Rainbow Loop Trail

The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.
– Barry Lopez


Distance - one way

Elevation gain / loss



4.4 miles (7.1 km)

1,000 feet (305 m) gain

Hiking and Stock


Upper Rainbow Loop Trail
View from the Rainbow Loop Trail.


The Rainbow Loop Trail is an especially popular early season trail in the Stehekin Valley that features moderate elevation gain, wonderful early season wildflowers, and scenic views of the Stehekin Valley and the surrounding mountains. It is an excellent option for hikers who want to stretch their legs during late spring and early summer when most other trails of similar length are partially or completely snow covered. The trail has both an "upper" and "lower" trailhead and is not a true loop, although a 6.8 mile (11 km) loop hike is possible by hiking the trail and then walking on the Stehekin Valley Road back to one's starting point. See the detailed description below.

Special Concerns:

  • Several miles of this trail burned in the 2010 Rainbow Bridge Fire, including the camp and the bridge over Rainbow Creek. Check the current trail conditions for updates.

  • Mechanized and motorized equipment, including bicycles, are not allowed.
  • Leashed dogs are allowed on the Rainbow Loop.
  • Ticks can be numerous in early season (May-June).
  • Hikers may encounter parties on horseback. Talk to the lead rider in a calm voice and step off the trail on the downhill side where your party is visible to the animals.

Backcountry Camping:
A backcountry permit is required for all overnight stays. Permits are limited. Overnight camping is available along the trail at Rainbow Bridge Camp. Camping is also available at Harlequin Camp, located near the Stehekin Valley Road between the two trailheads of the Rainbow Loop.

The lower, southern trailhead is located 2.6 miles (4.2 km) from the Stehekin Landing on the Stehekin Valley Road, and the upper, northern trailhead is located 5 miles (8.0 km) up-valley from the landing. Both trailheads can be accessed from Stehekin via the Stehekin shuttle (see shuttle schedule), which runs between Stehekin and High Bridge four times daily during the summer. The shuttle can pick up or drop off hikers on either end of the loop. Visitors staying in the Stehekin Valley can also access the trailheads via bicycle on the Stehekin Valley Road, although bikes are not allowed on the trail itself.


Detailed Trail Description

Beginning from the southern, down-valley trailhead the trail climbs moderately through a dry ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forest via several long switchbacks. Keep an eye out for the ant lion pits which usually cover the first part of this trail. These small depressions in the sandy soil are dug by ant lion larvae, and are used to trap ants and other small insects.The ant lion lies buried, waiting at the bottom of the pit. When it senses that something has fallen into the trap, its thrashing head quickly emerges to drag its prey underground in a flurry of flying sand.

Both ends of the Rainbow Loop Trail climb approximately 1000 feet (305 m) from the valley floor in order to reach a rock bench at the foot of what is known as a hanging valley. Two processes, glaciation and river erosion, resulted in this landscape. During the geologically recent Ice Ages, continental glaciers thousands of feet thick filled the Stehekin Valley and the Lake Chelan Basin while smaller alpine glaciers filled the smaller tributary valleys such as Rainbow Creek and Boulder Creek. These glaciers carved the distinctive U-shaped Stehekin Valley so beautifully on display from the Rainbow Loop. During each glaciation event the smaller alpine glaciers had less mass than the continental glacier in the main valley, and thus did not carve as deeply. After several periods of glaciation, the result that we see today is that the Rainbow Creek valley was left "hanging" above the more deeply carved Stehekin Valley floor. As the glaciers last melted back, about 10,000 years ago, Rainbow Creek carried the sediments and freshly pulverized rock flour down and deposited a large alluvial fan. Erosion by the Stehekin River over the last several thousand years removed most of the fan but the Rainbow Loop Trail climbs the remnants of this ancient sediment fan on its way to the bedrock bench of the hanging valley.

After 1.6 miles (2.6 km), there is a junction with the Boulder Creek Trail, and shortly thereafter is a large rock outcrop that provides excellent vistas of Lake Chelan, the Stehekin River, and Buckner Orchard. During May and early June a wide variety of wildflowers can be found throughout the grassy hillsides, shaded forest, and dry rock outcrops. Four tenths of a mile (0.6 km) north of the Boulder Creek Trail junction the trail crosses Rainbow Creek via a bridge and shortly reaches the junction with the Rainbow Creek Trail.

After crossing Rainbow Creek, the trail heads north to reach the junction with the Rainbow Creek Trail. Day hikers wishing to extend their hike and give their legs more of a workout may choose to turn up the Rainbow Creek Trail approximately one vigorous mile (1.6 km) to a rocky outcrop with fabulous views toward Lake Chelan and overlooking the Stehekin Valley to Tupshin Peak and Sisi Ridge.

Beyond the Rainbow Creek Trail junction, the path makes one more noticeable climb before beginning a descent that begins gradually but accelerates through a shady ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forest, eventually switchbacking down to reach the upper Rainbow Loop trailhead on the Stehekin Valley Road 5 miles (8 km) from the Stehekin Landing. From this point, hikers can either catch the Stehekin Valley Shuttle or walk 2.4 miles (3.9 km) back to the original starting point at the lower Rainbow Loop trailhead making a total round trip hike of 6.8 miles (11 km).

Wilderness logo of wolf howling at moon.
Ninety-three percent of North Cascades National Park Service Complex is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, set aside by law for "the American people of present and future generations" for our protection and enjoyment. Please follow all Leave No Trace hiking and camping practices to reduce your impact on this special place and leave it unimpaired for future generations.

Last updated: April 8, 2022

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810 State Route 20
Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284


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