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New Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Charms Visitors

The long-awaited viewing platform of Grand Prismatic Spring, one of Yellowstone’s most famous hot springs, opened late last week.

Vivid with blue and orange colors, Grand Prismatic has long been a favored attraction in Yellowstone National Park. But the spring, located at Midway Geyser Basin, is so large—nearly 250 by 350 feet, according to author Lee Whittlesey in his book Yellowstone Place Names—that it’s best viewed from an aerial perspective.

So what has happened in recent years is visitors started scrambling up a hillside immediately to the west to get a better view of the spring. The hillside is accessible via the Fairy Falls trail, but not from Midway Geyser Basin. Over time, the feet of many visitors carved what’s known as a “social trail,” that is, an unofficial trail that’s not marked or maintained. A man was killed on the unofficial trail in 2014 when, under windy conditions, a lodgepole pine tree fell on him.

But the new, official overlook was not constructed because of the accident. The overlook trail was proposed as far back as 1997, Yellowstone spokesman Jonathan Shafer said this week.

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Around 10 a.m. Saturday morning, the Fairy Falls trailhead parking lot, located just a few miles north of the Old Faithful area, was already full, and the newly opened overflow parking area nearly was, too. The additional parking was proposed last year and lies to the south of the original parking lot on the west side of the Grand Loop Road. The new parking area will accommodate up to 74 passenger cars, Shafer said.

My old friend Jean Besmehn and I started down the trail to check out the new overlook. We figured it would be crazy busy, but it wasn’t too bad, and there wasn’t a tour bus in sight. The trail was steep in a few places, but not terribly long. The surface is obsidian sand, which can be slippery. Real shoes would be better than flip-flops and even a hiking pole if you’re even a little unsteady on your feet.

The platform reminded me of some of the viewing points at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Everyone took turns politely for their turn at the railing. I spoke with a family from the Salt Lake City area that were in the park for a family reunion, 22 members from age 1 to 60. Member Kim Moss said the viewing platform was nice, and her husband remembered how difficult it was to see Grand Prismatic from ground level.

The spring and the surrounding countryside make for a lovely view, with other springs and geysers visible as well as Mount Holmes. The skies were clear, the sun was warm and the breeze was cool and refreshing.

The trail is wide and accommodating and just a tiny bit slippery on the way down.

We got to the bottom, hung a left and headed to Fairy Falls, which is about a 5-mile roundtrip hike from the trailhead known as the “Iron Bridge,” named for the bridge—a foot-bridge in summer—that crosses the Firehole River. The crowd thinned out considerably the farther we got from the new overlook turnoff.

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We stopped to admire wildflowers on the way. A few elephant’s head were growing along the trail. We stopped to admire their trunk-like purple little flowers. A group of hikers (above) stopped and asked what we were looking at, and they got real excited to examine the flowers. An interpretive moment.

We also saw a huge patch of fringed gentian, a brilliant purple flower that grows on a stalk. It likes marshy areas like near geyser basins. It also grows on the back walkway of Geyser Hill at Old Faithful. For extra credit, don’t forget that fringed gentian is the official park flower.

Fairy Falls was lovely, as always, its flow as it bounced against rocks on the 197-foot drop turning to a cool mist, perfect for a hot, sunny day in Yellowstone.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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