At almost 250 by 350 feet (76m x 106m), the Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States (and the third largest in the world). Located in the Midway Geyser Basin, it is the biggest and brightest of the many colored pools in Yellowstone National Park.
It is bright blue, but changes color through the year. The colors are a result of microbes in the water and they change depending on the temperature of the water. In summer the edges are more orange and in winter they are usually dark green. No matter what time of year you go, it is stunning.
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There are so many great hikes in American national parks, but there is no park quite like Yellowstone. Full of incredible geothermal phenomena like geysers, colored pools and bubbling mud pots; home to herds of bison and wolves; and the site of some of the most incredible waterfalls in the United States, this park has a lot to offer.
The biggest and most colorful hot spring is Grand Prismatic Spring and it is absolutely not to be missed.
There are two ways for you to experience the Grand Prismatic Spring.
- The Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk goes around the edges of the giant hot spring, giving you a close up look
- The Giant Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail gives you an ‘aerial’ view. This is the classic view that you see in photos.
This post is mostly about the Grand Prismatic overlook trail, but let’s first take a quick look at the boardwalk.
The Grand Prismatic Spring boardwalk is a one-way 0.8 mile/ 1.3 km loop goes along one edge of the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring and to several other nearby much smaller springs Opal Pool and Excelsior Geyser Crater. You can see the hot spring water joining the Firehole River in a gush of steam, which is very cool.
It’s nice to see the colors up close, but to see the classic view of the whole pools, with rays of color extended in swirls like a multi-colored sun, you will need to take the Overlook Trail.
Is the Grand Prismatic Spring dangerous? Yes. That’s why the boardwalk is there. How hot is the Grand Prismatic Spring? It’s 160 °F (70 °C). It may look tempting, but at Grand Prismatic Spring, swimming is NOT an option.
A note about parking for the boardwalk
You will need to park at the Midway Geyser Basin for the boardwalk. Considering that Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the highlights of Yellowstone, the parking lot is very small. Consequently, finding a parking spot can be like hitting the jackpot. If you find a spot on the side of the road nearby, nab it!
The Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail Overview
Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail Details
- Trail length: 0.6 miles/ 1 kmeach way (1.2 miles/ 2km roundtrip) out-and-back trail. The Fairy Falls Trail is 2.5 miles/ 4km each way (5 miles/ 8km round trip)
- Duration: It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the overlook, then another 20 minutes to return, plus time at the lookout. If you decide to continue on to Fairy Falls, the Fairy Falls Trail takes about2.5-3 hours.
- Elevation Change: 105 feet/ 32m
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
When is the trail open?
The trail is in a Bear Management Area and is closed March – Memorial Day. The Park Loop Road is actually closed for the winter early November through to May. So, the trail is generally open late May to early November, though this can vary from year to year depending on the snow. If you are planning to go in late spring or fall, check the park’s website for road closures.
Where is the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone?
The Grand Prismatic Spring location is in the Midway Geyser Basin in the western part of the northern loop.
It’s sometimes called the Grand Prismatic Geyser or the Grand Prismatic Pool, Yellowstone or even Grand Prismatic Lake, Yellowstone Park, but it is actually a hot spring.
Where is Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook trailhead?
The Grand Prismatic Spring trail head is the same as the Fairy Falls Trailhead. It’s about a mile (1.6 km) south of Midway Geyser Basin parking area.
Parking for the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail
Parking is at the Fairy Falls Parking Lot, NOT the Grand Prismatic Springs/ Midway Geyser Basin parking lot (that is for the boardwalk, a mile away; there is no trail from the Grand Prismatic Springs parking area to the Overlook trail).
The Fairy Falls parking lot is larger, but this trail is very popular and it gets full. You can check the park’s website for current parking conditions, but I recommend taking your chances – keep driving around until you see someone heading to their car and follow them!
Note that RVs, buses and trailers aren’t allowed to park in this parking area.
When is the best time to hike the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook trail?
It may be tempting to go early to beat the crowds, but this is one place that that doesn’t pay off. The thermal pools in Yellowstone – and the Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone is no exception – are typically shrouded in mist in the morning. The most usually doesn’t burn off until around noon. So, you should time your visit for the afternoon. This is true of all of the colored pools. It would be disappointing to go all that way and not see the colors in all their splendor.
