This rock staircase covers a previously washed-out section of trail and is designed to last for 100 or more years. Most days, the lower portion of Rainbow Falls Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the last place you’d expect to have a solitary wilderness experience. On a really busy day, said Trails Forever crew leader Josh Shapiro, the trail will support the feet of literally thousands of hikers.
“We’re trying to build them to a standard that can suit even hikers that aren’t as prepared as they should be,” Shapiro said. “A trail like this one, nobody has to drive through the park to the visitor center, so there’s not a lot of information if people are just coming from Gatlinburg. On this trail, we see a lot of people with flip-flops, or some people with bare feet and other people who are more prepared.”
Rainbow Falls is in the midst of the second year of a two-year rehabilitation project, a partnership between the park and Friends of the Smokies aiming to rebuild problem areas to a standard that will last for the next 75 to 100 years. The trail is currently closed to the public from 7 a.m. Mondays through 5:30 p.m. Thursday evenings as crews crush rock, construct drains and rebuild bridges. While that’s caused some disappointment for tourists who come to the Smokies hoping to see the falls up close, park staff believe the ends will more than justify the means.
Before rehabilitation, the trail was a mystifying maze of official routes and user-created paths, degrading the natural environment and challenging hikers to figure out which path was the right one — especially in the first quarter-mile or so from the trailhead.
“People who wanted to hike to the falls ended up wandering here for an hour and being frustrated they never actually got their hike,” said park spokesperson Dana Soehn, gesturing down the trail. “We’ll be able to solve a lot of problems just in this quarter of a mile right here.”
Keeping the path smooth and free of trip hazards like rocks and roots has proven particularly difficult on Rainbow Falls, Shapiro said. No mechanical equipment is permitted on the trail, meaning any rocks that get crushed, dug up or moved are crushed, dug up or moved by hand. And the Rainbow Falls Trail has a lot of rocks.
Up at Rainbow Falls itself, 2.7 miles from the trailhead and the furthest point that most hikers venture on the 6.6-mile trail, wrangling with rocks is just what trail crews were up to. A crew of five, all National Park Service employees, was about halfway through a full day of manual labor, swinging hammers down on the rocks protruding from the ground.
“We’re trying to make the rocks less exposed, easier to walk on,” said Josiah Gray, a member of the Trails Forever crew.
The Rainbow Falls project is the fourth installment of a program that launched 10 years ago with the goal of rehabilitating the Smokies’ most iconic trails to a standard that will allow visitors to safely enjoy them for generations to come.
Friends of the Smokies launched the Trail Forever program in 2008 when it received a challenge to match a $2 million grant from the Aslan Foundation of Knoxville. The program is now a $5 million endowment that funds a fulltime crew to reconstruct and rehabilitate some of the park’s most impacted trails. The Forney Ridge Trail was the first project tackled, back in 2010, followed by the Chimney Tops Trail, Alum Cave Trail and now the Rainbow Falls Trail.
With $215.5 million in deferred maintenance, the park has plenty of projects that need doing and operations that could run more smoothly if all those needed improvements were complete. While paved roads make up the bulk of deferred maintenance needs at $162.3 million, trails and buildings are nearly tied for second, at $16.1 million and $16.2 million, respectively.