A great way to get a little elevation gain and a taste of the views from the hills that hold the Stehekin valley. You’ll get a view of the famed Rainbow Falls, traipse through a recovering burn area and have beautiful down-valley views of the head of Lake Chelan and the mouth of the Stehekin River.
There are two trailheads for this hike, so it is less of a loop than a horseshoe, unless you access the trailhead using a bike and need to return to your starting point to reclaim your it. If this is your plan, start from the lower trailhead – there is more elevation gain on the hike itself, but more room to stash a bike. Point to point, this is a 4.4 mile hike either way, but adding the return trip makes it more than 8 miles if you’re hiking back from the upper trailhead.
However, if you are relying on the shuttle bus, start at the upper trailhead, since it’s a much shorter walk back to the landing if you miss the shuttle at the end of your hike. Simply ask for a dropoff at the upper Rainbow Loop trailhead from the bus driver.
To access the lower trailhead, proceed up the Stehekin Road a little less than a mile past the Stehekin Pastry Company (about three miles from the ferry landing). Look for a trailhead sign a few hundred feet back from the road with mileages for the Rainbow Loop and Rainbow Creek trails. You’ve arrived!
Hop on the trail and almost immediately begin gaining elevation as you proceed east, paralleling Boulder Creek. The trail turns sharply away from the creek shortly after entering the 2010 Rainbow Bridge burn area. This fire was started by a lightning strike in a camp along the Rainbow Creek Trail and quickly spread to 3,635 acres, closing many of the trails on the east side of the valley and threatening structures on the valley floor.
No structures or lives were lost, but several trails in this area, including the Rainbow Loop, now pass through sections of burns. Hike carefully as you pass through here, and watch for wind. If it becomes gusty, consider visiting another time.
1.7 miles from the lower trailhead, the Boulder Creek trail splits off, heading up along Boulder Creek and eventually looping back down to the landing area. That’s a multi-day excursion, however. Your trail continues off to the left.
Continue traversing through the burn area, enjoying picture-perfect vistas of the head of the lake before reaching another junction 1.2 miles from the lower trailhead. This is the Rainbow Creek Trail. Another excellent multi-day hike option, Rainbow Creek is accessible from Highway 20 as well as Stehekin.
This is also your high point, and from here, the trail descends 2.2 miles and 900 feet to the upper trailhead. Don’t miss the cheerful sign at this end with rainbow-painted letters.
Snag a shuttle bus heading back to the landing from here, or turn left and head down the road. A local may offer you a ride to the landing, or if the bus comes by, you can usually flag them down for a ride. Just be sure to have cash with you for the $7 fare.
WTA Pro Tip: The best way to hike this as a true loop is if you’re staying at Harlequin Campground. The mileage in this case is 6.6 miles round trip, if you walk to the lower trailhead from the campground and follow the directions offered in the description above to the upper trailhead.
In almost any case, the Rainbow Loop is one you can only do if you’re overnighting in Stehekin, there’s just not enough time in the ferry schedule to do it without missing the last boat out.
- 4.4 miles, roundtrip
- Elevation Gain
- 1,000 feet
- Highest Point
- 2,200 feet
Hiking Rainbow Loop
Map & Directions
Co-ordinates: 48.3379, -120.6941 Open in Google Maps