For the best experience, visit after midday, once the mist burns off. Yes, it will be crowded, but it is worth it to see these colors.
The Great Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail is actually part of the Fairy Falls Trail, so if you want to hike to the falls, a good option would be to hike straight to the falls in the morning, then go to the overlook n the way back, around noon. That way you avoid the worst of the parking crunch, see the falls and see the spring without the mist.
What to take on the Grand Prismatic Spring hike?
The Yellowstone Grand Prismatic Spring hike is short and easy, so you don’t need any special hiking gear. However, there is little shade and this is bear country, so I recommend:
- Sunscreen. Buy some on Amazon here
- Water. I love the Que bottles – they collapse down when empty and expand to a greater size when they’re full. Check prices on Amazon here
- A sun hat. I don’t love hats, to be honest, but always wear a sun hat when hiking. I wear this one from Amazon
- Bear spray: This is bear country and it is always best to be prepared, just in case. You can choose either bear spray (get some here) or a bear bell
Additional hiking resources
When hiking in Yellowstone, check out these useful resources:
- Hiking Guide for Beginners
- How to Read Hiking Trail Markers
- Hiking Etiquette
- Day Hike packing List
- Best Hiking Gear for Beginners
Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail Description
The trail was only opened in 2018. Prior to that, people scrambled up the hill to get an ‘aerial’ view of the spring. Obviously, that was not great, so we are lucky this trail exists!
The Start of the trail
For most of the trail it is the same trail as the Fairy Falls Trail. Start along the wide, flat trail from the parking lot. The Grand Prismatic Spring is off in the distance to your right (you can’t see it from here though).
After about 0.5 miles/ 800m, you will see a sign indicating the Overlook Trail. It is easy to see – plus most people will be going/ coming that way.
Take the turn off to the left. This is the actual overlook trail. It soon starts to climb. I saw a fox right here along the trail – it got incredibly close, which was very cool.
The trail starts with a gradual climb, but then does get steep in parts. The climb is short, but can be slippery, so it’s better to wear proper hiking shoes.
The best view of Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, WY
Before long, you will come to the viewing platform. There are incredible views of the Grand Yellowstone Prismatic spring from there. It is often pretty crowded, but when I was there, people were pretty good about taking turns to take photos and have their photos taken.
Returning/ Continuing on to Fairy Falls
To return, you have two options. You can go back the way you came to the parking lot, which is what most people do. However, you can also continue on to Fairy Falls (if you took my advice, you would actually do this whole thing in reverse and go to Fairy falls first, but let’s assume you went to the Overlook first).
If you are going straight back to the parking area, turn left. If you decide to continue on to Fairy falls, turn right. The overlook Trail is actually a side trail loop from the main Fairy Falls Trail, so rather than backtrack, you can continue in the same direction and will take you down a short switchback back to the main trail, but further along.
When you reach the flat Fairy Falls Trail again, turn left and continue along. Less than half a mile along, there is a sign to Fairy Falls. Follow the sign to turn left. It’s another 1.6 miles to the falls. The trail stays flat, but goes through some lodgepole forest.
At 197 feet/ 60m, Fairy Falls are some of the tallest waterfalls in Yellowstone and make a lovely spot for lunch.
You can continue another 0.75 miles/ 1.2 km to Imperial Geyser.
The Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail Map
Check this Yellowstone Grand Prismatic Spring map for trail details and to see how to get to Grand Prismatic Spring.
The verdict: Grand Prismatic Spring Hot Springs Overlook
This trail provides a much better view of the Grand Prismatic Spring than the boardwalk – if you are short for time and have to choose between the two, you should absolutely choose the overlook. You will probably have a chance to get close to other colored springs, so it wouldn’t be too terrible to skip the boardwalk IF you are short on time, but it would be a real shame to miss the view from the overlook.
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You should always travel with travel insurance. If in doubt, read my Guide to Travel Insurance for the full low down.
A great insurance option is World Nomads. You can book it online here or get a quote right here for your Yellowstone trip:
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Read about other great U.S. national park hikes:
- Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon NP
- The Narrows, Zion NP
- The Congress Trail, Sequoia NP
- Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton NP
- Devil’s Garden Trail, Arches NP
- Best hikes, Bryce Canyon NP
- Best hikes, Acadia NP
James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture. He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters.
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