The Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s most colorful hot spring. Fairy Falls is one of Yellowstone’s tallest waterfalls. If you want to see both, it’s easy to combine the hike to Fairy Falls with the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook.
In this article, learn how to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring and how to combine the hike to Fairy Falls with the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook.
Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
Quick Overview of the Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring is located in Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. It is the largest hot spring in the United States. The vibrant colors are the result of microbial life along the edges of the hot spring. The colors can change depending upon the presence of different microbes and the temperature of the water.
The Grand Prismatic Spring has a different appearance in the summer and winter. In the summer, it tends to be orange and in the winter the edges tend to be dark green.
How to Visit the Grand Prismatic Spring
There are two ways to experience the Grand Prismatic Spring. You can get up close by walking the boardwalk trails through the Midway Geyser Basin or you can get a bird’s eye view from the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook.
Midway Geyser Basin
The centerpiece of the Midway Geyser Basin is the Grand Prismatic Spring, but you will also get to see several other hot springs: Excelsior Geyser Crater, Opal Pool, and Turquoise Pool.
A 0.8 mile boardwalk weaves its way around all of these hot springs. You’ll get up close to the Grand Prismatic Spring, but the best view is from the overlook. The boardwalk is one-way only.
Excelsior Geyser Crater
View of the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk. In the background, on the hillside, you can see people at the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook.
Parking at the Midway Geyser Basin
The parking lot is ridiculously small for the number of visitors that the Grand Prismatic Spring gets. Most of the parking spills out onto the park road.
Normally, I would recommend waiting for a space in the parking lot, but if everyone did this, it would create stand-still traffic on the park road. There are large turn outs on the park road very close to Midway Geyser Basin. If the parking lot is full, park in one of these turn outs.
The busiest time to visit Midway Geyser Basin is from 9 am to 6 pm, which is essentially all day.
You can get here early to avoid the crowds, but the Grand Prismatic Spring is covered with mist in the morning, making it lackluster and it can be a disappointment (later in this post, we have a photo taken in the morning). For the best experience, visit midday, once the mist burns off. Yes, it will be crowded, but it is worth it to see these colors.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Parking at the most popular sites has become a big issue due to high crowds. There is just not enough parking for the number of visitors. You can get real time updates on parking availability and traffic conditions on the Yellowstone National Park website.
Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook
For a jaw-dropping view of the Grand Prismatic Spring, don’t miss the view from the overlook. On a sunny day, the colors are spectacular.
To see the spring from the overlook, you will have to drive and park at a different lot than the one for Midway Geyser Basin. It would be a very long walk (over one mile one way) to get from Midway Geyser Basin to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook.
Park at the Fairy Falls parking lot. This is a large parking lot (much larger than the one for Midway Geyser Basin) but even so it can be difficult to get a spot midday.
Note: RV’s, buses, and cars pulling trailers are not permitted to park in this parking lot.
Fairy Falls parking lot
From the parking lot, it is a 0.8-mile walk to get to the overlook (1.6 miles round trip). Everything I read online lists this distance as 0.6 miles, but I walked the trail two days in a row with two different GPS devices and both gave the distance as 0.8 miles. It took us 15 minutes to walk here and we were walking fast, so I doubt that it is 0.6 miles.
The trail, which at this point is called the Fairy Falls Trail, starts off wide and relatively flat. To your right you will be able to see the Grand Prismatic Spring.
The trail for the overlook breaks off from the Fairy Falls Trail 0.6 miles from the parking lot. Take the trail to the left. This final 0.2 miles is more strenuous, an uphill walk on a dirt trail.
Kara is standing at the fork in the trail. To the left is the trail up to the overlook. To the right, the Fairy Falls trail continues towards Fairy Falls.
At the top of the hill is the viewing platform and the spectacular view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Grand Prismatic Spring in September
Grand Prismatic Spring in August
It takes 15 to 20 minutes to walk to the overlook from the Fairy Falls parking lot. If you only plan to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring (and skip the hike to Fairy Falls), it takes about 45 minutes to visit the overlook.
Grand Prismatic Spring in the Morning
Morning is the best time to avoid the crowds but it is one of the worst times to see Grand Prismatic Spring. In the morning, it is covered with a layer of mist, giving it this appearance.
