Welcome to Upper Geyser Basin, home of Old Faithful, about 400 buildings of all sizes, and a small town’s worth of people. For many folks, this is the heart of Yellowstone , and a visit to the park without seeing Old Faithful is like a baseball game without the national anthem.
If you came to Yellowstone to see the wonders of nature, you’re going to see more than your share here, but you’ll probably have to share your share with hundreds of other folks. On busy summer days more than 25,000 visitors come through the Old Faithful area!
Fortunately, the Upper Geyser Basin contains the largest concentration of geysers in the world, and the adventurous will even discover places almost nobody ever visits. But be very careful: The crust can be dangerously thin around some of the hot springs and geysers, and people have been badly scalded and even killed by missteps. Stay on the boardwalks and trails.
You can approach Old Faithful from either direction; the two-lane park road will suddenly widen into four lanes, and a cloverleaf exit takes you to Yellowstone’s most fabulous sight.
The one sight seen by virtually everyone who comes to Yellowstone is Old Faithful Geyser, easily the most visited geyser in the world. Old Faithful is neither the tallest nor the most frequently erupting geyser in Yellowstone, but it always provides a great show and is both highly accessible and fairly predictable. Contrary to the rumors, Old Faithful never erupted “every hour on the hour,” but for many years its period was a little more than an hour.
It has slowed in recent years and is now averaging about 90 minutes per cycle, but varies from 51 to 120 minutes. In general, the greater the length of the eruption, the longer the interval until the next eruption. Check at the visitor center for the latest prognostications on this and other geysers in the basin.
An almost level paved path circles Old Faithful, providing many different angles from which to view the eruptions, although none of these is particularly close to the geyser because of the danger from hot water. Along the north side is Chinese Spring, named in 1885 for a short-lived laundry operation. Apparently, the washman had filled the spring with clothes and soap, not knowing that soap can cause geysers to erupt. One newspaper correspondent claimed—although the tale obviously suffered from embellishment and racism—that:
The soap awakened the imprisoned giant; with a roar that made the earth tremble, and a shriek of a steam whistle, a cloud of steam and a column of boiling water shot up into the air a hundred feet, carrying soap, raiment, tent and Chinaman along with the rush, and dropping them at various intervals along the way.
Old Faithful provides a textbook example of geyser activity. The first signs of life are when water begins to splash out of the vent in what is called preplay. This splashing can last up to 20 minutes, but it’s generally only a few minutes before the real thing. The water quickly spears into the sky, reaching 100-180 feet for 1.5-5 minutes before rapidly dropping. During a typical eruption, between 3,700 and 8,400 gallons of water are sent skyward.
On any given summer day, the scene at Old Faithful is almost comical. Just before the predicted eruption time, the benches encircling the south and east sides are jammed with hundreds of people waiting expectantly for the geyser to erupt, and with each tentative spray the camera shutters begin to click. Listen closely and you’ll hear half the languages of Europe and Asia. Once the action is over, there’s a mad rush back into the visitor center, the stores, and Old Faithful Inn, and within a few minutes the benches are virtually empty.
A tale is told of two concessioner employees who once decided to have fun at Old Faithful by placing a large crank atop a box and putting the contraption near the geyser. When they knew it was ready to erupt, they ran out and turned the crank just as Old Faithful shot into the air. Their employer failed to find humor in the prank, and both were fired, or so the story claims.
After years of planning, fund-raising ($27 million!), and construction, the magnificent 26,000-square-foot Old Faithful Visitor Education Center (307/545-2750) opened in 2010. A spacious lobby features ceiling-to-floor windows that frame eruptions of Old Faithful. Step into the exhibit hall to learn about hydrothermal areas within Yellowstone, with a focus on how geysers form. Other interactive exhibits describe hot springs, steam vents, and mud pots, including the unique microbes that survive in these superheated areas.
Be sure to check out the video of active vents and odd spires at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake . Although it’s geared to kids, the Young Scientist room is equally popular with adults, with all sorts of dynamic hands-on activities, including a life-size model of a geyser. (Did you know that animals that live near geysers suffer from tooth decay?) Most displays are in English, French, German, and Japanese. The building was constructed using many earth-friendly techniques and has gained Gold LEED certification.
In addition to the exhibits, the visitor center houses a state-of-the-art theater, where you can watch films about the park, and a Yellowstone Association bookstore selling books, maps, and other publications. At the information desk, rangers can answer questions—from where to see bighorn sheep to where to find the restrooms. Check the display for predicted eruption times of six major geysers in the area: Old Faithful, Grand, Daisy, Riverside, Great Fountain, and Castle.
