There are more geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else on earth. Old Faithful, certainly the most famous geyser, is joined by numerous others big and small, named and unnamed. Though born of the same water and rock, each is unique and entertaining. So whether you’re stopping in to Yellowstone as part of a massive national parks trip, or you’re looking to make a singular journey to this amazing area, read on to discover what makes the best geysers of Yellowstone so compelling and mesmerizing, and please add them to your list of things to see on site.
When you think of volcanoes, you picture a craggy European cliff face or a secluded Hawaiian island. You don’t typically think of the continental United States, or even the western to middle America region. Well there is actually a host of volcanic activity happening in our beloved Wild West, all over Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Before we dive in to the definition of geysers and the best Yellowstone geysers, let’s learn a bit about the park itself.
Millions of visitors annually head to the flagship and first national park of the United States, Yellowstone. For those wanting a leisurely trip, the Grand Loop Road is an easy way to see the beauty of this national park, and for those looking for a more active trip, there is a plethora of hiking, biking, swimming, and more. The entire area is 3,500 square miles, an absolute massive expanse of land in Wyoming, with small parts in Montana and Idaho as well. In fact, it is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. This volcanic hot spot features features dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, lush forests, hot springs and gushing geysers. It’s also home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope. There are over 1,100 species of native plants in Yellowstone, too. It is a nature preserve that takes the beauty of the Rocky Mountain region to another level.
Yellowstone is huge, so you’ll need to plan ahead and decide which of the five entrances makes the most sense for your party. Yellowstone’s main roads are the five entrance roads and the Grand Loop road. On the Loop, you’ll find many visitor centers, museums, boardwalks, and scenic side roads. To enter the park, a pass costs $50 for the entire year, or $25 for the day for a private vehicle.
What is a ‘geyser’?
You’ve seen a hot spring, right? If not, imagine a natural, outdoor jacuzzi tub that’s over 150 degrees Fahrenheit and can be found all over the world. The little cousin to the hot spring, but one that announces its presence loudly, is the geyser. It is basically a hot spring without enough ventilation. That boiling water, gas, vapor, and heat is trapped under the Earth (known as a constriction) and needs somewhere to go. Surrounding pressure also increases with depth, similar to the ocean. Once the pressure gets so immense, (WHOOSH!), the hot water bursts from the ground into an amazing column of water. This eruption of water and steam decreases the pressure and heat within the system. The eruption stops when the water reservoir is depleted or when the system cools and the cycle begins again.
Most of the world’s geysers occur in just five countries: 1) the United States, 2) Russia, 3) Chile, 4) New Zealand and 5) Iceland. All of these locations are where there is geologically recent volcanic activity and a source of hot rock below. Most geysers erupt irregularly and infrequently. However, a few are known for regular eruptions (see Old Faithful below).
There are two main types of geysers – cone and fountain. A cone geyser erupts a narrow jet of water, usually through a cone-shape of dirt or clay or silt (also known as silica). The cone acts as sort of a hose, with the tight space creating a great jet of water at the mouth of the geyser. The vents within these massive cones are often very narrow, causing the water to splash and spray as it emerges. Every splash and each eruption adds its own increment of silica, enlarging the cones as the years pass. The cones of many of Yellowstone’s geysers are hundreds of years old.
The second type of geyser is known as a Fountain Geyser. Fountain geysers shoot water in various directions, typically from a pool. A fountain-type geyser has a large opening at the surface that usually fills with water before or during an eruption. Steam bubbles rising through the pool during the eruption cause separate bursts of water that generally spray out in all directions. Fountain type geysers are the most common type of geyser and can range in size from very small to very large. We will be referring to these geysers types as we describe the best Yellowstone geysers below.
Beehive Geyser (Upper Geyser Basin)
The aptly named Beehive Geyser is known for its distinctive four-foot-tall cone geyser in the shape of, you guessed it, a beehive. Beehive is one of the most visited and powerful geysers in the park, even though it has a modest cone comparatively to the other geysers in the immediate area. An average eruption lasts about 4 to 5 minutes, shooting water up to 200 feet in the air! The interval for eruptions is anywhere from 8 hours to one full day, so it one of the more unpredictable ones in the park, especially in winter. Beehive has an ‘indicator’ eruption actually, a small spray (about six feet high) that occurs about 20 minutes before the actual one, a few yards away. An eruption begins with occasional splashing, then small surges. These progress into an eruption as the ground rumbles and a narrow, straight fountain of water jets upward. People love visiting this particular geyser not only for its impressive display of power, but due to the geysers straight jet, you can stand closer than any other in the park during an eruption.
