Hiking to Imperial Geyser and Fairy Falls in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.
Lower and Midway Geyser Basins are in the Firehole area near Old Faithful.
Driving south from Madison Junction, the trail-head for Fairy Falls and the Imperial Geyser are near Old Faithful. The 10.2 KM (6⅜ mile) flat trail, located through the Lower and Midway Geyser Basins, is beyond a roadside area visited previously in September 2003 on the return trip from hiking across the Grand Canyon from North to South.
The hike begins at the Firehole River past the hot spring ‘Ojo Caliente’. The Firehole River is a meandering stream with about a quarter of its flow composed of runoff from hot springs and geysers. The river remains ice-free throughout the winter.
Walking south on the historic Fountain Freight Road, constructed in 1883 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the trail junction which heads due west is a couple of kilometers along the road on this hot and blue sky day. The trail crosses expansive grass and marshland surrounded by hilly forested areas in the far distance.
The trail into Imperial Geyser and Fairy Falls also passes through a very active hydro-thermal zone and soon the hike approaches hot springs in the Midway Geyser Basin, originally known as 'Hell's Half Acre'.
The non-distinct trail is on grey lava gravel and sand that creates a crunching sound beneath footsteps. On the approach to the first series of hot springs the crunching the hiking pole landing sound suddenly changes to a 'thunk' indicating hollow ground beneath. To continue nonchalantly would be foolhardy because breaking through this crust is unpredictable and could potentially be lethal if there is boiling water below.
Part of the solution is to hike some distance away from each other to increase weight distribution. Also it is sensible to direct our route onto grassy areas and areas with rodent or snake holes. These are less likely to be hollow underneath. The approach to the first boiling hot spring includes tapping with hiking poles to 'sound' the ground ahead.
Safely back on solid ground and making good time on good trail, the hike passes a series of buffalo carcasses. It is devastating when my hiking partner suggests the carcass has a better smile than mine.
Crossing marsh land on raised beams, 200' (65 M) Fairy Falls is visible in the distance, but trail veering right will allow a visit to the Imperial Geyser first. The 100 ft (30 M) diameter Imperial Geyser is tucked away behind pine and aspen forest beneath glacially deposited rock, forming twin buttes in the background.
The geyser is very active with frequent 15' (5 M) steaming plumes interrupted by brief periods of relative calm. Seated in the sun, on the geyser's edge, provides the opportunity to rest, relax and absorb the profoundly beautiful sights and sounds.
The runoff from the geyser creates a stream of vivid color from mineral deposits and bacterial mats. Water temperature is scalding.
A pleasant walk leaves the geyser area and follows the colorful creek bed for quite a distance.
Eventually the hike continues off-trail towards Fairy Falls flowing gracefully over the edge of the Madison Plateau in a slow-motion dance about a kilometer (⅝ of a mile) away from Imperial Geyser.
Fairy Falls was named by Captain John Whitney Barlow in 1871. The impressive waterfall is enclosed within a sheltered cove. This cool oasis offers relief from the oppressive heat and provides the opportunity to remove backpacks and boots to relax in the shade and enjoy the sight, sound and negative ionization from the waterfall. Ankles benefit from wandering in the cold, beautiful pool at the base of the fall.
On the return hike, ambient temperature is above 90 degrees F (34 degrees C) and energy draining. Mandatory fluid and electrolyte intake must be frequent.
Shade from the occasional tree offers welcome relief.
Back in West Yellowstone time is taken to attend the air-conditioned IMAX Theater for the film 'Yellowstone'. Yellowstone National Park is the site of a gigantic volcanic explosion that occurred about 600,000 years ago. When the volcano subsequently collapsed a giant caldera was created featuring the spectacular thermal zones visitors enjoy today. Three-dimensional, satellite topography has determined the floor of the collapsed volcano actually breathes. The ground imperceptibly moves up and down with gravitational influence.
There is concern about a subsequent, explosive eruption.