Yellowstone National Park’s Fairy Falls: Fairy Trails Can Come True

It can happen to you. You can see Yellowstone’s Fairy Falls for yourself — if you’re willing to hike to it. Yes, this is a can’t-see-it-if-you-don’t-hike-it attraction, although the hike is neither long nor arduous. To be honest this trail is a little meh, but (and it’s a big but) the payoff is easily worth twice the miles. Also, there’s a bonus feature. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We had hiked in West Thumb Basin that morning (read here), strolled around Grand Prismatic Spring moments before, and now stood at the Fairy Falls Trailhead.

Ominous dark clouds were gathering in the skies above Yellowstone National Park. Nevertheless, we put tread to trail, crossing the steel bridge over the Firehole River and heading north. Fifty yards down the trail the inevitable happened. Plop, plop, plop came the rain in giant, cold droplets. We wriggled out of our packs and quickly donned rain jackets. The rain fell harder. There was a smattering of conversation about turning back, but no one did. Ten minutes later the rain stopped, never to return. We had chosen wisely. A little more than a half-mile into our hike, we came to a spur and bore left onto the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail. (Hint: this leads to the bonus attraction.)

The spring is the darling of Yellowstone photographers, racking up even more selfies than Old Faithful, despite the latter’s greater name recognition. Grand Prismatic is the main attraction on the midway … the Midway Geyser Basin that is, where we’d just spent forty-five minutes strolling around another planked pathway. Grand Prismatic is the third largest hot spring in the world and is deeper than a ten story building is tall. The spring dazzles with an intense array of color derived from the many different heat-loving bacteria that thrive in this natural jacuzzi. The center is a vibrant cyan surrounded by deeper blues and greens. The amoeba-like pool is rimmed in yellow and surrounded by a brain-befuddling band of metallic copper that glittered like a shiny, new penny in the midday sun. Looking down from the overlook, now under an overcast sky, Grand Prismatic was not as brilliant as it had been under the rays of Ra, but it was an inspiring view nonetheless.

Pro tip: We arrived at Grand Prismatic in the afternoon, since the colorful spring is often occluded by steam in the early mornings. Remember: The early bird misses the therm[al spring].

Done with the overlook, we continued on to rejoin the main trail. The Overlook Trail doesn’t really add mileage, but the short spur will reward you with half the elevation you’ll gain on this hike. Back on the Fairy Falls Trail, we shuffled down a hiker highway. The wide, gravel path was pleasant but uninteresting. We didn’t mind; we were glad to not be getting drenched in rain. We had tramped a mile and a quarter when we arrived at a junction. One leg of the trail went north, the other west. A wooden sign told young men (as well as old hikers like me) to go west.

After hanging that left turn, the trail narrowed and began to snake through pine forest. Nearer the falls, the trail narrowed further, becoming a single track surrounded by grassy meadows and deep-green pines. As we topped a small rise, the falls came into view.

Fairy Falls spills from a notch in a shiny, metallic cliff 197 feet above its plunge basin. I was unable to determine the reason for the cliff’s lustrous countenance, but it certainly added to the magical atmosphere. As we approached, eyes skyward, the sun breached the crag at the crest of the falls, blinding us and transforming the scattering droplets into tiny jewels against the rock. The waters of Fairy Creek spattered onto the rock face fifty feet above the pool, turning into milky rivulets that trickled down to the water below. To each side of the basin, grassy hills hosted wildflowers, most notably yellow columbine — a hue of this flower I’d never before seen. The creek drained from the plunge basin in a narrow stream and was easy to cross, making it equally easy to photograph the tumbling cataract from all sides. In between taking copious pictures, we sat contemplating the fanciful Fairy Falls. After a long, while we broke the spritely spell and turned our back on the falls.

The hike out was filled with discussion of the falls we had just seen and of what was still to come. At some point during the return trip, I felt a stinging irritation at the front of my left ankle. Assuming I had gotten something pointy in my sock, I pulled at the wool. The pain persisted. I tugged at my sock a few more times before stopping to investigate. When I peeled down my Smartwool, medium-weight sock, I discovered a small puncture and some redness. I fished around inside my sock to ensure that whatever had poked me was gone and then finished the hike. Several hours later it was still bothering me, and I had a nickel-sized ulcer.

Note: This may have been the bite of a brown recluse spider. These bites can be severe, as the brown recluse is considered to be the most venomous in North America. If it were one of these arachnid anchorites, it would be my second such encounter. I was almost certainly bitten by a brown recluse in 1985 when I was a strapping lad of nineteen working in Alaska. That bite corresponded to this one, but eventually necrotized, leaving a crescent-shaped scar that took years to fade – a hallmark of the brown recluse bite. This bite seemed less severe, although it still took five or six weeks to heal. As of this writing (March 2023), a slight discoloration is still present where I was bitten.

I didn’t seek medical attention for this bite because a) I’m a dinkus, b) it never worsened beyond the first couple of days, and c) it was less severe than my prior bite for which I never sought medical attention because … see a).

If you are bitten and are unsure by what, it is wise to seek medical attention.

Spider-bites aside, Fairy Falls was a fantastic hike. If the trail itself is a little less than magical, the overlook and falls more than make up for any shortcomings. While we actively pursue rigorous, diverse, scenic hikes, there is absolutely no shame in a relatively simple stroll to see an amazing, natural feature. So check out the hike to Fairy Falls — it should be easy, and you’ll almost certainly survive any spider bites — if you are among the very young at heart. ♦

Date: July 13, 2022
Location: Yellowstone National Park, WY
Trailhead: 44.515556, -110.832545
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 256 feet
Difficulty: Easy side of Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Apsáalooke (Crow),  Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Tséstho’e (Cheyenne).

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