Fairy Falls Trail: a must-see hike in Yellowstone

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Written by SandrinePublished on 02/27/18
10 km to 17,5km round trip
3h30 to 6h00

The Fairy Falls trail is an easy and enjoyable hike for those who want to take the time to get away from the busy Yellowstone Basins and explore the wilderness. In addition, the trail will lead you on a sumptuous and majestic geyser whith a perfect name: Imperial Geyser.

As the trail is located in the bear protection zone, it only opens from the end of May until the snow blocks access.

1The different routes

The Fairy Falls trail starts from the Fountain Flat Drive, a 6.4 km bike path connecting the end of Fountain Drive Flat Drive (north) to the Fairy Falls parking lot (south).

It is therefore possible to take different routes to reach the Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser, depending on whether you choose either to leave from the Fairy Falls parking lot (this is the shortest distance and route we have chosen) or the parking lot at the end of Fountain Drive Flat Drive, which will extend the hike but will allow you to make an interesting loop and pass through geothermal zones.

Here are the different itinerary options:

The shortest: Round trip from the Fairy Falls parking lot - 10 km - 3h30 
The big loop: Departure from the Fountain Drive Flat Drive parking lot - 14.5 km 
The Fairy Falls trail " Sentinel Meadows trail: Departure from the Fountain Drive Flat Drive parking lot - 17.5 km

We have indicated on the map at the bottom of the article the shortest route in red and the different alternatives available in dotted lines.

With regard to the rest of the article, we will only be able to describe the itinerary we have taken, which is the shortest one from the Fairy Falls parking lot. We promised to follow the Sentinel Meadows trail and the northern option of the Fairy Falls trail during our next visit!

2From the parking lot to the junction with the Fairy Falls trail

This may sound surprising, but the Fairy Falls trail does not start directly from the parking lot of the same name. To reach the beginning of the trail, you will have to walk for 1.6 km on the Fountain Flat Drive, from the parking lot. The latter is located 2.3 km south of the Midway Geyser Basin. It is adorned with pretty blue-green hot pools on either side of the road, just before the final roundabout.

Expect not to be the only ones to want to park because this car park officially leads since 2017 to the new belvedere allowing to have a view on the Grand Prismatic.

However, since the belvedere was installed, the original car park has been enlarged to accommodate the influx of tourists coming to the viewpoint. The extension, which was under construction at the end of October 2017, is located on the left side of the access road to the car park.

It should also be noted that buses and VRs cannot park in the original car park, but the extension should be able to accommodate them (to be confirmed).

From the parking lot, the Fountain Flat Drive heads north before crossing the Firehole River. It is a wide flat gravel path without any difficulty. Bicycles are allowed on this path.

We start by crossing the bridge over the Firehole River.

The trail begins along Midway Geyser Basin and passes close to some hot springs. At the end of 1 km, 15 minutes walk, a fork on the left allows to take a small path of 200 meters which goes up to reach the belvedere of the Grand Prismatic (prohibited to bicycles). The ascent is not very difficult. Do not hesitate to stop there, the view is superb despite the crowds.

Grand Prismatic from the viewpoint

Continuing on Fountain Flat Drive, you'll probably be alone on the large road, as the majority of tourists only going back and forth to the belvedere. After 600 meters, a junction marks the beginning of the Fairy Falls trail which starts on the left.

If you have come by bike, small grids will allow you to attach your bikes which are forbidden on the Fairy Falls trail.

3Trail to Fairy Falls

It is now time to walk 2.4 km to reach the Fairy Falls, the first objective of this hike. During 30 minutes, we will cross a rather dark fir forest. This is the most monotonous part of the trail, but fortunately, it is flat and therefore can be walked without any difficulty.

Between the fir trees: the beginning of the trail crosses the fir forest.

As the trail is quite shaded, expect to come across a few puddles or wet passages, especially if it has rained recently.

Finally, the fir trees widen and gradually give way to a kind of meadow scattered with ancient fir trees burned by the gigantic fire of 1988, of which only the trunks remain, similar to giant toothpicks. But for several years now, vegetation has been rebuilding and the new generation of fir trees has been growing slowly.

Listen and you'll hear a distant rustle. The Fairy Falls are close by. They will only be seen at the last moment because they are located in a small rocky recess.

Arrival to the Fairy Falls.

The Fairy Falls

The beautiful waterfall is impressive with its 60 meters high and its large wall section. Its base seems to have been carved by the years by water.

In Yellowstone Park, the waterfalls are numerous but often rather small and wide, with the exception of two of the beautiful Lower and Upper Falls in Yellowstone Canyon. The Fairy Falls are different, because unlike the previous ones, the jet is fine and high. We don't remember seeing a similar waterfall in Yellowstone Park.

In front of the Fairy Falls, they're still impressive.

The path leads us close enough to the water to enjoy the beautiful waterfall.

