Camping, Hiking, Hot Springs, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Waterfalls, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Caldera Tales – Day 3: Sentinel & Imperial Meadows, Imperial Geyser, Fairy Falls, Fountain Paint Pots & Firehole Lake Drive

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.” – Teddy Roosevelt

September 8, 2021

Another early morning and the bugles of nearby elk greeted me as I dressed in layers and boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. Today I had a BIG hike planned – in fact, one of the longest ones I’ve ever done. It would take me into the backcountry of Yellowstone, through thermal features and lonely solitude. I was scared. As I prepared to leave my campsite, I was actively debating how much of the hike I would really do. Could I really manage walking 11 miles? Should I risk it solo? What if I can’t find the trail? Lots of what if’s! The hike I’d be tackling would be a big loop of Sentinel Meadows, Imperial Meadows, Imperial Geyser, Fairy Falls, and the Fountain Freight Road. I saw this loop while planning hikes last year, and thought, “no way could I ever do that big of a loop!” and then after all my research this year, decided it was the loop for me!

My planned hike, as seen in A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes

I love early mornings along the Firehole River and geyser basins, so it was slow going as I stopped to grab photos of the steaming landscape.

Early morning on the Firehold River
I love these steaming early mornings!

The stops continued after I turned onto Fountain Flat Drive near the Nez Pearce Picnic Area, as I explored nearby thermal springs.

Hygeia Spring
The smoky conditions gave the morning hours golden lighting that was quite magical
Looking towards Maiden’s Grave Spring
Maiden’s Grave Spring is named after the grave of Mattie S. Culver, who died at the Marshall Hotel that use to be in this area in the late 1800s.
Another steamy view of Maiden’s Grave Spring
The first of many many many fluffy cows… urmmm… bison… that I’d see today.
Pretty scenes from my parking spot at the trailhead

Once I parked at the end of Fountain Flat Drive and got on the trail, my “what if’s” diminished. I knew I had bail out options and I had packed all the snacks, so without much further debate I set out on my planned hike! I stopped briefly to answer questions about my Cotton Carrier camera strap (a new photography toy I bought to see if that would help with hauling the heavy Nikon DSLR around) to another photographer, and another group stopped me to tell me they heard wolves (ummm…. so I know how to react around a bear or a mountain lion… but wolves?! eek!).

Map at the trailhead. I like to take photos of maps so I can refer back as I’m hiking. I never carry my hiking guides as they’re heavy, and I’m bad about bringing my giant hiking trail map. So cell phone photo it is!
Setting out on Fountain Freight Road, which bicycles are allowed on. I saw someone on a road bike, and it did not look fun as the gravel is decently deep, so a mountain or gravel bike is more appropriate, or at least more fun.
Fluffy cow #2. So many bison on this trip!
Ojo Caliente is one of the hottest features in Yellowstone and is just a short walk from the trailhead.
Grotto Spring I believe
Another view of Ojo Caliente
Looking towards the Lower River Group on the Firehole River

After crossing the Firehole River, the Sentinel Meadows Trail is immediately to the right. I looked at the narrow singletrack, took a deep breath, and dived into my adventure! Here goes nothing!

This sign will greet you after crossing the Firehole River
The beginning of my adventure!
Runoff from Ojo Caliente
It was still chilly when started my hike, in the low 40s. Layers, all the layers! It would be 75 degrees when I finished.
Ducks!

I talked, sang Backstreet Boys songs loudly and badly, and snacked as I weaved my way through golden meadows, stands of trees, fresh poop on the trail (which I can’t identify because I suck in that category of preparedness, so I just sang said BSB songs even louder), and steaming thermal features.

