Three million people visit Yellowstone National Park every year. Most visitors tour the Grand Loop Road and never venture far from their cars or the boardwalks.
But did you know that 98 percent of Yellowstone Park is backcountry? In fact, some 1,300 miles of backcountry trails exist in Yellowstone Park alone and beckon visitors looking to get off the beaten path.
Our favorite hiking guidebooks are by Tom Carter. He is the author of Day Hiking Yellowstone National Park, Day Hiking Grand Teton National Park, and Day Hiking the Wind River Range. These three guidebooks are small in size and very handy to pack along. Our favorite thing about Carter’s books is each trail description includes interesting facts about each of the hikes. These guidebooks can be purchased in stores throughout the greater Yellowstone Region.
Following is an excerpt of one of our favorite day hikes-Fairy Falls/Imperial Geyser-in Yellowstone Park from Carter’s Day Hiking Yellowstone Park.
Cross the Firehole River bridge and continue north along an old freight road as it makes its way behind Midway Geyser Basin. Notice the brilliant colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring ahead on the right. Early visitors to the park were told it was “so dazzling that the eye cannot endure it.” Most of the colors you see are caused by algae, which thrives in the hot spring water at temperatures up to 167° F. At that temperature, the algae is normally a light yellow color. Soon orange, red and finally green algae are found near the outer edge of the spring.
At the 1-mile mark, the trail turns left, leaves the freight road and enters the forest. Virtually all of this trail has been affected by the fires of 1988. As devastated as this forest may appear, it is not dead. In fact, by some measures it is more alive than before. Yellowstone was covered by aging lodgepole pine trees. This “lodgepole desert,” as some called it, supported relatively few species of plants and animals.
The fires opened up the overhead canopy and cleared the cluttered forest floor. Within weeks, grasses and other plant life began sprouting, and small animals began feeding on the feast of seeds dropped during the fire. Hawks, in turn, traveled great distances to prey on these vulnerable animals. Burned trees attracted insects that in turn attracted a variety of birds. Listen for the sounds of a forest alive.
At the 2.5-mile mark, Fairy Falls is reached. Fairy Creek shoots out over the edge of the Madison Plateau and plunges 197 feet. Members of the 1871 Hayden Survey named it for the “graceful beauty with which the little stream dropped down a clear descent.”
A half-mile further down the trail, Imperial Geyser is reached. This geyser became quite active in the 1920s. Because of its size and importance, a contest was organized to give the geyser a new name. Soon after the name “Imperial” was chosen, the geyser stopped erupting. Today, Imperial Geyser erupts again (although infrequently), sometimes reaching a height of 35 feet. Follow Imperial’s large runoff channel one-eighth of a mile to the east to find Spray Geyser. This geyser lies just north of the channel and erupts frequently.
Less than one mile north lie the Twin Buttes, more affectionately known by many of the park employees as the “Dolly Parton Hills.” They are really just huge mounds of gravel dropped by glaciers thousands of years ago as they passed over active hot springs in the area.
For a good view of the surrounding forest fire area, Fairy Falls, Midway Geyser Basin and Fairy Meadows, I recommend bushwhacking to the top of North Twin Butte. Head for the “cleavage,” then turn right to make the final ascent. In all, it’s about a 650-foot climb. When you are finished exploring, return via the same route you came, or head East on the Imperial Geyser Trail, and then South on Fairy Falls Trail to complete a 6.5 mile loop.
This is a great day hike!