Be warned before you take on this hike, the name can be a little misleading. Rainbow Loop Trail is an in and out hike. The trail’s length is four miles, but you do not end up back where you started so you end up making the same trek back over your own footsteps making the total hike 8 miles.
This by no means is a deal-killer, and it is an exemplary hike, it’s jut that the name Rainbow Loop might make you think of it as a true “loop” and it’s not. You could make it a true loop if you hike back along the Stehekin Valley Road Trail, but that’s up to you.
Washington’s Lake Chelan National Recreation Area has a wide array of hiking trails available to every class of trail hound from the challenging and experienced, and the leisurely and peaceful. Rainbow Loop measures in as a moderate trail with a pleasant walk, minor elevation gains, but with spectacular views of the valley floor below as well as Tupshin, Devore, and White Goat peaks across the way.
The trail brings you up from the valley floor at the upper end of Lake Chelan, up onto the ridges of Rainbow Mountain and then back down to the river and valley before turning around and returning to the trail head once again. This short eight mile trek is one of our favorites as you will see wildlife, fellow hikers and their pets, as well as view the criss-crossing trails along the valley floor.
To see a further breakdown of the Rainbow Loop Trail, please visit the official page for the Washington Trails Association. Link to the relevant page on wta.org for the hike.
HISTORY OF THE AREA
Zooming in on the aerial map far above Rainbow Loop Trail one of the most distinguishing landmarks you spot is the snakelike Lake Chelan. It is clear to see the water-filled valley winding its way from the small city of Chelan more than fifty miles northwest to the much smaller town of Stehekin.
The further northwest the lake goes, the fewer permanent residents that live on the lake. In fact, during the winter there are no passable roads that make their way to the northern end of the lake and all “traffic” to this area takes place by boat or sea plane.
In the summer, there is an off-road “expedition” bus that will ferry you from one trail to the next, but their schedule is more of a guideline, as they flex and bend with the trail situations as they occur.
Much of the forest in the area is recovering from multiple wildfires throughout the lands as no regular road service made firefighting difficult to contain or control the flames. The burn areas scar the landscape but renew the natural growth of underbrush and old-growth trees.
Remnants of the 2010 Rainbow Bridge fire can still be seen in the young growth in the area and in 2017 the Uno Peak Fire threatened the woods surrounding Rainbow Loop as well. When hiking in any forest, especially in isolated areas, take extra precautions to keep these forests safe from open flames. The Lake Chelan National Recreation Area has strict rules regarding fires, be sure to observe them.
GETTING TO THE TRAIL
Whoever said that “getting there is half the adventure” must have had the Rainbow Loop Trail in mind, or any of the destinations at the north end of Lake Chelan. To quote the old man by the side of the road in every rural stereotype, “Ah… ya can’t get there from here”
Option one; Fly in. If you have your own small engine plane, there is a small turf airstrip designated 6S9 as “Stehekin State Airport”. When we tell you this is the easiest way to get there, just you wait.
Option two; Hike in. If you’re looking to get to Rainbow Loop Trail as part of a larger week-long walkabout vacation, you have the option of coming in from the north off of North Cascades Highway and trekking into the Lake Chelan Recreation Area.
But more than likely, you’ll want to make your way to Chelan, about halfway between Seattle and Spokane where the Columbia River comes close to Lake Chelan. From here, you’re going to purchase a ride on the ferry that will bring you to the northern end of the lake where all the recreational areas are.
Multiple campgrounds, cabins, and hotels are available in the tourist-traveled town of Stehekin which blossoms and blooms during the summer season. Once you make it there, it is a short ride up Stehekin Valley Road to the Rainbow Loop trail head. Along the way you’ll see all the campgrounds and all the picnic spots as this entire valley floor is populated by fellow hikers looking to explore the grounds.
PARK FACILITIES AND REGULATIONS
In the Stehekin River valley, the explosion of camps, hotels, recreational areas and otherwise “summer retreats” abound and there is no lacking for facilities anywhere along the hiking trail head areas or the immediate vicinity.
Rainbow Loop Trail is such a short hike at only a four mile stretch turned eight miles in and out, that there is no real need for dedicated facilities such as bathrooms or water breaks along the hike. You will find bathrooms nearly all along the trail-heavy valley, and since it is a remote location to begin with, the odds are you are staying at a local campground nearby.
Once you do hit the dirt on Rainbow Loop, you will encounter a water feature about two and a quarter miles from the trail head when you cross Rainbow Creek. While not a torrential river, this trickling rivulet can become quite engorged during the spring thaw and run-off season. However, don’t rely on this tiny stream for a water source as it is unreliable at best.
Rainbow Loop trail can be quite a dry trek and with the fresh regrowth, many of the trees are still reaching upward and have yet to create a shaded trail, so stay hydrated and enjoy the walk. This is especially true when you bring your leashed dogs, be certain you provide water for them as well as Rainbow Loop can make it particularly difficult to find shade at times and your four-legged friend can’t let you know just how tired and hot they are!
NAVIGATING THE TRAIL
You can take the Rainbow Loop trail from either end, but many hikers choose to begin at the traditional trail head at the upper end of the trail. Leaving your vehicle at the lower end and then having the tram bus drop you off at the northern trail head makes for a shorter hike if you don’t want to do the entire Rainbow Loop and make it more of a Rainbow Arc. Many of the campgrounds in the area rent bicycles to ride around the recreational grounds.
Once you set on the trail, you’ll immediately begin to gain elevation and for the first half mile it’s just a few switchbacks to get to the ridgeline. From there it’s a fairly straight and beautiful path with interesting views along the way. At 1.7 miles you’ll reach a nice bluff that makes for a great photo opportunity just off the trail, and at just over two and a quarter miles, you’ll cross the Rainbow Creek. If you’re willing to turn off the trail and walk a little ways south following the creek, you’ll be at the top of Rainbow Falls, where even when the creek is low, the cascading water is always beautiful.
Back on the trail another half mile and Boulder Creek Trail calves off to the left. That trail will take you deeper into the forest and around Purple Mountain and Boulder Butte, this is a worthy hike, but one you don’t want to accidentally stumble upon. If you’ve only prepared for a single day hike, stay on Rainbow Loop.
Just after this, we begin to descend to the valley floor once more. We come around the west side of a small mound and drop rapidly until we switchback to the Stehekin River and the Stehekin Valley Trail. At this point, you turn around and hike back to complete the Rainbow Loop, or if you’ve made other travel arrangements, you could call this a finished hike.
Once you step onto Rainbow Loop Trail you’ll understand why so many people choose the Lake Chelan Recreational Area as a way to get away from the city and escape for a bit of summer fun. The perceived isolation of the north end of the lake makes it feel like an authentic summer village and the trails surrounding the valley are full of wildlife and folly.
Hiking in the North Cascades doesn’t have to be a month long camping excursion where you dash away from bears and huddle for warmth… books are written about those hikes, but your memories will be richer and happier for making the short journey along Rainbow Loop Trail.
Stay the week at one of the local campgrounds, overnight in the inns or hotels, or stay with friends on Silver Bay, or down the docks at Stehekin. The north end of Lake Chelan is a placid and delightful getaway that brings all the beauty of the Pacific Northwest hiking experiences to life. Whether you’re on Rainbow Loop trail, or undertaking the extended tour around several mountains and through the hearty old growth forest, the Lake Chelan National Recreational Area is well worth the journey and in the end, proves the adage that getting there is half the fun!