The Sentinel Meadow group in the distance
There is a backcountry campsite, OG1, not too far into the hike. Since I don’t necessarily own super light backpacking equipment, I’m tempted to try out some of these easier sites to reach sometime!
Queen’s Laundry. This spring was named in 1880 as the runoff fed a pool that people could bathe in safely that has since disappeared. In 1881 a bath house was constructed, and you can see the remains in this photo. It is the oldest structure in a national park intended for public use and is a National Historic Site. There are no trails that go to Queen’s Laundry, though some cross the marshy area for a closer look.
Came across this vicious predator
The orange flags are important as the trail becomes more faint, and when it disappears later in the hike
Trail getting a bit more faint
A small creek crossing

The trail was easy to follow until the marshy thermal area around Fairy Creek. The human footprints mixed with bison, and it all seemed to scream danger as bison don’t care if they fall into a hot thermal feature, but I do. I stepped carefully, and scanned for the orange flags. The toughest part was finding the small bridge over Fairy Creek, and it took me a few minutes to see the orange flag on the other side and to get myself on the right path. Do more things that scare you, I announced to no one as I sighed in relief when I found the bridge.

Uhhhhhhhhhh, where do I go!?
Whew, spotted the little bridge over Fairy Creek and the trail on the other side

I approached the junction with Imperial Meadows Trail (sometimes labeled as Fairy Falls Trail, including by the NPS on their website), and saw a big, brown blob in my way and panicked thinking I finally ran into an elusive bear. Luckily (?) it was just a bison having his breakfast, and he could not be bothered by me. I snuck by quickly. I realized bison really can’t be bothered if you’re not pestering them, and I kept as much distanced as I could and shot some telephotos before continuing on my way.

Fluffy Cow #3, nearly giving me a heart attack as my brain thought he (?) was a gigantic bear at first.
Finding this mossy little hole was great!
Junction with Imperial Meadows Trail

Imperial Meadows Trail meanders through a meadow with more backcountry thermal features. It is wide open, and like most of this hike, could be uncomfortably hot in the middle of the day.

A little muddy section of the trail

It was going well until I came to a thermal field and a bison napping right next to the trail. Ideally I would’ve swung off the trail at a big distance around him, but all around me the ground was lava and there was no safe way to go off trail if I didn’t want to boil alive. Luckily (?) once again, Fluffy Cow #4 was in a sleepy post-breakfast daze, and wasn’t fazed as I quickly but calmly scurried by, and I whispered “Good morning, fluffy cow!” when I was a very safe distance away. Quite the debate… goring by bison or boiling alive?! I decided my chances with fighting a bison are much better than fighting boiling hot water…

Uh oh….
Seriously, the ground was boiling
Telephoto once I was past sleepy Fluffy Cow #4

The rest of the hike to Imperial Geyser was pretty uneventful wildlife wise as I gazed at Fairy Falls in the distance. At about the two hour mark, I came across my first human beings of the hike, and had a quick chat with the nice couple, who warned me I was about to enter Disneyland due to the crowds, and I warned them about the napping bison.

Winding through the new growth forest. This area extensively burned in the 1988 fires.
I realized I could see Fairy Falls in the distance!
Fluffy Cow #5
The next intersection will take you to Imperial Geyser on the right, Fairy Falls on the left.

There’s technically two ways to get to Imperial Geyser. By taking the route to the right you get to see Spray Geyser, which is small but perpetually spouting. Then you walk along the thermal creek to Imperial Geyser. I liked taking this route to the geyser, but I’m also a geek about hot water if that isn’t clear already.

Spray Geyser plays perpetually
Hiking along the runoff creek from Imperial Geyser can seem a bit otherworldly

Upon arriving at Imperial Geyser I grabbed a log in the shade and fixed myself a sandwich for lunch. Imperial Geyser plays regularly, so I had quite the show as I devoured my tuna fish sandwich and gave my body a rest from the camera and pack weight.

Imperial Geyser
Continuing on my mission to eat tuna in scenic and unusual places… Here’s today’s Geyser Sandwich! Imperial Geyser was indeed a great spot to rest in the shade and fuel up for the rest of my hike.
Taking dorky selfies in nature since…
I walked around to the other side of Imperial Geyser. Since there was a lot of steam still, I decided to not climb up the hill as I didn’t think the photos would be worth it.
Steam facial courtesy of Imperial Geyser
There is a small mud pot right next to Imperial Geyser as well

Crowds did intensify, but luckily I had Imperial Geyser to myself for a handful of minutes before a noisy group arrived (what’s with being so noisy in nature?!). Now it was time to backtrack and rejoin the trail to Fairy Falls. I snapped a few photos at Fairy Falls before continuing on, aside from being stopped about six times by groups asking for directions and how much further they had to hike (maybe I look like a park ranger with my hat and gear?! My friends started calling me “Ranger Heidi” when I showed off my new hat so…).

