Editor's note: For most, it's too late in the season to check this hike off your to-do list. But the following story just might plant the seed for next summer, or the summer beyond that, and the story will be parked in our Yellowstone National Park Essential Guide for future reference. And if you visit the park in winter and can catch a snowcoach shuttle, the trail to Fairy Falls and beyond would be great for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, if you're in good shape and accustomed to breaking trail.)
A towering, wispy waterfall, one of Yellowstone National Park's tallest, and two backcountry geysers via the same trail? That's what you get when you leave the Fairy Falls Trailhead.
And it's not a long hike, one that requires hours of trekking and a river ford or two. Rather, this hike can be done in as few as two hours and reward you not only with that nearly 200-foot-tall waterfall, Fairy Falls, but with relative solitude (relative when compared to the park's front-country geyser basins, that is) to enjoy Spray and Imperial geysers.
The trail heads out along the old Fountain Freight Road, which is anchored to the trailhead by a steel bridge built in 1903 to span the Firehole River for wagons hauling freight to the Upper Geyser Basin. Today the bridge and road are closed to vehicles, the cinder-covered road is open to hikers and mountain bikers, and the Firehole fills with anglers looking not merely to wet their flies but to land one of the river's storied cutthroat trout.
At 197 feet tall, Fairy Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the park. It was given its name in 1871 by Ferdinand Hayden and Capt. J.W. Barlow, who spied it from the summit of one of the Twin Buttes nearby. The captain summoned up the name "from the graceful beauty with which the little stream dropped down a clear descent..."
When my wife and I came upon the waterfall late in September, the cataract was rather meager, although by the time it reached its rocky base the spray was substantial.
Imperial Geyser is something of a sleeper, one with a fairly interesting history. According to Lee Whittlesey, park historian and author of Yellowstone Place Names, the geyser wasn't "discovered" until 1927 when its first eruption, of about 25 feet, was recorded.
The geyser's legacy gained a bit more substance two years later when the National Editorial Association held its convention in Yellowstone and Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, allowed the newspaper editors and writers to vote on a name for the geyser from among 17 proposed names. "Imperial" actually tied with "Columbia," though Imperial won out in the end.
The geyser's legacy grew a bit more in 1928, when it was seen erupting as high as 150 feet, (for up to four hours straight!) every 10-14 hours.
"During the early years," wrote Mr. Whittlesey, "the discharge of Imperial Geyser was said to be one of the greatest in the park, at around 878,000 gallons per eruption."
Though Imperial went dormant in September 1929, it resumed its perturbations in August 1966 and continues to spout these days. Spray Geyser, some 200 yards downstream to the east, is not as impressive. Though it spouts almost continuously, the spray doesn't reach more than 10 feet.
How Do You Reach These Wonders?
From the Fairy Falls Trailhead just south of Grand Prismatic Spring, cross the steel bridge and head roughly 1 mile down the freight road to the junction with the Fairy Falls Trail. Turn left onto this trail, and continue toward Fairy Falls through a growing alley of lodgepole pines. This area burned pretty well during the 1988 wildfires, and the trees you're walking past these days are the rejuventating forest.
Fairy Falls is reached just a bit more than 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Spawned by Fairy Creek tumbling off the cliff, the falls itself is meager when compared to the falls on the Yellowstone River or those in the Bechler region. Still, the 197-foot-fall is pretty impressive, the shower you can enjoy at the base on particularly hot summer days is refreshing, and the raspberries the water helps nourish nearby can be tasty if the bears have left any behind.
From Fairy Falls, the trail leads you about another two-tenths of a mile to the junction with the Imperial Falls Trail. Turn left onto this path and in about a half-mile you'll see Spray Geyser. You can either approach Spray, and then continue on a trail that parallels the runoff stream from Imperial to reach that geyser, or you can backtrack a very short distance to the main trail that leads to the geyser.
Imperial Geyser is definitely worth the hike. Though it doesn't erupt as high or as long in duration as it once did -- at least it didn't during our visit -- it's surrounded by a gorgeous hot spring of blue water with some intruding yellowish spears of what might be microbial mats. Just to the west are a few muttering mud pots that give additional hints to the thermal plumbing here.
Further enhancing the beauty of the setting are the Twin Buttes, which rise just to the west. After admiring these two geysers, you can either backtrack to the trailhead, or follow the Imperial Geyser Trail to the Sentinel Meadows Trailhead and return to your car via the Fountain Freight Road. (Note: Runoff from a thermal area can leave a half-inch or two of water in places over the Imperial Geyser Trail if you follow it to reach Sentinel Meadows, though backcountry rangers say there usually are poles or downed logs marking where you should walk.)
If You Go
Imperial Geyser Via Fairy Falls
Trailhead Parking: Fairy Falls Trailhead, a little over 1 mile south of the turnoff to the Midway Geyser Basin.
Difficulty: Easy, elevation gain negligible.
Payoff: One of the tallest waterfalls in Yellowstone and a gorgeous geyser with an impressive history.
Map: National Geographic Trails Illustrated's #302, Old Faithful.
Cautions: Check for grizzly bear information in springtime before heading down the trail, as it lies within the Firehole Bear Management Area and there are seasonal hiking closures early in the spring.