during the summer, generally around mid-day. The best spots to photograph the rainbows are the two overlooks along the trail.

Fun Fact

The cliffs under and around the falls were created ages ago by two pools of lava that cooled differently, causing the first pool to fracture vertically and the second to fracture horizontally as it cooled.

The vertically fractured rock erodes easier from the flow of the falls. As a result, a cave forms at the bottom of the falls that weakens the rock on top, making it collapse. Rainbow Falls therefore keeps shifting backward in the canyon. So far, the waterfall has retreated 500 feet from its original position!

Along the Trail

The views along the trail are beautiful, for the most part. You see the San Joaquin River, and the surrounding meadows and trees, and the mountains as a backdrop. In season, wildflowers are abundant in the meadows and along the trails.

Trail to Rainbow Falls in Devils Postpile National Monument California

As you walk, keep your eyes open for birds and wildlife. You may see mule deer in the meadows along the way, or a pine marten sprinting across the trail and up the nearest tree. Black bear, or coyote, may be seen early or late in the day. You will likely see birds in the vegetation, from Stellar’s jays to raptors such as the red-shouldered hawk and water birds such as the great blue heron.

A wind incident several years ago caused many trees in Devils Postpile National Monument to topple, so you will likely see downed trees as you walk. A 1992 fire burnt some of the forest here, and there are still open patches and burnt tree stumps in some parts of the trail.

There are actually two trails that lead to Rainbow Falls. The longer trail passes by the Devils Postpile basalt column formation en route. If you have the time, this is the route we suggest, so that you can see both major sights in Devils Postpile National Monument on the one hike.

This longer trail has a short spur along the way that leads to a picturesque bridge over the San Joaquin River. It is a great spot to take photos of the river in both directions.

Views of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River from the bridge in Devils Postpile National Monument California

Essential Facts About the Trail to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes

You can hike to Rainbow Falls via two different trails: from shuttle stop number 6 near the Ranger Station, or shuttle stop number 9. Shuttle stop number 6 also takes you by the Devils Postpile basalt column formation.

Trail from the Ranger Station via Devils Postpile Rock Formation

This is an out and back trail, about 2.5 miles each way, rated easy to moderate. If you arrived by the Reds Meadow shuttle, you can also opt to continue on from Rainbow Falls to Reds Meadow Resort for lunch at the Mule House Cafe, and then take the shuttle back to Mammoth Lakes (or to another stop in the Reds Meadow Valley) from the shuttle stop at the resort.

The elevation gain is about 600 feet. A steep staircase, with about 130 steps, leads from the trail to the bottom of Rainbow Falls. The trail is mostly dirt.

Trail from Shuttle Stop Number 9 to Rainbow Falls

This is an out and back trail, about 1.3 miles each way, rated easy to moderate. The elevation gain is about 400 feet, and the trail is wide and mostly dirt, with sand or gravel in some parts. A steep staircase leads from the trail to the bottom of Rainbow Falls.

There is access to the San Joaquin River along the way if you want a short break to enjoy the views.

Trail signage in Devils Postpile National Monument California

How to Get to the Trailhead for Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes

Devils Postpile National Monument is generally open from some time in June until some time in October. Exact dates of season opening and closing are dependent on the weather in any given year, so check the park website before your visit to find out if it is open.

If the Reds Meadow Valley shuttle bus is running, you have to arrive in Reds Meadow Valley, where Rainbow Falls is located, by shuttle. You can catch the shuttle at the boarding area near the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center, where you can park your own car. Tickets can be purchased at the Adventure Center on the day of your visit. Find more information on the shuttle here.

To take the trail to Rainbow Falls via the Devils Postpile Monument, alight at shuttle stop number 6. Here you will find the Ranger Station, to obtain information and get maps as needed. To take the shorter trail to Rainbow Falls, alight at shuttle stop number 9. See map.

Outside of shuttle operating times (early and late on a given day and early or late in the season) you can drive down to the trailhead independently. Parking spaces at trailheads tend to be limited, so arrive early or late in the day. Depending on traffic, you may be asked to park at the Reds Meadow Resort and take the shuttle to the trailheads.

There is great trail signage throughout the monument, so once you park, all you have to do is follow the signs for the trail to Rainbow Falls.

You will find restrooms and picnic tables by both trailheads.

Walking the trail to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes California

How Long Does It Take to Hike to Rainbow Falls, Mammoth Lakes?

Depending on the route you take, allow 2-3 hours to hike to and from the falls and to stop at a few places for photos. The scenery along the route is beautiful, and you will want to linger at many places, especially if there are wildflowers to admire or wildlife or birds to observe.

If you are not constrained for time, allow for a whole morning or afternoon for the longer trail from the Ranger Station. Along the way, you will want to stop and admire the basalt columns that make up the Devils Postpile, and perhaps even climb to the top of the columns before continuing on to Rainbow Falls.

View in Devils Postpile National Monument California

What to Bring on the Rainbow Falls Hike

Your National Parks Pass!

If you do not use the shuttle, your National Parks Pass is accepted at Devils Postpile National Monument, so remember to bring it with you.

Don’t have a National Parks Pass? If you plan to visit 3 or 4 national parks (or other federally managed recreation areas) during the course of the year, get the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass: it will save you money. You can buy the annual pass online at REI.

