You know how it is. Your big brother gets all the attention, but you’ve got a lot to offer, too. And so it is with Yellowstone’s dramatic Grand Prismatic Spring. Old Faithful gets all the press, but this spectacular hot spring possesses unparalleled beauty that is a “don’t miss” feature of Yellowstone.
The Grand Prismatic Spring sits in the Midway Geyser Basin on the west side of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. How glad we can be that on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone was named the first national park in the world. Its 2.2 million acres are home to the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and steam vents, and it shows eager travelers geological wonders, 10,000-plus geothermal features, and wildlife in its natural habitat.
At 360 feet wide and 160 feet long (about the square footage of a football field), Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest single hot spring and the third largest hot spring in the world. Surprisingly, my husband Dean and I had trouble seeing it… at first. But you can learn from us. Here are key tips to make the most of your visit to Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.
Note: Due to the flooding situation in Yellowstone, please use caution when traveling to the park, check for alerts, and follow park instructions. You can also stay up to date on our travel news coverage for more information on the floods in Yellowstone.
1. Purchase And Download An App Before You Go
Purchase and download the Yellowstone/Grand Teton “Gypsy Guide” app (nominal fee). As you drive in the park, it uses free GPS signals from satellites to trigger audio (from what feels like your personal tour guide) about the park’s history, features, and more. Download the app so you won’t have to worry about cell service (data) or a Wi-Fi signal to use it.
2. Stay In West Yellowstone Lodging
Staying inside the park is unique, but we loved staying at the Explorer Cabins in West Yellowstone, Montana, just minutes from the west entrance and an easy drive to Grand Prismatic Spring. The cabins are beautifully appointed with many comforts of home. They also have shared outdoor patio areas, which are the perfect place to reflect on the wonders of the day over a Montana-brewed Moose Drool brown ale.
3. The Early Bird Catches The Best Parking Spot
The parking lot at Grand Prismatic Spring is relatively small. There’s overflow parking on the road but with the unavoidable traffic of Yellowstone, that’s less than desirable. Our best advice is to go early and be patient.
We are early risers and arrived by 7:45 a.m. on a crisp mid-September day. We parked the car and walked the boardwalk. The view at this hour was ethereal… but disappointing. Cool air temps meet hot spring steam and it’s like walking in a cloud. This is fine, except when you are there to see the brilliant colors the hot spring is famous for.
4. Talk To The Park Rangers (They Know!)
If you see park rangers at the Grand Prismatic Spring, talk to them. They have a wealth of knowledge. In this case, one of the rangers told visitors to wait it out; as soon as the sun got a bit higher and the air warmed up, it would all be much easier to see.
5. This Kind Of Beauty Is Worth The Wait
So, we waited, and the ranger was right. From the parking lot, we crossed the bridge over the Firehole River a third time (yes, a third time) and stopped to take a photo, with overflow from the hydrothermal pools as our colorful backdrop.
Plan on a 30–60-minute walk (depending on crowds and pace) on the 0.8-mile looped boardwalk that takes you along one section of the Grand Prismatic Spring. The boardwalk is wide enough for wheelchairs and strollers, or to let people pass if you linger.
I can’t even explain how beautiful the Grand Prismatic Spring is. The colors, reflections, patterns, textures. It’s a photographer’s dream.
6. Appreciate The Best-Lookin’ Bacteria Ever!
According to the National Park website, hydrothermal features like the Grand Prismatic Spring are habitats “in which microscopic organisms called thermophiles — ‘thermo’ for heat, and ‘phile’ for lover — survive and thrive.” What makes the hot spring so colorful? In laymen’s terms, it’s the micro-organisms in the hot springs called the bacteria mat — best lookin’ bacteria ever!
7. Safety First
The park website continues, “Species, unseen to the human eye, thrive in waters as acidic as the liquid in your car battery and hot enough to blister your skin.” Acidic. Hot enough to blister.
Hot springs have injured or killed more people in Yellowstone than any other natural feature.
That’s why it’s illegal (and dangerous) to walk anywhere other than the boardwalk in the Midway Geyser Basin. The boardwalk protects visitors from the boiling water and deadly surface of the Grand Prismatic Spring. It also safeguards and helps preserve the fragile natural environment. Signs caution you not to touch the bacterial mat.
Pro Tip: It’s easy to get swept away in the beauty of this area, but safety first: Bear and buffalo have been seen at Grand Prismatic Spring. Stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, including bison and elk.
We noticed buffalo tracks on the hot spring. I’m guessing they walked here in colder weather and the tracks remained.
8. Enjoy Other Geothermal Features That Share The Boardwalk
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the star of this show, but the boardwalk loops around to other features:
- Opal Pool: Jeweled names were selected for these pools, and it’s easy to see why. Although this one is called a pool, it’s a geyser that erupts several times a year.
- Turquoise Pool: Again, this one lives up to its name, with a beautiful blue hue.
- Excelsior Geyser: This dormant geyser is a large and curious crater that produces copious amounts of water. It was deep and steaming the day we were there.
9. Don’t Miss The View From Higher Ground
As breathtaking as the hot spring is at ground level, don’t miss the panoramic view from Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. The out-and-back trail is 1.2 miles round-trip and rated easy/moderate; it takes about 30–40 minutes. Park at Fairy Falls Trailhead and walk the flat Fairy Falls Trail until you see a signed offshoot that takes you over the Firehole River. After that, it’s a short walk on Fountain Freight Road, and then a final incline to the overlook. The trail can get slippery on the incline, depending on weather.
Pro Tip: Parking is even more limited at Fairy Falls Trailhead than the Midway Geyser Basin parking lot. If you can’t find a spot, come back later and try again.
10. Shoulder Season Advantage
People love Yellowstone. In 2021, the park hosted 4.8 million recreational visits, up 28 percent from 2020, making it the busiest year on record (and May through September, the busiest months). July alone exceeded a record 1 million visits.
Although heavy snow covers much of the park roads from November through March, the park’s website issues a year-round caution:
“Since most of the park lies at an elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level or higher, unpredictability characterizes Yellowstone’s weather. Expect big temperature swings, rain, or snow during every month of the year. No matter when you visit, bring a warm jacket, rain gear, and lots of layers.”
It’s up to you. Balance the best weather of summer (and the biggest crowds) with the shoulder season (fewer people but greater weather risks) and figure out what’s best. We visited in mid-September and that was right for us.
11. Savor It
At the risk of sounding like someone’s mother, slow down and savor Grand Prismatic Spring. You could race-walk the boardwalk in 20 minutes, but why would you want to? There’s so much to see in the spectrum and nuance of color, light, pattern, texture, the impossible brilliance of the oranges and reds (made from bacteria, no less!), and the blue steam rising. Slow down. Stop. Marvel at it. Be astonished that this exists on planet Earth, and that you get to see it.
Of all the wonders you can find at Yellowstone (and there are many), there’s a reason the Grand Prismatic Spring holds the distinct honor of “most photographed feature” in the park!
The Grand Prismatic Spring took my breath away. I told Dean I’d be content to build a hut on the edge of it (ignoring the impossible physics of that scheme) and live out the rest of my days in complete bliss. One could do worse than wake up and gaze upon that every day.
I hope you go to Yellowstone, and I hope these tips help you enjoy the spectacular Grand Prismatic Spring. And especially, I hope you savor it.