Saturday, December 19, 2015

Day trail passes prismatic spring, geysers, waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

Grand Prismatic Spring with Excelsior Geyser Crater beyond it.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Topo map for Fairy Falls Trail.

Hot spring largest
in United States,
No. 3 in world

The multi-colored Grand Prismatic Spring, an array of geysers, and a 197-foot waterfall await day hikers on Yellowstone National Park’s Fairy Falls Trail.

Combined with the Fountain Flat Drive, the trail runs 5.2-miles. If going to see Old Faithful, this is a perfect nearby trail to hike the same day.

To reach the trail’s start, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, take U.S. Hwy. 191 north into the park to the Grand Loop Road. Park at the trailhead for Fountain Flat Drive on the highway’s northwest side.

From the lot, head northwest on the wide and gravel-surfaced Fountain Flat Drive. Older maps may refer to this route as “National Park Avenue.” The trail starts amid a number of small geysers. Till Geyser is across the road to the southeast while River, Catfish and Flood geysers are to the northeast.

The trail crosses the Firehole River on an old steel trestle bridge and heads into the Midway Geyser Basin. A ridge runs on the trail’s west side with a peak soaring to 7622 feet.

Grand Prismatic Spring
The hillsides to the east will look a bit bare thanks to the 1988 forest fires. For hikers, one benefit of the fire was that prior to that time, no vista really was available of the prismatic spring unless you were in a helicopter.

As rounding the mountain’s northeast side, just 0.6 miles from the trailhead, is the Grand Prismatic Spring. The beautiful and oft-photographed wonder boasts multicolored rings of algae. As the water temperature changes, so does the kind of thermophile living in it, resulting in a rainbow of colors. The water’s average temperature is 160 degrees F.

About 370 feet in diameter, Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. It reaches a depth of 121 feet.

Be sure to bring polarized sunglasses. By wearing them, you can see the spring’s rainbow colors reflected in the steam rising off the water.

A 400-foot stretch of the trail known as “Picture Hill” provides a grand vista of the spring. The smaller Excelsior Geyser Crater sits beyond the geological wonder.

Walk to waterfalls
If geysers and a prismatic spring weren’t enough, there’s also a waterfall. To see it, continue walking; just northwest of the prismatic spring, at a mile from the trailhead, the Fountain Flat Drive junctions with the Fairy Falls Trail. Go left/west onto the Fairy Falls Trail.

Fairly flat, it cuts through lodgepole pines as hugging a mountainside. To the north is the Fairy Meadows. Twin Buttes, their summits bare, rises to over 7600 feet in the northwest.

A wooden bridge crosses a small creek flowing out of an unnamed lake in the mountain to the south. The mountain tops out at 7542 feet.

Upon reaching the spur for the OD1 campsite, you’ve come 1.7 miles from the trailhead.

Fairy Falls
From there, the trail gently rolls over the base of the ridgeline through quaking aspen and wildflowers. Pause and listen for sound waves from the upcoming waterfalls reverberating off the cliffside. The waterfalls sits on the other side of the next peak ahead.

At about 2.6 miles from trailhead, you’ll arrive at Fairy Falls. Fairy Creek tumbles nearly 20 stories over a steep cliff, making Fairy Falls the tallest frontcountry waterfall in the Greater Yellowstone region.

The waterfalls’ base supports a variety of vegetation. If looking for a place to picnic, the rocks downstream from the falls where raspberry bushes grow make a perfect spot.

The falls also marks a good spot to turn back. Alternately, if you do have a little extra energy to burn, you can continue on to see Imperial and Spray geysers, the former of which is the closer at 0.7 miles (one-way) ahead.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.