Heading to Fairy Falls. I loved the fall colors making an appearance!
Approaching Fairy Falls from Imperial Geyser
Fairy Falls. This can be a busy destination. Last year I visited on a rainy, early morning and had some solitude. Just a suggestion if you don’t want to fight for photos!

Upon intersecting with Fountain Freight Road, I had a group stop me and tell me “This won’t take you to the hot springs over there,” as they gestured behind me at Grand Prismatic Springs. I kindly thanked them and told them that wasn’t my destination as my car was several miles north which led to some confused looks as to why my car would be all the way up there (to be fair, my feet were thinking the same thing).

A bit underwhelming considering how the rest of my hike looked!
Okay, so it wasn’t all bad in the views department! Too many Fluffy Cows to count in the distance to officially label.
Ducks on Goose Lake

Back to hiking along, and by now I was wanting the hike to be over. The road is rather bland after a morning of backcountry thermal features and surprise bison on singletrack. Goose Lake provided some views, but otherwise I plodded along, cursing my right pinky toe and its habitual blistering, and sweating in the midday sun. The occasional cyclist pedaled on by. I knew I was getting closer to the trailhead when I spotted a family in flip flops, ha! Then I was stopped by an order couple who exclaimed, “Aren’t you scared to be out here all by yourself?!”

Sigh. I politely assured them I was prepared and very adapt at being in nature alone and continued on my way.

This gave me food for thought for the last miles back to the car. First, I highly doubt they would’ve asked a man that same question. Second, I really wanted to go on a diatribe about how unsafe humans and cities are, and how no, I’m not scared of nature, I’m scared of humans. Third, I’m prepared. Unlike them, who were carrying no bear spray or water. But I digress… I get it can be hard to realize that some people are born and raised in the wilderness of Wyoming, and it is just what is natural to some of us. (It was not the last unsolicited comment during this trip about my solo-ness.)

Hey, I was here a few hours ago!

Finally Ojo Caliente came back into view, the crowds became shoulder to shoulder, and I knew Fozzy was waiting oh so close for my return! I might’ve squealed happily when I finally saw my car, and knew the moment where I could rip off my hiking boots was soon (I LOVE my boots, but it is so very satisfying to get my feet out of them after a long hike and into my Chacos).

So excited to see my bestie waiting for me in the parking lot!

Nearly 12 miles and under five hours, and I survived my big hike that I was unsure I would do until right before I started! Looking back, I wish I had the motivation to do the out and back to the Grand Prismatic overlook, as it would’ve been really my only chance since otherwise parking is a literal hellish nightmare – or maybe I should’ve brought the bike back with me, parked at Fountain Flats, pedaled down and back. Next time?!

I made my way back to my campsite and fixed me up one of my favorite camping meals: an entire packet of instant potatoes and a whole can of Dinty Moore stew! I ate, cleaned up, and rested during the afternoon.

Lunch of champions, carbs on top of carbs. And a lot of pepper. I won’t lie, I don’t always eat this meal while camping anymore…

The rest of the day’s activities commenced in the late afternoon in hopes of some relief from the record crowds. I headed south, taking the short one-way detour through Firehole Canyon, stopping at the falls.

All the geology on Firehole Canyon Drive!
Firehole Falls
Just before Firehole Canyon Drive meets the main highway, there is a parking spot and you can peek at these small cascades

Next up was the Lower Geyser Basin, and Fountain Paint Pots. I got to geek out on a couple from New York and explain how Jet Geyser usually starts playing before a Fountain Geyser eruption and pointed out distance geysers to them as well. This is when I realized I had crossed the line into being a true hot geek! I also explained, after them learning I was from Wyoming, that I really lived a good eight hours away, so sadly I just don’t get to visit often.

