Yellowstone: Old Faithful Geyser Basin

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If Yellowstone National Park is known for just one thing, it’s the geysers.  And not just any geysers, but one in particular: Old Faithful.  So, a stop at the Old Faithful Geyser Basin is virtually mandatory on any visit to Yellowstone.  If your timing is a little off, you might have to wait around for as much as 90 minutes to see the famous geyser erupt.  The good news is, there’s plenty more to see at this stop, which will help kill the time.

Location

The Old Faithful Geyser Basin is located on the southwest side of Yellowstone National Park.  It’s on the lower left side of the park’s figure-8 road, and about 17 miles from West Thumb (the intersection where the figure-8 road meets the southern entrance road).  It’s 30 miles from West Yellowstone, MT.  Keep in mind, you won’t be driving at freeway speeds inside the park–30 miles can take up to 2 hours depending on traffic, weather, and wildlife.

My Visit

I arrived about 30 minutes before the next predicted Old Faithful eruption, so I spent a few minutes staking out the best photo location, then bracing myself against the cold wind.  A semi-circle of bleachers partially surrounds the famous old geyser, and I decided that the best spot is on the far left side.  From this spot, I also had a great view of the rest of the geyser basin, which I explore later on this page.

Old Faithful erupts once every 90 minutes.  Park rangers advise you allow for a 5-10 minute margin of error, so take your seat at least 10 minutes before the next predicted time.  You’ll find the next estimated eruption time written on a sign, on the door to the park ranger’s office/visitor’s center. (Also worth note: a short eruption leads to a shorter wait time, before the next eruption.)

The best location for watching Old Faithful erupt will vary from day to day.  First, you should notice which way the wind is blowing.  You don’t want to be directly downwind of the geyser’s steam, because the water has a foul odor.  If you’re hoping to take pictures, think about the background.  If it’s a cloudy day, try to put a hill in the background (the geyser will blend in with the clouds).  On a clear day, you’ll want blue skies behind the eruption.

During the 90 minute lull between eruptions, Old Faithful lets off a constant cloud of steam, and occasionally sputters, shooting a little water into the air.  Such a sight will inevitably cause someone standing near you to say, “I think it’s starting up!”.

But you’ll know for certain when it’s starting up.

At full blast, Old Faithful can shoot water up to 184 feet into the air, with an eruption that lasts up to five minutes.  These are the extremes, though.  The higher the eruption, the shorter the duration, and vice-versa.  Also, if it’s windy (as it was during my visit) the column of water won’t reach as high, since the breeze essentially blows it over.

Old Faithful and all the other geysers in the basin drain into the Firehole River.  There’s a bridge that crosses this river (on the far side of Old Faithful, not far from the cafeteria), leading to a boardwalk that circles past some of the basin’s less famous, but still impressive, geysers and hot springs.

As soon as you cross over the bridge, you’re walking past some absolutely beautiful pools of searing-hot water.  That water is perfectly clear, and the colors are amazing, although any picture you take might look a little milky (because of the ever-present steam).

Moments after crossing the bridge, and after passing just a few springs and geysers, there’s a side trail that takes you uphill to Observation Point.  Since Old Faithful’s next eruption was just about 20 minutes away, I decided to take the trail, and hopefully find a good place to watch.

I must admit, I didn’t make it all the way to the top.  The trail is steep, and although I was nearly there, I decided the view was good enough.  So, I set up my camera and waited.

Notice the rows of patient people, partially surrounding Old Faithful on the far side.

This is a good vantage point, especially on a cloudy day, since there’s something besides white clouds behind the white plume of Old Faithful’s steam.

The ooh’s and aah’s diminish as the geyser settles down.

After the eruption, I decided to take the long way back to the basin.  One leg of the trail passes through a wooded area, and breaks through at Solitary Geyser.

As the name suggests, Solitary Geyser is all by itself, apart from the rest of the basin’s geysers and springs.  Chances are pretty good that you’ll have the place to yourself.

Wait around for 5-7 minutes, and you’ll see Solitary Geyser erupt.  A sign promises an eruption of about 4 feet, but the one I witnessed didn’t even come close to being that impressive.  I watched as the water level in the pool rose slightly, sloshed a bit, and spilled over the edges, then settled down again–as if it was a clogged toilet trying to flush.  There was no impressive column of water and steam, and I was a little disappointed.  But then, I looked around and realized that I was the only person to witness it.  Cool.

A sign near Solitary Geyser explains that someone tried to tap the water supply here, back in 1915.  At the time, this was merely a spring, but the meddling transformed it into a geyser.  The failed attempt at adding man-made plumbing to the natural system also lowered Solitary’s water level.

The trail to Solitary Geyser eventually ends up back at the geyser basin, where…

… you pass by one spring or geyser…

… after another (this one is called Ear Spring)…

… after another…

… after another (Heart Spring).

Yes, there were so many, I couldn’t keep track of all their names.  The trail ends with a great view of Old Faithful Inn.

Old Faithful Inn was completed in 1904, with additional sections added in the teens and 20’s.  Rooms here range from around $100 (shared bath, in the hotel’s oldest section) to nearly $500 (suite).

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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