Hiking to Rainbow Falls & Lower Falls in Mammoth Lakes California
Updated: Mar 24
Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes, California, is arguably one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Eastern Sierra. At 101 feet, it's also the tallest. Its name comes from the rainbow that appears from its mist, and the best time to see the rainbow is mid-day when the sun is at its highest.
This post will cover visiting Rainbow Falls and Lower Falls during the summer.
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RAINBOW FALLS HIKING STATS:
Distance: 1.5 miles one way.
Elevation Gain: 300 feet (roughly).
Location: Devils Postpile Monument in Mammoth Lakes, CA.
Trailhead: Rainbow Falls Trailhead | Shuttle Stop # 9.
Length of Time: 3 hours (roughly).
Best time to Go: June through August.
Shuttle Cost: $15 (2021)
*Note: If you purchase your ticket online, you'll still need the physical ticket to board the shuttle. You can pick up your ticket at the shuttle ticket window at the Mammoth Adventure Center. Just show them your email confirmation on your phone along with your ID.
WHAT TO PACK:
Hat (there is no shade on this trail)
Plenty of water (more than you think you'll need)
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD:
If you are visiting in the summer, you will have to take the mandatory shuttle, which boards from the Mammoth Adventure Center. Take the shuttle to the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, which is shuttle stop number 9. You can reserve the shuttle here.
If you're planning on visiting Devils Postpile first and hiking to Rainbow Falls from there, it's a 2.5-mile hike from Devils Postpile National Moment. Devils Postpile is shuttle stop number 6.
The trail to Rainbow Falls is a well-marked and relatively flat 1.5-mile hike from the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. However, there is no shade on this trail, and it gets HOT in the summer. The first time I visited Rainbow Falls, I ran out of water on the way back, and it was not fun. So make sure to bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen. Along the way, you may spot deer or catch a horseback riding tour.
Eventually, you will arrive at two overlooks that have excellent views of Rainbow Falls. Enjoy the views from here and then head down the stone-cut stairs that lead to the base of the falls (the best part!!)
BASE OF RAINBOW FALLS
The base area of Rainbow Falls is the most exciting part of the waterfall. From here, you'll get a perspective of just how massive this waterfall is. You will see many people hanging out in the ankle-deep San Joaquin River just in front of the waterfall, and you might catch some adventurous people swimming in the pool of the falls and even under the falls! I walked around both sides of the waterfall to take in a few perspectives before going for a swim myself.
A NOTE ON SWIMMING AT RAINBOW FALLS:
I noticed that a few blogs and videos about Rainbow Falls advise not to swim in it. Nothing wrong with that advice, but I think swimming depends on the conditions of the waterfall. On the day I visited, there were lots of people swimming. I decided to seize the day and jump in and even swam right under the waterfall. I thought the experience was exhilarating, and I felt very comfortable. The water was cold but not freezing, and it was shallow in sections making it possible to stand.
I went at the beginning of August during a drought year, so the waterfall was not at its most powerful. I have seen pictures of Rainbow Falls early in the season, and the waterfall flow looks way too strong to consider swimming near it!
Any swimming you do in and around Rainbow Falls, do so at your own risk. Always use your best judgment and don't do anything you are not comfortable with. If you want to play it safe, taking in the view from the rocks surrounding the waterfall is a blast as well! Just be prepared to get misted on!
Once you've had your fill at Rainbow Falls, you can head to Lower Falls, which is only a 0.9-mile hike from the Rainbow Falls overlook. The trail to Lower Falls is well marked, so it's hard to miss. The first time I visited Rainbow Falls, for whatever reason, I skipped Lower Falls. The second time, I decided to hike the extra mile to Lower Falls and it was very much worth it!
My favorite part of Lower Falls was the unique teal-colored pools at the top of the falls. I was very tempted to jump in, especially since it was so hot out, but I decided to play it safe. The current looked a bit strong, and I wasn't sure if it would send me over the edge of the falls!
After taking in the view from the top of Lower Falls, you can hike down and enjoy the view from the base of Lower Falls. This is a great spot to go for a dip before making your way back to the shuttle.
Once you're ready to call it a day, hike back the way you came and follow the signs to Red Meadows Resort, which is shuttle stop # 10. This is where you'll pick up the shuttle back to the Mammoth Adventure Center.
I hope you enjoyed this guide to hiking Rainbow Falls and Lower Falls! Make sure to subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss the latest blog posts, videos, and other good stuff!