Story and photos by John Layshock
Explore Big Sky Contributor
The Mystic Falls trail begins at the Biscuit Basin parking lot near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.
My neighbor and good friend Brett Bench took the day off on Dec. 19, to help me enjoy this adventure to the falls. We both prefer splitboarding, to fully enjoy the descent, and it’s a great way to tour this loop. There’s not a lot of vertical, but a few great powder turns go a long way. The Upper Geyser Basin has miles of trails, and while touring in the winter isn’t the easiest, there are excellent opportunities for Nordic skiing, splitboarding, snowshoeing or walking.
As you leave the parking lot, you ski past a number of thermal features including the Sapphire Pool and Jewel Geyser. The Sapphire Pool is about 200 F and is on the top of my list of the most beautiful and inviting pools in the park. The Jewel Geyser sits about 100 feet away and erupts about every 5-10 minutes, shooting steam and water 10-30 feet high.
The trail leads away from the basin and toward the caldera rim. It’s about a mile to the falls along the Little Firehole River and the trail continues up and around Mystic Falls to make a 3-mile loop back to the basin. It’s an easy-to-moderate ski to the base of the falls before the trail gains a couple hundred vertical feet and another mile to the Upper Geyser Basin overlook.
Touring groups should be aware of a few potential slide paths near the falls, and it’s important to have someone with avalanche training and local snowpack knowledge. The loop from the base of the falls back to the trailhead is for intermediate to advanced backcountry enthusiasts.
Mystic Falls is approximately 70 feet tall. There are dozens of smaller cascading waterfalls above and below the main waterfall along with dozens of hot springs. Unlike the geyser basins, these hot springs seep into the river. There are a few hot pools around the bottom of the falls and brightly colored bacteria can be seen living on the canyon walls. Large amounts of steam billow from the top of the falls far from the trail, but are dangerous and should not be approached.
From the top of the overlook, the view can be overwhelming to most visitors viewing them from this vantage point, including myself. But the vista is breathtaking, showcasing Upper, Black Sand and Biscuit basins, which contain a significant percentage of all the geysers in the world including Old Faithful.
Winter is the best time to feel the weight of Yellowstone’s awesome sights, sounds and senses. The geology and biology contain secrets of the universe that today’s scientists are still trying to understand. The bacteria from the waters and mud pots in Yellowstone require extreme temperatures, and some species don’t even need oxygen. They could easily resemble, or be related to, life on other planets.
The best way to tour in Yellowstone is to charter a snow coach with a group of friends. It costs a bit more than a lift ticket at your local ski hill, but it’s an experience like nothing else.
John Layshock is a guide for Yellowstone Alpen Guides and has been showing guests the wonders of the park for eight years. Visit seeyellowstone.com for more information or to book a trip.