4From Fairy Falls to Imperial Geyser

It would be a shame to turn back now, because at 1.1 km from the Fairy Falls there is a very nice geothermal zone which is absolutely worth the visit! You can notice it quite easily in the distance, thanks to the white smoke coming from it.

Follow the short bridge with a few trunks, which will allow you to cross the small river escaping from the Fairy Falls. The trail now heads northward through a slightly wet area, crossed by small streams of water that make the trail a bit muddy.

Smoke plumes can be seen in the distance.
Flo crosses the bridge walking on tree trunks.

A little further on, two small wooden bridges were installed to save us from getting our feet wet, before entering a small forest, this time relatively sparse and composed of small shrubs.

Flo crossing one of the small wooden bridges.

Once out of the forest, we enter a grassy plain, at the end of which we find the intersection with the path that leads directly to the parking lot of Fountain Drive Flat Drive, to be taken back for those who have chosen this option.

The trail then turns 90° in a westerly direction and leads to another grassy plain.

The path crosses the great meadow.

For the small anecdote, bison settled in this plain within 30 minutes when we were watching Imperial Geyser. We were therefore totally surprised by their arrival on the way home. The bisons were huge and one of them was 10 metres from the trail. For fear of an unexpected charge, we preferred to leave the trail and walk along the edge of the small forest to make ourselves more discreet. Finally the bisons did not move, but they followed us with their eyes the time of our crossing!

One of the bison set up right next to the trail.
Another bison this time standing up.

At the end of this plain, the path enters a fir forest again. At this point, you will have to look for the small path on the right. Be careful because it is not marked! This is the trail that will bring you closer to Spray and Imperial Geysers. If in doubt, head towards the noise generated by the small river.

After 100 meters, we arrive in front of the very pretty smoking river. Spray geyser is located just behind the river and fills it with warm water. It is very active with eruptions up to 2 meters with small pauses of a few seconds between each eruption.

The trail goes up the hot water river. It's absolutely charming! The path goes very close and allows us to admire it from every perspective. The edges are tinted with ochre and greenish shades, and combined with steam fumes, the landscape looks supernatural (you'll tell me like everywhere in Yellowstone!).

Strange atmosphere at the edge of the smoking river.
The trail runs very close to the river.
You can see Spray Geyser behind the river.

After 300 meters, we finally reach the ultimate goal of this hike, his Majesty Imperial Geyser!

Imperial Geyser

We were totally amazed by this geyser! The first colors you'll see are those of his swimming pool, lined with a sparkling yellow and a clear sky blue. It's beautiful, especially when the sun rays reach the pool.

The magnificent Imperial Geyser basin!

The water jet is located on the other side of the beautiful pool, in a small nook. It burst up to 15 meters high for about 20 seconds every 30 seconds. Might as well say it's in great shape!

If you look at his position, you will quickly understand that it alone feeds the river. In other words, the volume of water it expels is really impressive!

Flo admired in front of Imperial Geyser.
Imperial geyser erupting.
The colors of the pool are beautiful!

The combination of the perennial geyser, its magnificent pool and its isolated position, make it one of the most beautiful geysers of the park (well, in our opinion it is even the most beautiful)!

For a long time we admired the geyser.
Imperial geyser from another perspective.
Bubbles of bubbling mud!

We were lucky to be alone with Imperial Geyser. It really fascinated us and we were able to photograph it from every perspective. It was a truly incredible experience to be alone with such a beautiful phenomenon.

Don't forget to linger in the vicinity of the geyser, where you will discover small pots of mud bubbling. Be careful not to put your feet anywhere, the floors are rather unstable, especially near mud ponds.

If you have chosen to return quickly to the Fairy Falls parking lot, you will return on the same trail. If you are ready to make the long loop, you will have to fork off at the small junction after the clearing.

In total, it took us 3h15 to make the complete round trip from the parking lot.

Our opinion
We like

The magnificent Imperial Geyser and the whole area around the smoking river.

The Fairy Falls which are impressive in their height.

We don't like

The first section of the Fairy Falls trail in fir trees is long and monotonous.

About us

We are Sandrine and Flo, French thirty-somethings. In 2019 we quit everything to live our dream, become nomads and travel around the world. We left with our baby, Lena, who was only 5 months old at the time. After a first trip around the Pacific Ocean by plane and a long 3 months stay in Hawaii, we left to discover Iceland for 3 months on board our 4WD pickup truck and truck camper. Then we continued our adventure in North America.

Today, if we can continue this adventure, it is above all thanks to our blog, Smartrippers! We created it one day in 2016, with the desire to share our good travel tips, without thinking that it would lead us there! We have developed it a lot over the years and have become experts on our 3 favorite destinations: Hawaii, Iceland and the American West. We now guide you to these destinations to help you plan the trip of your dreams!

Follow our adventures!