Hike Name: Rainbow Falls Trail
Name of area/general location: Devils Postpile National Monument
Land Acknowledgement: Devils Postpile sits at a cultural crossroads where the traditional territories of American Indian inhabitants of the east and west slopes of the Sierra Nevada intersect.
AllTrails Hike Link: Rainbow Falls via Devils Postpile Trail | Map, Guide – California | AllTrails
Trail rating: Moderate
Trail mileage: Moderate, rolling terrain through forest with minimum shade. Make sure to bring plenty of water on this hike.
For more information: Devils Postpile National Monument (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Description of area, sights, wildlife and any key markers on the trail:
Perhaps one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Mammoth Lakes, California is Rainbow Falls. This spectacular 101-foot waterfall is widely recognized for the many vibrant rainbows its mist creates. It is part of the Devils Postpile National Monument which was established in 1911 by presidential proclamation to safeguard the Devils Postpile formation, the waterfall, and the area’s pristine mountain scenery. This national monument is typically open between mid-June to mid-October; however, depending on the weather, the monument’s operating season may change significantly by several weeks.
Although entrance to the Devils Postpile National Monument is free to all visitors, there is still a fee associated with visiting the monument. From mid-June to early September, the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) Reds Meadow Shuttle is the only way to travel through Reds Meadow Valley where the Devils Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls are located. During its operating season, this shuttle is mandatory for all visitors with only a few exceptions. This shuttle system was initiated in 1981 to limit crowding and resource damage. Over the years, it has fulfilled its purpose by allowing the valley to return to its prior pristine state. It has also increase visitation by bringing different groups of visitors to the monument, including foreign visitors, and created an accessible formal link between it and the rest of the Mammoth Lakes visitor circuit.
Passes to the shuttle are sold prior to boarding from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center from 8 am to 5 pm; however, tickets may also be purchased directly from the shuttle driver on a first-come-first-served basis. Visitors can park their vehicles and board the Red Meadow Shuttle from this location as well. Click here for a map of the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center and parking area. This shuttle operates daily from 7:30 am to 7:00 pm and runs every 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the time of day. Although shuttles from the Adventure Center depart frequently, reservations by phone, especially on holidays and busy weekends, are strongly encouraged by ESTA to avoid long wait times. For more detailed information about the Red Meadow Shuttle, please visit their webpage: Reds Meadow Shuttle – Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (estransit.com)
Note, when the Reds Meadow Shuttle is not operating, visitors may drive their vehicles into Reds Meadows Valley; however, there is limited parking in the valley, and lots typically fill quickly. As a result, the National Park Service recommends that visitors arrive early (i.e., before 11 am) to avoid crowds and secure parking. Reds Meadow Road is narrow, steep and visibility is often limited, so visitors should use extreme caution when navigating this popular forest road. Historically, it has also been subject to seasonal road closures due to snow, so make sure to check weather conditions before your trip.
Once onboard the shuttle, visitors can disembark at any of the ten shuttle stops in Reds Meadow. Click here for a 2022 Reds Meadow Shuttle Map. There are about eight miles of trails in Devils Postpile National Monument; however, the two most popular trails that grant visitors access to the waterfall are the Devils Postpile Trail and Rainbow Falls Trail. To access the Devils Postpile trailhead, take shuttle stop #6 and follow the signs near the ranger station. There are bathrooms and water stations conveniently located close to the trailhead for those in need; however, there are no facilities on the trail itself.
This easy 0.8-mile hike takes you to the base of the Devils Postpile formation (a geological wonder of columnar basalt) and alternatively uphill to the top of the formation. For more adventurous travelers, however, this scenic trail continues through the Ansel Adams Wilderness and connects hikers to multiple breathtaking destinations including Rainbow Falls. It also intersects with the world-famous John Muir and Pacific Crest Trail. This is a five-mile hike, out-and-back, to Rainbow Falls from the trailhead, so pack plenty of water and sunscreen for the trip.
For a shorter hike to Rainbow Falls, take shuttle stop #9 near the end of Reds Meadows Road and follow signs for the Rainbow Falls trailhead. This stop is drop-off only after 3:00 pm; however, shuttle stop #10, where the last shuttle departs at 7:00 pm, is only a short walk from the trailhead. The trail to Rainbow Falls is a moderate hike and 1.4 miles from the Reds Meadow Resort & Pack Station. It passes an open burn area from the 1992 Rainbow Fire and reaches a spectacular overlook above Rainbow Falls on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. The overlook is a great spot to rest and take pictures before continuing your hike to the waterfall’s base. Midday, when the sun is at its peak, is the best time to spot the colorful rainbows that Rainbow Falls was aptly named for. To reach the base of the waterfall, follow the trail past the overlook until you reach a series of stairs on the edge of mountain. Then, follow these stairs until you reach the bank of the San Joaquin River, and you’ll finally reach your destination where you’ll get a magnificent view of Rainbow Falls.
On your journey back, don’t forget to visit the Mules House Café at the Reds Meadow Resort & Pack Station for a rewarding milkshake. This location is a favorite resting stop for hikers and campers, especially those tackling the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Besides offering travelers a hot meal and a delicious milkshake, this location houses a general store and shower facility that’s open to the public as well. This is also the final boarding stop for the Reds Meadow Shuttle with the last pickup departing at 7:00 pm.
Leave Hwy 395 at Hwy 203 to the town of Mammoth Lakes. Turn right on Minaret Road and go to Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center (Main Lodge) for long term parking and to board the mandatory shuttle to the trailhead. Shuttle stop # 6 is the Devils Postpile National Monument trailhead, #9 is the Rainbow Falls trailhead, or use shuttle stop #10 at Reds Meadow Resort if you want to visit the market or other resort services.
*All photos taken by Andrea Iniguez
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials