Grand Loop Road & Fairy Falls

grand-loop-road0Thursday June 11

Fog lays like a blanket over the campground as my neighbors and I climb into their big white truck, destination: Norris Geyser Basin.

But a funny thing happens when we get to the end of the driveway. The road east between Old Faithful and West Thumb has been closed since the start of the season, a bridge is being completely rebuilt. All the literature has been saying that the bridge will be open on June 11th, that’s today, but none of us really believed the construction crew would finish on time.

But at 9 in the morning through the rapidly dissipating fog, it’s clear that the “road closed” sign is gone, the Grand Loop is now fully open. So instead of turning left towards Madison and Norris, we turn right and head up Craig Pass.

It’s a pretty drive. The big fires of ’88 missed this section of the park, and the conifers are old and tall. Jagged ridges rise up through the trees on either side of the road. This section of the loop crosses the continental divide twice, and near the top of the pass a pullout reveals a misty Shoshone Lake nestled in a valley. There is no road access to Shoshone, one must either hike in, or boat in (no motors allowed) from Lewis Lake to the south.

Shoshone Lake

Shoshone Lake

We glide on into West Thumb on the downhill slope and find a parking spot. West Thumb is on the west shore of the “thumb” of Yellowstone Lake. This will be the first time I’ve seen the lake since I was 14, I bet I’ll appreciate it much more than I did then.

As we get out of the truck, a crowd is gathering in front of the picnic area. Elk! Two cows and a spotted calf are nibbling on the dewy grass. They take very little notice of us, enjoying their breakfast as a sedately pace.


Bluebell Pool

Bluebell Pool

The fog hasn’t burned off over the lake yet, and it adds an element of surreality as we take the boardwalk along the West Thumb Basin near the lake shore.

Bluebell Pool delights with it’s clear, pure color and nearby greenery.

Fishing Cone lies dormant under the surface of the clear waters of the lake. Back when the water level was lower, Fishing Cone rose from the surface and the water inside it’s cone was hot enough to cook with. Anglers would stand on the cone and cast into the lake. When they caught a fish, they’d dunk it into the cone to cook it on the spot.

The lake itself reminds me a lot of Lake Tahoe. It’s clear, big, and deep. In fact, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America. It’s surface elevation is 7,733 feet, and it’s maximum depth is an impressive 410 feet. It looks very strange on a map, with multiple fingers and a very irregular shape, that’s due to the thermal activity in the area. The ground around here rises and falls and changes the contours of the lake. The West Thumb area is geologically speaking quite new, an eruption many thousands of years ago blew out this crater that the lake filled in.

Fishing Cone

Fishing Cone

We make a couple stops inside the YA bookstores at West Thumb and Grant Village to say hi to coworkers, and then continue following the loop road counterclockwise along the lake.

A nameless hot spring on the edge of Yellowstone Lake

A nameless hot spring on the edge of Yellowstone Lake

My neighbors want to see Fishing Bridge, a historic bridge that visitors use to be able to fish from for Cutthroat trout. Fishing from the bridge is no longer allowed today, it’s a prime spawning area for the trout and their numbers were dwindling from over-fishing. It’s still a neat thing to walk over, I fail to get a picture for some reason.

Looking toward Grand Teton

Looking toward Grand Teton

After that, I make a mistake. I was jokingly designated the navigator of our group, and I get turned around. After walking the bridge we get back in the truck and cross over it, when we should have turned around and went back the way we came.

We leave the lake, and mountains still capped with snow rise up before us. The road climbs. We come to picturesque Sylvan Lake (I think every state in the west must have a Sylvan Lake, thoughts?) where a pair of Mallard ducks are diving for dinner. Sylvan Pass is not far beyond it.

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Huh, I didn’t think the loop road got this mountainous, sure is pretty. We hug the side of a mountain on the way down, small streams cascade down the steep slope into the valley far below. As our descent slows, the road widens into multiple lanes guarded by brown huts. Uh-oh, is that…? Yep, we’re at the east gate to the park, whoops!

