Fairy Falls (I’ve also seen it referred to as Fairy Fall) was one of the taller waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park with a reported height of 197ft, where it plunged for most of that drop. Since Fairy Creek was on a narrow stream as it made this plunge, it had a wispy and thin appearance. However, both of our visits (once in June 2004 and another in August 2017) showed this waterfall with surprisingly consistent flow, which was contrary to what I would have thought would be a seasonal waterfall that ought to go dry towards late Summer given such an appearance of light volume. That consistent flowing characteristic was perplexing to me as it wasn’t obvious what was the main reason behind it. Nonetheless, the book The Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery proposed that there was some seepage behind the middle of the falls causing a waterfall behind a waterfall effect (kind of like Running Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park) and that over time, Fairy Creek was in the beginning stages of carving out a natural bridge. Only time will tell if that will happen in our lifetime.
While this waterfall was impressive in its own right, it actually took a back seat to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook, which was the only place we knew that you could see the giant spring in its entirety without being in the air. Prior to our latest visit in August 2017, that overlook was nothing more than informal views up unofficial “social” trails on a hillside. When we first visited back in 2004, we attained such a view when it was relatively unknown. But over the years, that view grew in popularity (somehow we felt partly responsible as our website analytics showed that the photo we took from there was one of this website’s most viewed photos) and the amount of off-trail scrambling to attain such views resulted in erosion on that hillside. Anyhow, now the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook could be reached on a sanctioned (and now much more crowded) trail about 0.8 miles from the trailhead (or 1.6 miles round trip), Fairy Falls provided an even quieter experience as it required me to hike about 5.6 miles round trip (about 2.5-3 hours) to even reach it!The Fairy Falls hike began at the very crowded trailhead parking lot (see directions below). After passing by a couple of hot springs flanking the parking area, the trail then crossed a bridge over the Firehole River, where it would then proceed along a flat wide path skirting following some power lines at the base of large hills flanking the left side while the wide expanse of the river and the Grand Prismatic Spring in the distance was on the right. In our first visit back in June 2004, the hills were mostly populated with burnt trees, which was the result of the 1988 wildfires. However, on a later visit in August 2017, the area seemed to have recovered nicely as newer healthier trees seemed to have taken their place. We also noticed that fences were erected all along the left side of the hill to discourage off-trail scrambling up the hills for pretty much the entire stretch of this section of trail.
At about a half-mile, the trail reached a fork where the path on the left ascended moderately uphill while the path on the right continued along the power lines. This trail eventually climbed then made a bend towards a large lookout platform that was now known as the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. This was the new trail that was completed just before our August 2017 visit. Prior to that, we had found some of those aforementioned “social” trails that led up the hillside amongst the burnt trees and new sproutlings, where there was enough spacing to peer back towards the entirety of the impressive Grand Prismatic Spring once we got high enough on the hills. Once we had our fill of this spot, we had to hike back down to the trail fork, but it looked like that as of this writing, the Montana Conservation Corps. were in the process of completing the other side of this detour, which would eliminate this backtracking.Back at the main trail, the crowds dramatically thinned out as I continued to follow the main trail, which still followed along the power lines and fences on the left. At about a mile from the trailhead (or another half-mile beyond the point where I rejoined the main trail from the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook), I encountered a signed trail junction in a fairly wide open area. This was the spur trail leading to the Fairy Falls, and that was where I went next. Also at the junction was what appeared to be a bike rack, which suggested to me that mountain bikers could conceivably make it here before it would become foot traffic only on the Fairy Falls Spur Trail. Meanwhile, the trail I was on would continue towards the Fountain Flat Drive and Goose Lake.
On the Fairy Falls Spur Trail, the trail narrowed a bit more as it went beneath the power lines and then entered a forested area. When I first did this trail back in June 2004, this area was still recovering from the 1988 wildfires that pretty much burned every tree here except save for a handful of them. There were lots of downed trees but there were also sproutlings that were probably not much taller than I was. On my second visit in August 2017, this area seemed to have recovered nicely as the neighboring hills were now obstructed by taller trees, and the tallest trees standing in this grove must have been the ones that survived the 1988 wildfires. This was evidence that Nature tended to do a pretty good job of re-habilitating itself and that fires were a necessary aspect of the natural cycle of life as far as vegetation was concerned. The only issue as far as humans were concerned was that it took nearly 30 years (which would be a significant chunk of a human lifetime) for the forest to get back to this state, which also highlighted the patience required for Nature to do its thing.
The Fairy Falls Spur Trail would persist this way for pretty much the next 1.6 miles. At 0.4 miles from the trail junction, there was a small stream crossing, and at 3/4-mile from the trail junction, there was a signed spur (saying something about “ODI No Campfire”), but my map indicated that the spur trail led to the Fairy Meadows Campsite. There were also still some pockets of fallen trees and clearings as reminders of the inferno that once passed through here, but other than that, it was a semi-shady hike that was pretty quiet and flat, and it felt a little bit longer than when I remembered doing this hike the first time.
Eventually, the trail skirted along the hillside, and shortly thereafter, it veered left before I was finally able to witness the imposing Fairy Falls. It was somewhat against the afternoon sun when I made my visits, and because it was a north-facing waterfall, it very would could be against the sun (or at least in total shadow) for most of the day. The closer I got to the waterfall, the harder it was to photograph the entirety of the falls due to its height. There were only a handful of people here during my visit in August 2017, and when I came here back in June 2004, I was the only person here (attesting to how much more peaceful and tranquil the experience was compared to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook). The trail kept going on towards the Imperial Geyser and Spray Geyser while also continuing on to a much longer loop trail encompassing the Mystic Falls and the Biscuit Basin. But this was my turnaround point, and I returned back the way I came.
The Fairy Falls Trailhead was roughly 4 miles north from the on-ramp leaving Old Faithful Village and heading north on the Grand Loop Road. The pair of turnoffs going into the Fairy Falls Parking Lot would be on the left as you head north. Given the limited parking space in the lot, we noticed quite a few people also parked on available road shoulders along the Grand Loop Road.
Conversely, the parking lot for Fairy Falls was about 11.7 miles south of Madison Junction on the right.
For a little context, Old Faithful was about 17 miles (under 30 minutes drive) south of the Madison Junction and about 19 miles (30 minutes drive) west of the West Thumb Junction. It was also about 98 miles (2.5 hours drive) north of Jackson and about 32 miles (an hour drive) east of West Yellowstone, Montana.
For additional geographical context, West Yellowstone, Montana was 58 miles (at least 90 minutes drive) south of Gardiner, Montana, 90 miles (over 90 minutes drive) south of Bozeman, Montana, 72 miles (under 2 hours drive) north of Flagg Ranch (near Yellowstone’s South Entrance), and 321 miles (about 4.5 hours drive) north of Salt Lake City, Utah.
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