The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center is open mid-April-early November and mid-December-mid-March. Hours are daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m. (information window till 8 p.m.) late May-early September and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. the rest of September. During the fall, winter, and spring when park gates are open, the visitor center operates daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
If you’re not in the park but want to see the current situation at Old Faithful, check out the live webcam at www.nps.gov/yell/photosmultimedia/yellowstonelive.htm .
Matching one of the great sights of the natural world is one of America’s most majestic hotels, Old Faithful Inn. Now more than a century old, the building was designed by Robert Reamer and built in the winter of 1903-1904. One of the largest log structures in existence, the inn has delighted generations of visitors and continues to enthrall all who enter. Its steeply angled roofline reaches seven stories high, with gables jutting from the sides and flags flying from the roof. Surprisingly, the hotel does not face the geyser. Instead, it was built facing sideways to allow newly arriving visitors the opportunity to view the geyser as they stepped from carriages.
As you open the rustic split-log front doors with their hand-wrought hardware, you enter a world of the past. The central lobby towers more than 75 feet overhead and is dominated by a massive four-sided stone fireplace that required 500 tons of stone from a nearby quarry. Four overhanging balconies extend above, each bordered by posts made from gnarled lodgepole burls found within the park. Above the fireplace is an enormous clock designed by Reamer and built on the site by a blacksmith. Reamer also designed the two side wings that were added in 1913 and 1928.
On warm summer evenings, visitors stand out on the porch where they can watch Old Faithful erupting, or sit inside at the handcrafted tables to write letters as music spills from the grand piano. It’s enough to warm the heart of even the most cynical curmudgeon. A good restaurant is on the premises, along with a rustic but comfortable bar, a gift shop, fast-food eatery, ice-cream shop, and ATM.
Free 45-minute tours of Old Faithful Inn are given several times daily during the summer; check the activity desk for times. Old Faithful Inn closes during the winter; it would be hard to imagine trying to heat such a cavern when it’s 30°F below zero outside! The building underwent a major renovation in the last few years, with structural upgrades to protect it from earthquakes and a variety of other improvements. Today, it is open early May-mid-October.
Another nearby building of interest is Old Faithful Lodge. Built in 1928, this is the large stone-and-log building just south of the geyser of the same name. The giant fireplace inside is a joy on frosty evenings, and cafeteria windows face the geyser—unlike those at the inn.
Much newer, but an instant classic, is the award-winning Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which opened in 1999. This large building offers a sense of rustic elegance, with heavy timbers, a window-lined main entrance, a large stone fireplace, overstuffed couches, and handmade wrought-iron light fixtures and accents. It is one of just two Yellowstone lodges (the other being Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel) open in winter.
Cafeteria meals, espresso, and baked goods are available at Old Faithful Lodge, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge houses a restaurant and snack bar. Both of these also have gift shops. In addition, the Old Faithful area has two gas stations, a post office, and a medical clinic.
Upper Geyser Basin is laced with paved trails that lead to dozens of nearby geysers and hot springs. The easiest path loops around Geyser Hill, just across the Firehole River from Old Faithful. Here are more than 40 different geysers. Check at the visitor center to get an idea of current activity and predicted eruptions, and while you’re there pick up the excellent Upper Geyser Basin map ($0.50), which describes some of them. Several geysers are particularly noteworthy. When it plays, Beehive Geyser (it has a tall, beehive-shaped cone) vents water as high as 180 feet into the air. These spectacular eruptions vary in frequency; one time you visit they may be 10 days apart, while the next time you come they may be happening twice daily.
Lion Geyser Group consists of four different interconnected geysers with varying periods of activity and eruptions up to 80 feet. Listen for the roar when Lion is ready to erupt. Giantess Geyser may not be active for years at a time—or may erupt several times a year—but the eruptions are sensationally powerful, sending water 100-200 feet skyward. Doublet Pool is a beautiful deep-blue pool that is a favorite of photographers. Not far away is Sponge Geyser, which rockets water an astounding 2.29 billion angstroms into the air (that’s nine inches, for the nonscientific crowd). It’s considered the smallest named geyser in Yellowstone and gets its title by sending up a spurt of water big enough to be mopped up with a sponge.
Observation Point Loop Trail splits off shortly after you cross the bridge on the way to Geyser Hill and climbs to an excellent overlook where you can watch eruptions of Old Faithful. This is also a good place to view the effects of, and recovery from, the 1988 North Fork Fire. It’s two miles round-trip to Observation Point from the visitor center. Another easy trail splits off from this path to Solitary Geyser, which is actually just a pool that periodically burps four-foot splashes of hot water. This is not a natural geyser. In 1915, the hot spring here was tapped to provide water for Old Faithful Geyser Bath, a concession that lasted until 1948. The lowering of the water level in the pool completely changed the plumbing system of the hot springs and turned it into a geyser that at one time shot 25 feet in the air. The system still hasn’t recovered, although water levels have been restored for many decades.