The pilot of our group turns to the co-pilot (his wife) and me (the navigator, heh) and gives us a look. “I was paying attention to the road, what’s your excuse?” The co-pilot lifts up her chin “This was the scenic route is all.” She says with a smile. “Err, yes. We went exactly where I meant for us to go.” I pipe in with a sage nod. The pilot grins and shakes his head, and turns our ship about.

Picnic area along the lake

Picnic area along the lake

It’s getting on in the afternoon by the time we make it back to Fishing Bridge, and a choice lies before us. Back the way we came, which is 19 mile shorter, or turn right and finish the grand loop. We opt for further exploration and turn right.

It's got "Dragon" in it's name somewhere, really noisy!

It’s got “Dragon” in it’s name somewhere, really noisy!

A sign looms ahead: “Mud Volcano”. Well heck, that sounds interesting. “Turn here!” the co-pilot shouts, and the pilot obliges.

The Mud Volcano hydrothermal area is pretty unique. Every single one of it’s features is muddy, and the whole basin reeks of rotten eggs and stinky socks.

There’s something about the water that comes up in this basin that dissolves the rock around it, that’s how mudpots become mudpots. I think it has something to do with low pH, but I’m not positive. Either way, the results are pretty unique.

Mudpots often don’t have a really high water output and are dependent on water in the environment. In the spring, frequent rains and snowmelt make mudpots into brown hot springs. Later in the summer as the water evaporates, the mud becomes thick and gas escapes in soupy bubbles. In the fall, many mudpots dry out and become simply vents for steam.

A massive muddy cauldron

A massive muddy cauldron

After Mud Volcano, the valley along the Yellowstone River widens and becomes dotted with sagebrush as the trees recede from the banks. We’ve arrived at Hayden Valley.

Hayden Valley

Hayden Valley

This is often a good place to view wildlife in the park, but all we see today are large numbers of bison and flocks of geese along the shore. We’re here at the wrong time of day. Morning and evening are usually the best times to see wildlife in Yellowstone, not only because those are the times of day when a lot of animals are most active, but also because there are less people around. Every park I’ve worked at so far I’ve noticed that during high visitation times, wildlife is scarce, and it makes sense. Even better for viewing wildlife is if you can time your visit to a less busy time of year, spring and fall instead of summer when everyone comes – Yellowstone’s busiest month of the year is July and it’s fast approaching.

Once we hit Canyon Village, we’re in an area all of us have seen before, so we finish the loop without any further stops. Phew, what fun!

More mud!

More mud!

Friday, June 12

Hiking time! At 8 am I stumble out the door to find my co-workers already parked outside Cas and rearing to go. Silly morning people.

A hot spring along the parking lot

A hot spring along the Fairy Falls parking lot

Today we’re hiking to Fairy Falls, one of the tallest falls in the park at 170 feet. The closest parking area is located just south of Midway Geyser Basin, and it’s quite small. This is a popular hike and the little lot fills up quickly, so the best way to ensure a parking spot is to come early, hence the 8 am start time today.

The start of the trail, an old bridge over the Firehole River

The start of the trail, an old bridge over the Firehole River

The trail starts along an old road, and crosses a bridge over the Firehole River. It follows the treeline behind Midway Geyser Basin, offering tantalizing glimpses of Grand Prismatic Spring, the second largest hot spring in the world.

Grand Prismatic Spring, the steam looks blue because it's reflecting off the surface of the massive pool

Grand Prismatic Spring, the steam looks blue because it’s reflecting off the surface of the massive pool

It’s a calm morning and there are few people out hiking yet, we were only the fourth car in the lot. A mile in, the old road continues straight, where the Fairy Falls trail veers off into a thick grove of young lodgepole pine.

At 6 miles, this trail is still rated easy because it’s quite flat. The couple I’m hiking with today (different than my neighbors, the couple I went driving with yesterday) are in their 70’s, but still quite active. Our pace isn’t fast, which is fine because it allows me a more time to take in the birdsong, the whisper of a faint breeze through trees, the flowers that are now popping up all over the park, and the buzzing of mosquitoes.

Flowers along the trail

Flowers along the trail

fairy-falls4Mosquitoes? Yes, Yellowstone has them in abundance I’m afraid, no place is perfect. Luckily I’ve got bug repellant in my pack and that takes care of the problem.