Water

There is no access to drinking water along the trails, but drinking water is available at the Visitor Center and at the cafe at Reds Meadow Resort. The trails to Rainbow Falls can be sunny and hot, so carry and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Snacks

The Rainbow Falls Trail is not very long, so you don’t really need food, but we usually carry protein bars, trail mix, and some fruit on our hikes. If you want to enjoy a picnic meal after your hike, there are picnic tables in the monument. Mule House Cafe at Reds Meadow Resort serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Digital camera with Zoom Lens

Bring your usual photography gear on the hike: the scenery is beautiful and you may see wildlife or birds.

We don’t usually carry our large camera and lens on hikes, unless the trip is a dedicated photo trip. Instead, we use our little Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70. It has a 30X zoom and Leica lens, so it’s pretty good for bird and small animal photography, and fits into a pocket when we aren’t using it.

Devils Postpile National Monument California

Binoculars

If you enjoy birding, you may want to bring your binoculars along on the Rainbow Falls hike. Our go-to binoculars are the Celestron Trailseeker compact binoculars: they are not too heavy, and they perform well in low light, when you can typically expect to see birds and animals.

Good Walking or Hiking Shoes

You absolutely need sturdy closed-toed walking shoes, or hiking boots, for this hike. Shoes with good grip are essential, especially if you go down to the bottom of the falls. Stairs and rocks are slick and slippery.

Bug Spray

We used a natural bug spray when we hiked the Rainbow Falls Trail. In the summer, expect lots of mosquitoes and other flying, biting insects. Use bug spray to be safe.

Sun Protection

Use a wide-brimmed hat with SPF protection, sunscreen (we love this sunscreen), lip balm with SPF (love this 3-pack!), and sunglasses, when hiking to Rainbow Falls. The trails are partially exposed and it can get sunny and hot during the day in the summer.

Tips for the Rainbow Falls Hike in Mammoth Lakes

Check the weather forecast before you start your hike

Weather in the mountains can change rapidly and often, so check the forecast before you set out. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summer, and snowfall may occur in June or September.

In July and August, daytime highs can be in the 70s to low 80s, but it is cool early and late: low to mid 40s, and even cooler in the fringe months of the season.

Arrive early or late for fewer crowds in season

The Rainbow Falls hike is one of the best things to do in Devils Postpile National Monument and in the Mammoth Lakes area. Expect to encounter other visitors along the trails, especially during the day.

Start early in the day, or arrive later in the day, to avoid crowds along the trails and at the overlooks and the falls. You will also find it easier to get a parking spot if you plan to arrive independently, and there are higher chances of seeing birds and wildlife.

Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes California

hike at mid-day for a higher chance of seeing rainbows

If you are okay with sharing the trails, mid-day on sunny summer days is when you have the highest chance of seeing rainbows at Rainbow Falls. Of course there’s no guarantee, and you may see rainbows at other times as well.

Add the hike to Lower Rainbow Falls

If you continue on the trail from Rainbow Falls, you will come to Lower Rainbow Falls in a little over 0.5 mile. Lower Rainbow Falls are just outside the boundary of Devils Postpile National Monument, and have a smaller drop of about 20 feet. They are very pretty!

If you have the time, you can add the hike to Lower Rainbow Falls. Know that the return is uphill, and a bit of a workout.

Bring your dog!

Dogs on leashes are permitted on the trails to Rainbow Falls. They have to be muzzled on the Red Meadows Shuttle. Plastic disposable bags are available at trailheads so you can clean up after your pet.

Do the Rainbow Falls hike in the summer for wildflowers

Rainbow Falls is beautiful all through the season so you can’t go wrong no matter when you visit. But The Eastern Sierra boasts a wide variety of beautiful wildflowers, and in June (once the monument opens) and July you will see many wildflowers along the trails, by the falls, and elsewhere in the monument.

Indian paintbrush, meadow larkspur, monkey flower, lupine, shooting star, and daisies are some of the common species you can see in the monument. Look for the pretty Ranger’s buttons, they make for great photos!

Wildflowers at Rainbow Falls Mammoth Lakes California

Allow more time than you think you’ll need

The trails to Rainbow Falls are pretty and you will want to stop often to take photos and just to enjoy your surroundings, especially if you visit when the weather is dry and pleasant.

Allow plenty of time and maybe even bring some munchies or a picnic meal to enjoy by the falls!

Dress appropriately for the weather

Weather in the park is changeable. Dress in layers to be safe. We always bring a light waterproof jacket with hood on hikes and it’s saved us on more than one occasion. Check out the Marmot PreCip men’s jacket here and the women’s here.

Light, loose, long-sleeved top and long pants are comfortable and offer protection from the elements, and from bugs and spiky vegetation.

Learn about Park Safety

The trails to Rainbow Falls are inside Devils Postpile National Monument and the park has a page on safety on its website. Read up on their safety guidelines and follow them!

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Other California hiking trails you may enjoy

Hike the Bluff Trail in Montana de Oro State Park
Hiking Hidden Valley Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park
Hike the Barker Dam Nature Trail in Joshua Tree
Bird Island Trail in Point Lobos State Reserve
Moonstone Beach Boardwalk in Cambria, California
Hike Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley National Park!
The Best Hikes in June Lake, California!

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Discover how to hike to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes California! These beautiful falls are part of Devils Postpile National Monument and the hike is one of the top things to do in Mammoth Lakes!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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