Discover Rainbow Falls — The Iconic California Waterfall Known for Its Colorful Beauty

Written by Joanne Paiva
Published: November 23, 2023
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Rainbow Falls is the highest waterfall on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River in the Mammoth Mountain area of the Eastern Sierras. Indeed, Mammoth Mountain, with its 11,053-foot summit is one of the finest Alpine skiing resorts in the world known for its winter sports and ski slopes. In fact, it averages over 400 inches (33 feet) of snow annually. However, when summer comes around there are plenty of other outdoor adventures to be enjoyed. Discover Rainbow Falls — The iconic California waterfall known for its colorful beauty which is aptly named for the rainbows that appear in the mist at the bottom of the falls on sunny summer days. Mid-day is the best time to see the rainbow when the sun is at its highest.

Rainbow Falls near Mammoth California

Rainbow Falls are near Mammoth California.

©snikeltrut/iStock via Getty Images

Mammoth Lakes is the closest town to the falls, take Highway 203 off Highway 395 to get there. In fact, Yosemite National Park is just 30 minutes away. An interesting fact is that Rainbow Falls feeds into the San Joaquin River, the largest river in central California, which travels 365 miles to the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco Bay. The headwater of the river starts at nearby Thousand Island Lake almost 10,000 feet above sea level.

Rainbow Falls free fall curtain cascades down a volcanic cliff 101 feet into Reds Meadow where the trailhead begins to hike to the top. The hike to the falls gains 406 feet in elevation, roundtrip it is a five-mile moderately challenging trail that takes around 2 hours. Accordingly, pack plenty of water, wear appropriate clothing, and bring sunscreen for the trip. Additionally, it is another 0.7 miles to the Lower Falls which have a 15-foot drop. Rocky cliff faces surround the falls which are part of Devils Postpile National Monument.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

Naturally polished columns enhance Devils Postpile National Monument’s natural hexagonal patterns.

©Png Studio Photography/

The 800-acre Devils Postpile National Monument was originally part of Yosemite National Park. Prior to becoming protected, local mining companies intended to dynamite the area to create a rock dam. Fortunately, activists convinced President Taft to protect the area, and in 1911 he did so by presidential proclamation to preserve and protect the formation, the waterfall, and the mountain landscape allowing generations to discover Rainbow Falls — the iconic California waterfall known for its colorful beauty.

A volcanic eruption around 100,000 years ago north of Pumice Flat filled the valley of the Middle Fork with basaltic lava. This rare igneous rock, phonolite porphyry, is the largest example of columnar jointing in the world. In fact, the two-stage eruption cooled differently and fractured horizontally. This formed platy rhyodacite rock which may be seen in the cliffs surrounding Rainbow Falls. As a result of erosion a cavern developed at the base causing the overlying rock to collapse and Rainbow Falls to retreat about 500 feet.

This unusual formation of 60-foot columnar basalt towers juts out of the landscape with unusual symmetry. Hiking across the top reveals a cross-section of the columns polished by glaciers to look like floor tiles. A 1.3-mile loop around the base takes around 37 minutes to hike. Additionally, it takes another 15 minutes to get to the top of the monument. However, climbing is not allowed.

Over 20 Native American Indian tribes know the area as Bear Lodge, primarily as a place for summer ceremonies, vision quests, and winter camps. The Indians called it “bad god’s tower” according to Richard Dodge, a military escort who explored the area in 1875. In fact, local sheepherders knew it as Devil’s Woodpile because the rocks reminded them of wooden fence posts.

Things to Do While Visiting Reds Meadow Valley

A 10-minute bus ride into the river valley stops along the way at streams, meadows, and waterfalls. Visitors come to this valley chiefly to camp, fish the Middle Fork, and hike the surrounding trails. For example, Agnew Meadows and Reds Meadow Resort and Pack Station are favorites. Above the meadow valley Sierra Crest at Minaret Vista boasts a panorama that includes the jagged peaks of the Minarets, Mount Ritter, and Banner Peak.

Day hiking on trails from easy-to-summit climbs abound for vacationers to enjoy the snow-capped mountains, lakes, and wildflowers. In fact, Rainbow Falls trailhead junctions with John Muir and Pacific Crest trails. Mid-summer temperatures in the park average in the 70s and 80s offering pleasant weather for sightseeing, biking, or hiking. Mammoth Mountain Bike Park rents bikes and protective gear for mountain bikers. In addition, there are rock climbing, or zip-lining adventures to enjoy.

In spring and early summer, alpine meadows burst with wildflowers which include lilies, paintbrush, columbine, and lupine carpeting the area with an array of colors perfect for photographers, hikers, or those merely enjoying the scenery. Some of the best viewing areas include Mammoth Mountain, Rock Creek, McGee Creek, and Convict Lake. You may even see trout swimming by fishing lures in the crystal clear alpine lakes.

Other activities include:

  • Horseback riding and equestrian camping
  • Camping and cabin rentals
  • Fishing
  • Nature viewing
  • Picnicking

The park is open from April through October, mostly on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Overnight stays in wilderness areas require permits. Likewise, pets on a leash and wearing a muzzle are allowed on trails and the shuttle bus.

Wildlife in the Area

Wildlife you may encounter includes eagles, deer, and black bears. Convict Lake and Lake Mary offer an abundance of aquatic life and waterfowl. In fact, birdwatchers may enjoy viewing such species as hawks, owls, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers.

Events and Festivals

Summertime includes many fun events and festivals such as:

  • Mammoth Lakes JazzFest
  • Mammoth Wine Weekend
  • Mammoth Reggae Festival
  • Mammoth VillageFest
  • Mammoth Margarita Fest
  • Mammoth Rock N Rye
  • Mammoth Motocross
  • Mammoth Half Marathon and 5K

Shuttle Service

The Reds Meadow Shuttle is mandatory in the summer months from Mammoth Lakes. Otherwise, after the summer season, one can drive to the Reds Meadows Parking lot. Conveniently, the shuttle may be boarded at the Mammoth Adventure Center, reservations are advised. Visit Eastern Sierra Transit Authority’s website for more information. Shuttle operation is from late June to September, depending on conditions.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Umomos/

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About the Author

Creative writing has always been a passion of mine. When I’m not writing or reading, I can be found outdoors exploring, birdwatching, and hiking.

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