If you’re visiting Yellowstone National Park, you want to see some amazing thermal features, AND you want to get out on the trail to escape the hustle and bustle buzzing around the roadside attractions, consider this half-day looping adventure through the Midway Geyser Basin. This hike checks off virtually every to-do box for Yellowstone, including visits to hot springs, geysers, forests, waterfalls, rivers, meadows, lakes, and potential wildlife sightings. Long stretches of the route stray from the busy hubs of activity around Grand Prismatic Spring, adding a dash of solitude to an already superb hike.
This day-hike can also double as a backpacking route. To obtain a permit, start by downloading the Backcountry Permit Reservation Application, which you can submit either by fax, mail, or in person. Given the popularity of the area, it’s best to reserve as early as possible to ensure you don’t get shut out. The park also reserves a handful of walk-up permits, but that’s less reliable for long-term planning. Once your reservation is confirmed, you can pick up your permit from the nearest visitor center (in this case, the Old Faithful Visitor Center). There’s a $25 fee for processing the reservation.
Also note that the campsites are assigned, and there are three possible sites to choose from on this route: OD5 on the banks of Goose Lake (6.2 miles); OD1 between Grand Prismatic Spring and Fairy Falls (1.8 miles); and OD4 along Fairy Creek (4.2 miles). They’re all nice sites, but I liked OD5 near Goose Lake the most. Who doesn’t want to camp near a lake?
Start by following the wide, dirt trail to Fairy Falls across a bridge spanning the Firehole River. The trail heads north along the river, passing countless hot springs that spew copious amounts of steam into the air during the early morning. After 0.6 mile, turn left onto a side path that climbs to a lookout point at 0.7 mile that grants an amazing view of Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone’s largest and most colorful hot spring), along with the rest of Midway Geyser and Lower Geyser Basins. Note that Grand Prismatic Spring belches a ton of steam during the morning, which obscures its distinctive colors. If you want to see the full prism of color, stop at the lookout in the afternoon, when the steam mostly dissipates.
Drop back down to the Fairy Falls Trail and continue past the sprawling terraces and pools surrounding Grand Prismatic Spring. Picturesque tree corpses present appealing photo opportunities that capture the semi-apocalyptic nature of the scene. Just before the Fairy Falls Trail junction at 1.1 mile, carefully side step some of the drainage from Grand Prismatic Spring where it pools along the trail, and then turn left onto a narrowing trail that plunges into a dense forest of lodgepole pines.
The only uneventful segment of the route occurs between the junction and the falls as the trail passes through dense stands of pine. Keep left at the spur trail to OD1, and continue for another 0.7 mile to a spot where the forest thins out at several marshy depression peppered with fringed gentian, a brilliant blue flower. At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches the rocky banks of Fairy Creek just below where it spills 150 feet over a cliff into a shallow basin. Several logs and rocks provide nice spots to take a break and enjoy the falls. You can also turn back from here if you want a more moderate 5.0 mile hike, but be aware that there are still a lot of highlights to come.
Cross Fairy Creek and follow the trail as it turns to the north through a mixture of forest and spacious meadows. At 2.9 miles, turn left onto the trail leading to Imperial Geyser, which is one of the most active geysers in the park. Pass through a spacious meadow on a gentle uphill grade, and arrive at a split in the trail on the other side. A right turn will take you directly to the geyser by following the banks of its outlet creek. The left fork passes through dense forest before reaching a right turn leading directly to the geyser at 3.2 miles. Either way is fine, but the looping option (turn left and follow the creek back from the geyser) gives you the most variety.
Imperial Geyser sprays nearly constant jets of water into the air from a spacious pool that feeds its outlet creek. The center of the pool is well above boiling, and the water cools away from the center. The water then flows away through the creek to feed Fairy Creek downstream, and it becomes cool enough to nourish vibrant colonies of orange algae. The return journey back from the geyser along the bank of the creek, giving you an opportunity to admire the fascinating and mildly gross algae. At 3.5 miles, turn left to head east to continue your journey toward Goose Lake.
The trail next passes through an open grassland interspersed with several marshy meadows along Fairy Creek. The trail crosses Fairy Creek via beveled log at 3.7 miles, and then follows a long chain of more beveled logs through a marshy area thriving with mosquitoes (bring lots of repellent!). The trail bends to the north beyond the marshy section before approaching a spur trail to campsite OD4 at 4.2 miles. Keep right (unless you’re camping) and proceed north through open grassland dotted with lodgepole pines and occasional hot springs. You’ll need to tread lightly through the hot spring areas, as the terrain surrounding the springs are very fragile, and there will be a lot of warm water pooled up along the trail. This is also a possible spot for sighting some of Yellowstone’s abundant wildlife, including bison, elk, moose, bears (bring bear spray for Ol’ Grizz), turkeys, and deer.
At 5.7 miles, turn right onto a connector trail that will lead east to Fountain Flats Road, which now functions as a combined footpath and bike path. Follow it south to a junction with the spur trail to campsite OD5 along the north banks of Goose Lake. Unless you’re camping, continue south along the west shore of Goose Lake, taking as many stops as you need to admire the placid waters reflecting the vast Wyoming sky.
At 6.6 miles, the trail leaves the lake and approaches the Firehole River, which the trail parallels for the remainder of the hike back to the Fairy Falls Trail junction (7.4) west of Grand Prismatic Spring. Continue straight past the junction, and retrace your steps for an easy mile of walking back to the parking area.
The trail is in good condition with a few minor obstacles. The marshy area along Fairy Creek follows beveled logs, and there are some wet, sensitive areas next to hot springs that you'll have to navigate.
The closest camping area is Madison Campground. This route also works as a backpacking trip. See details in the write-up.
From Yellowstone National Park's west entrance, head east on US-191 for 13.9 miles to Madison Junction. Turn right to remain on US-191, and continue south for another 11.5 miles to the parking area for the Fairy Falls Trail.
With wildifres, smoke conditions, COVID-19, and National Forest and other public land closures rampant, please reach out to the land management agency in charge before you head out for a hike to make sure the trail is open and safe to be on.