An easy, paved path follows the Firehole River downstream from Old Faithful, looping back along the other side for a total distance of three miles. Other trails head off from this loop to the Fairy Falls Trailhead, Biscuit Basin, and Black Sand Basin. The loop is a very popular wintertime ski path, and sections are open to bikes in the summer.
Twelve-foot-high Castle Geyser does indeed resemble a ruined old castle. Because of its size and the slow accretion of sinter (silica) to form this cone, it is believed to be somewhere between 5,000 and 50,000 years old. Castle sends up a column of water and steam 75 feet into the air and usually erupts every 11-13 hours. Check at the visitor center for a guess at the next eruption.
Daisy Geyser is farther down the path and off to the left. It is usually one of the most predictable of the geysers, erupting to 75 feet approximately every 120-150 minutes. The water shoots out at a sharp angle and is visible all over the basin, making this a real crowd-pleaser.
Just east of Daisy is Radiator Geyser, which isn’t much to look at—eruptions to two feet—but was named when this area was a parking lot and the sudden eruption under a car led people to think its radiator was overheating. A personal favorite, Grotto Geyser is certainly the weirdest of all the geysers, having formed around a tangle of long-petrified tree stumps. It is in eruption one-third of the time, but most eruptions reach only 10 feet.
Look for Riverside Geyser across the Firehole from the path and not far downstream from Grotto. This picturesque geyser arches spray 75 feet over the river and is one of the most predictable, with 20-minute-long eruptions approximately every six hours. The paved trail crosses the river and ends at famous Morning Glory Pool. For many years, the main road passed this colorful pool, which became something of a wishing well for not just coins but also trash, rocks, logs, and other debris. Because of this junk, the pool began to cool, and the beautiful blue color is now tinged by brown and green algae, despite efforts to remove the debris.
Turning back at Morning Glory, recross the bridge and head left where the path splits at Grotto Geyser. Giant Geyser is on the left along the river. Years may pass between eruptions of Giant (or it might erupt every week or so), but when it does go, the name rings true because the water can reach 250 feet. Cross the river again and pass Beauty Pool and Chromatic Pool, which are connected below the ground so that one declines as the other rises—very pretty.
Grand Geyser is a wonderful sight. The water column explodes in 1-4 towering bursts lasting 9-12 minutes and sometimes reaching 200 feet. It’s the tallest predictable geyser on the planet; see the visitor center for the next eruption or wait with the crowds if the pool looks full. When Grand isn’t playing, watch for smaller eruptions from nearby Turban Geyser. Hang around long enough in the summer and you’ll almost certainly meet one or more of the “geyser-gazers,” generally retirees with plenty of time to watch and make notes. Some of them spend their entire summer watching geysers, relaying geyser activity by radio back to the Old Faithful Visitor Center. Grand Geyser is a favorite because its behavior has been studied and follows a predictable pattern.
Two little fun geysers are a short distance to the south: Sawmill Geyser and Tardy Geyser. The latter is just 10 feet or so from the trail, providing an up-close look at a small but active geyser. Cross the river again just beyond these two geysers and pass Crested Pool on your way back to Castle Geyser. The pool contains deep-blue water that is constantly boiling, preventing the survival of algae.
Black Sand Basin is a small cluster of geysers and hot springs, found just one mile west of Old Faithful. Most enjoyable is unpredictable Cliff Geyser, which often sends a spray of hot water 25-30 feet over Iron Spring Creek. Three colorful pools are quite interesting in the basin: Emerald Pool, Rainbow Pool, and Sunset Lake. Handkerchief Pool is now just a small spouter, but it was famous for many years as a place where visitors could drop a handkerchief in one end and then recover it later at another vent. In 1929, vandals jammed logs into the pool, destroying this little game. The pool was covered with gravel in subsequent eruptions of Rainbow Pool.
Biscuit Basin is named for biscuitlike formations that were found in one of the pools; they were destroyed in an eruption following the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake. From the parking lot, the trail leads across the Firehole River to pretty Sapphire Pool and then past Jewel Geyser, which typically erupts every 7-10 minutes to a height of 15-20 feet. The boardwalk follows a short loop through the other sights of Biscuit Basin. From the west end of the boardwalk, a one-mile trail leads to Mystic Falls. Biscuit Basin is three miles north of Old Faithful.