This photo was taken at 8:20 am. All of the other photos in this article were taken the day before, at around 1 pm.
For the best experience, time your visit for midday on a sunny day.
Grand Prismatic Spring + the Hike to Fairy Falls
Combining the 0verlook with the Fairy Falls hike is easy, since they share the same trail.
Fairy Falls Hiking Stats
Distance: 5.4 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 120 feet (mostly flat)
Length of Time: 2.5 to 3.5 hours
These hiking statistics are for the trail starting at the Fairy Falls parking lot, which is the same parking lot used to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. To get to Fairy Falls, you can also park at the end of Fountain Flat Drive, which makes the hike 10 miles round trip and it does not include the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook.
Map of the hiking trail to Fairy Falls
Hiking to Fairy Falls
This hike starts off with a visit to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook. From the Fairy Falls parking lot, walk to the viewing platform as described above.
From the viewing platform, turn right. Do not go down the same trail that you took to get up to the overlook. If you do, you will add unnecessary distance and time onto this hike.
Note: The trail to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook is a short spur trail off of the main Fairy Falls Trail. Making the detour to the overlook adds very little extra distance onto the Fairy Falls hike.
The Fairy Falls trail is blue. The spur trail to the overlook is yellow.
The trail from the viewing platform rejoins the Fairy Falls Trail. Stay left to continue to Fairy Falls (you will be walking away from the Fairy Falls parking lot and the Grand Prismatic Spring will be to your right). This part of the trail is wide and flat with decent views of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
One mile from the parking, turn left to continue to Fairy Falls. There is a trail sign here directing you to Fairy Falls. It’s hard to miss, but if you were to keep going, it would be a long, flat, monotonous walk to Fountain Flat Drive.
Now, you are walking on a narrower trail through a lodgepole forest. It’s still very flat, which makes it fast and easy to walk. From the turn off, it is roughly 1.6 miles to get to Fairy Falls.
This is a bear management area, so be alert for bear. Bring bear spray and keep up a conversation with fellow hikers.
Fairy Falls is almost 200 feet high and one of Yellowstone’s tallest waterfalls. This area makes a nice spot for a snack or a picnic before you head back to your car.
The landscape near Fairy Falls
Optional Detour: From Fairy Falls, you can continue the hike to Spray and Imperial Geysers. This adds on an additional 1.2 miles round trip.
To get back to the Fairy Falls parking lot, retrace your steps. There is no need to take the detour to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook, unless you want one more view of the hot spring.
The view on the walk back to the Fairy Falls parking lot.
When To Go
You can visit Midway Geyser Basin, the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook, and Fairy Falls from May through October, when the roads are open. From early November through May, the Park Loop Road closes due to snowfall. These dates can vary year to year depending on snowfall. For updates on weather conditions and road closures, visit the Yellowstone National Park website.
When the air temperature is cooler (when there is a big difference between the water temperature of the spring and the air temperature), you will see more mist on the spring. We visited the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook twice, once in mid-summer and once on a cool day at the end of September. The majority of the photos in this post were taken on a warm summer day in August. The photo below was taken at the very end of September, when the air temperature only reached 54°F. You will notice more mist on the spring (this was taken at 1 pm, the same time of day as the photos in August).
Grand Prismatic Spring in September
Tips to Have the Best Experience
This is best done midday, when the mist has burned off of the Grand Prismatic Spring. If you go early in the morning, it won’t be crowded, but you won’t get to see the brilliant colors.
You can time your visit to do the Fairy Falls hike first, in the morning, and then stop at the overlook on the way back. If you get to the Fairy Falls parking lot at 9 am, it shouldn’t be too hard to parking space. Hike to Fairy Falls and visit the overlook afterwards, which will be around 11 am. By then, the mist should have burned off of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
A good pair of walking shoes is sufficient. Hiking shoes are great, but this is a flat, well-maintained trail and sneakers or sturdy walking shoes will work great.
Bring sunscreen, water, and bear spray.
If you have questions about the Grand Prismatic Spring and hike to Fairy Falls, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about Yellowstone
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NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.
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