“Bobby sock” trees at the Lower Geyser Basin
Silex Spring
I love big blue holes and I cannot lie, you other geyser geeks can’t deny… when that thermophilic bacteria walks with these deep blues you get clues on how life can exist on other planets? Yeah, don’t know where I was going with that, ha!
Another close up of Silex Spring
The Fountain Paint Pot.
Leather Pool sets pretty darn close to the highway. Which always leads me to waving and giving a cheery, “Hello, Leather Pool!” when I drive by.
In case you wondered why Leather Pool is named such, its bacterial mats look rather leathery
Looking out towards the Kaleidoscope Group.
Gentian Pool
Peanot Geyser playing
Twig Geyser on the left side., and Bearclaw Geyser in the foreground. Peanot is in the rear on the right side.
Fountain Geyser in the foreground and Morning Geyser in the background
New Bellefontaine Geyser
Clepsydra Geyser plays nearly constantly.
Jet Geyser playing. Its activity is highly tied to others in this group.
Clepsydra Geyser
Selfie with Clepsydra Geyser
Celestine Pool

To cap off my day was one of my favorite drives ever, which is the one-way Firehole Lake Drive! I drove slowly, scanning the distance for springs and geysers I did not notice my first trip here last year (and thus had to pull over to let traffic by A LOT since not everyone appreciates a 5mph drive through a geyser basin like I do). I got to see some springs and geysers play that I didn’t before. I saw XXXX, but wouldn’t you know, that’s when my camera’s battery decided to die so I missed capturing a photo. I was pretty bummed (even though it is a small geyser), but to make up for it, White Dome Geyser erupted and I got some close photos (last year I saw White Dome play from Great Fountain Geyser), and even a photo of Fozzy with the geyser (last year I got some great photos of Fozzy and Great Fountain Geyser, so I guess there’s just something about this area!).

Lemon Spring and me, matching sunglasses included.
Broken Egg Spring is near Firehole Spring
Firehole Spring. I spent more time trying to capture it playing, it kept teasing.
White Creek Group
White Creek Group
Surprise Pool is always one of my favorites!
Botryoidal Spring erupts every few minutes but can be missed since it is far from the road and you gotta have sharp eyes scanning for eruptions. By the time I stopped the car (Will brake for geysers!!), the eruption was petering out.
Great Fountain Geyser’s cone
White Dome Geyser
What an unfortunate time for a camera battery to die! I missed grabbing a photo of Rejuvenated Geyser erupting. So here is a photo of my finger out of focus pointing at it.
White Dome Geyser erupts!
It is always a good day when I can get Fozzy and geyser together!
White Dome Geyser. The eruptions aren’t as big as you’d think they’d be from a cone that big.
Pink Cone Geyser
Fluffy Cow #6
Tangled Creek
Young Hopeful Geyser
Primrose Springs? I’m unsure.
Saw a little bit of spouting water!

My evening was capped off by the now infamous Madison Junction-West Yellowstone traffic jam after having quite the scare on a corner with a bison (this is why you should always obey speed limits in Yellowstone, I was happy I was only going 40mph!). I finally just drove about a quarter mile in the wrong, oncoming lane so I could turn into the campground. Yeesh, that’s awful. I know I don’t come to national parks to sit in traffic! It was only my third night out of seven in the park (and fifth of my trip overall, as I spent two nights in Cody prior to entering the park), and I had tinges of thoughts of “Ughhh, I’m over this, maybe I should head home.” I dealt with this a bit throughout my week, even though I was having an amazing time. Sometimes it can be tough being alone on a long trip, especially when dealing with all the stuff I don’t want to deal with when escaping from everyday life, such as traffic and loud neighbors at campgrounds.

This bison really needs to learn not to be on the wrong side of the road in a corner! Mr. Allosaurus went flying during our sudden deceleration and Ms. Brachiosaurus’ face expresses her displeasure.
Dinner was some baby red potatoes fried with scallions and a pouch of diced chicken breast mixed in.
Goodnight, y’all!

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