We hear the falls before we see them. It’s set back into a recess in the cliff and isn’t visible until you’re almost right on top of it.

And wow, can you get close. It’s not a high volume waterfall, but is elegant in appearance, with the rocks at the lower part of the falls funneling the water into multiple little channels. The name Fairy Falls fits.

We could turn around and go back now, but another 0.6 miles would take us to Spray and Imperial Geysers, the later of which I’ve been told is very impressive. The day is still young, so we go for it.

Crossing the stream at the bottom of Fairy Falls, the trail winds through a mixed aspen and pine grove before emptying into a field frequented by bison. Bees buzz lazily around the flowers, paying us no mind.

Young aspen and lodgepole

Young aspen and lodgepole

A red creek frames the far side of the meadow.


Well, not red really. The water is clear, and the red color comes from tiny microbes living in the water called thermophiles that love heat. The creek is actually runoff from a hydrothermal feature nearby, a pretty big one judging by the size. Spray geyser spews water continuously into the air at a height of 3-4 feet across the way, but that’s not the cause of this creek. We follow it upstream.

Imperial Geyser lies at the start of it. Wow, what color!

Imperial Geyser

Imperial Geyser

Water leaps to the air in bursts almost continuously for about a minute, then lies still only about 10 seconds before erupting again. Imperial historically goes through years of near continuous eruption like this, followed by years where it behaves more like a hot spring. I’m glad that it’s putting on a show for us right now.

W get our fill of pictures then sit down for lunch. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic. The day is warm, the wind has picked up and it’s keeping the mosquitoes down, and we have an incredible show to watch. The fact that this is a completely natural phenomenon is mind boggling.


The hike back after lunch retraces our steps. Walking out to Imperial added 0.6 miles each way, so our grand total for today’s hike is 7.2 miles, not bad! I’ve now walked the Morning Glory loop at Old Faithful three times at 2.8 miles each, Mystic Falls was 3.5 miles, Purple Mountain was 6 miles, so that makes 25.1 miles total so far!


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  1. Janett on June 18, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    I really enjoyed this walk Becky. It’s just amazing how you can go from a waterfall to mud and a clear hot springs to the blue of Bluebell Pool and Hayden Valley, then onto a myriad of colors like Imperial Geyser all in one place. I understand now why everyone comments on the time really needed here to fully appreciate it.
    Great read, keep it up…key chain’s getting closer! Oh, I added your beautiful pictures to my desktop themes…hope that’s ok?

    • Becky on June 18, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      That’s fine Janett, glad you enjoyed them. 🙂 Hope you get to make it out here with your Scamp someday!

  2. Jim at Growing Faith on June 16, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    We get so much education with our entertainment. I wish school would have been like Interstellar Orchard!

    Do you know if any of the hot springs are at a temperature where you could go in for a soak?

    I liked many of the photos in this post. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us!
    Jim at Growing Faith recently posted..Good PersonMy Profile

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      I wish school could have been more like this too, I would have paid much closer attention!

      No I don’t know Jim. And if any of them were, I’m sure the rangers would never tell for the sake of preservation – so many springs and geysers in the park have already been permanently damaged by vandalism and carelessness. They’re so much more fragile than they look.

      You’re welcome!

    • Jeff on June 17, 2015 at 2:24 pm

      We stopped at a pullout about 1/2 way between Mammoth and Gardner on the east side and there were people swimming in the river near where hot water was entering it. They said the water was very warm in the river there.

      • Becky on June 18, 2015 at 10:23 pm

        Oh, yes I’d heard of that spot but didn’t think of it when Jim asked as it’s not inside the park (or maybe it’s right on the edge? Unsure) and not in a hot spring, thanks for bringing it up Jeff. 🙂

  3. Steve w. (sdw) on June 16, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Hey Becky

    You should have just kept going, it takes you back to the parking lot.
    And only adds 10 or 12 more miles 🙂

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      Haha, not sure 10-12 more miles would have been possible Steve. 😉

  4. Tom B. on June 16, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Becky: Your photographs are beautiful. Thank you for sharing them.

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      You’re welcome Tom, glad you liked them.

  5. Bon on June 16, 2015 at 9:48 am

    So jealous. You say Fishing Cone used to be above the surface of the water. What exactly changed? Is the water level permanently rising or is it a cyclical phenomenon? What an amazing, surreal place!
    Bon recently posted..The DoldrumsMy Profile

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      Yep the water level in the lake has risen. Mike Goad said above that the cone has been pictured above the surface of the water as recently as 2007, but my coworkers who’ve been working here since 2010 say it’s been submerged all 5 summers they’ve been here. So maybe it’s a cycle of some sort or maybe not.

  6. Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets on June 16, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Having been there two times, and not spending nearly enough time exploring, I am still in awe at how large Yellowstone N.P. really is. Some of your lake photos are reminders that the park is REALLY large. Thanks for the tour, planned or not. 🙂
    Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets recently posted..One Thing Leads to AnotherMy Profile

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      2.2 million acres Ed, it’s enormous. But over half of the Alaska national parks are larger, and in the lower 48 Death Valley actually holds the record as the largest national park.

  7. Larry on June 16, 2015 at 8:45 am

    very nice pictures

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Thanks Larry.

  8. Tom Reed on June 16, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Thanks again for this great narrative and pictures ,Can’t wait to visit there in person and see for myself….Keep up the great work, and stay safe….TR

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      You’re welcome Tom, and I will. 🙂

  9. Bethann on June 16, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Your blog has been so informative and the pics are awesome

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:47 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it Bethann

  10. Brian and Carolyn on June 16, 2015 at 7:11 am

    Love foggy mornings for photography! Great hike reporting. Can’t wait to see Yellowstone again.
    Brian and Carolyn recently posted..Getting ready to hit the roadMy Profile

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      Yeah it was a good morning for photos definitely. 🙂 You’ll enjoy it when you get out here again.

  11. Mike Goad on June 16, 2015 at 1:02 am

    Fishing cone is often above water later in the year, which is when we’ve visited the last several times. (Fishing cone blog post has a September 2007 picture of it out of the water)
    Mike Goad recently posted..T@B at Toad SuckMy Profile

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      Huh, I’ve several coworkers who’ve been here 4-5 seasons and none of them have seen it out of the water even later in the season so it doesn’t sound like it’s happened lately. I’ll have to stop by in September before I leave and see what it looks like. 🙂

      • Mike Goad on June 17, 2015 at 12:58 am

        It has to do with the amount of water coming into the lake vs. the amount of water going out. 2006/2007 winter had low snowfall and 2007 was a very, very dry year — a very bad fire season out west — , so the lake level was lower as was the flow of the river. In 2011, apparently, the lake level was much higher, with some of the walkways/trails at Fishing Bridge under water and the river was over its banks in Hayden Valley. 2009/2010 was a wet winter for Wyoming. On our way to Yellowstone, we ran into flooding in August along the North Platte River in late July and on our visit to West Thumb on August 4, 2010, just the rim of Fishing Cone was above water.
        Mike Goad recently posted..Bigfoot and WildcatMy Profile

        • Becky on June 17, 2015 at 9:42 pm

          Interesting, thanks for sharing Mike.

  12. Ron on June 15, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Wow, that’s a lot to take in in 2 days. I think this may be your best adventure yet or at least your most scenic. I am impressed that your hiking companions could hike that far.

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      I hope I’m as avid of a hiker when I get to be in my 70’s. 🙂

  13. PJ on June 15, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    I’ve never been to Imperial Geyser and it looks beautiful, it will be on my hike list on my next visit to Yellowstone.

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:37 pm

      Yes do PJ, you won’t be disappointed!

  14. Ron in Tx on June 15, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Great blog as usual.
    Oh the female elk are called cows and the young are calves..
    Don’t you just hate a s a Lol

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      Good catch Ron! I figured since Elk are members of the deer family they’d have the same nouns, but I looked it up just now and you’re correct. It’s been changed.

  15. Todd on June 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Love it. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to visit again.

    • Becky on June 16, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      You’re welcome Todd.

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