Castle Geyser (Upper Geyser Basin)
Castle Geyser is so named because the water erupts from a cone shaped like the ruins of some medieval fortress. It is very old, estimates saying anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 years, in fact.Over time the cone’s shape changes because of the layers of mineral deposited in successive eruptions. Its 12 foot high cone is quite striking and experts say it would need that many years to form. It erupts between 9 and 11 hours, with a jet of up to 90 feet. There’s 20 minutes of water spray, and then 40 minutes of steam eruption following. The first 10 to 15 minutes of the steam phase is relatively forceful and fairly loud and interesting to hear. A fun fact is this geyser used to be extremely unpredictable, but after an earthquake in 1959, it changed to the constant timing it has now.
Clepsydra Geyser (Lower Geyser Basin)
Named for an ancient Greek water clock, due to its regularity, the Clepsydra Geyser is in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone. Shooting 200°F water up to 40 feet, this geyser has been constantly and consistently erupting from four vents since 1959. During the 1800’s it’s intervals were almost exactly 3 minutes. Two types of eruptions characterize Clepsydra. The constant splash-type eruptions from the highest vents send jets of water and steam 10-15 feet in all directions for about three minutes. The more powerful eruptions called “wild phase” activity send steady jets 20-40 feet from all four vents for three to six hours. Clepsydra discharges nearly 675 gallons per minute.
Cliff Geyser (Black Sand Basin)
In the Upper Geyser Basin, an area called the Black Sand Basin is where you’ll find the Cliff Geyser – perched on the edge of Iron Spring Creek. It has a cliff-like cone and common, but unpredictable eruptions. This geyser is famed for its unusual spot, right next to a beautiful and serene creek. You’ll know the geyser is about to blow when the crater nearly fills with boiling water. Then, a up to 40 foot high jet of water will emerge.
Echinus Geyser (Norris Geyser Basin)
If you love the Fourth of July, you’ll love the fireworks-like explosion of the Echinus Geyser. It’s large pool slowly fills with water prior to an eruption. When the eruption begins each burst is different from the others, some reaching heights of 125 feet. After an eruption the basin drains producing a whirlpool and a gurgling which sounds as if the stopper from a bath tub had been pulled. The waters in Echinus Geyser are acidic (verging on a pH of 3.3 to 3.6, on par with orange juice and soda, making it more acidic even than acid rain), which is an extreme rarity in the world of erupting thermal features. The spines surrounding the geyser may have led to its name, as “echinus” refers to a type of sea urchin. It is colored by a light red-brown iron oxide.
Up until 1997 this geyser was a hit in the park, erupting every hour, but it has noticeably slowed in both frequency and size. For the past few years eruptions have been quite rare. The major eruptions were believed to be caused by a secondary water source which has mysteriously vanished. Like other geysers and hot springs, Echinus Geyser can change without warning, and is subject to many unseen changes and forces underground.
Great Fountain Geyser (Lower Geyser Basin)
Great Fountain Geyser is located in the Lower Geyser Basin on the Firehole Lake Drive. It is the only major geyser you can see from the road, and while sitting in your car, so that fact is helpful in bad weather. One of the star’s of the Lower Basin, this fountain-type geyser erupts for almost an hour straight, every 8 to 12 hours. It was one of the first discovered in the park, in the late 19th century. The intricately terraced sinter cone is 150 feet in diameter with a 14×20 foot crater. Eruptions begin about one hour after the crater fills and the first overflow spills onto the terraces. Great Fountain’s maximum height ranges from about 75 feet to over 220 feet. While this pattern of behavior is observed most of the time, there are occasional episodes of so-called “wild-phase” activity during which the eruptions are of greatly extended duration and intervals between eruptions may be as long as three days.
Great Fountain Geyser sits in the middle of one of the prettiest sinter formations in the park. The sinter forms a series of terraced concentric reflecting pools around the geyser. Even if the geyser isn’t erupting, it is worth driving past to see the pools.
Lion Geyser (Upper Geyser Basin)
The lion geyser is actually part of the Lion Group, a set of four geysers (Lion, Lioness, Big Cub, Little Cub) in the same vicinity and when viewed from the south resembles a body and maned head of a reclining lion. Preceding an eruption is a sudden rush of steam, like the roaring of a lion.
Old Faithful (Upper Geyser Basin)
Discovered in 1870 by the Washburn Expedition, Old Faithful geyser was named for its frequent eruptions — which number more than a million since Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872. It is not the tallest or the largest geyser, but it is the most popular in the entire world. Why? Its regularity and high frequency of eruptions. Old Faithful erupts with such regularity because it is not connected to any other thermal feature in the park. The prediction of when Old Faithful will erupt is dependent on the length of the previous eruption, but a safe bet is between one hour to two hours, with the average being 75 minutes.The rangers say that 90% of their predictions are within +/- 10 minutes. Eruptions last a maximum of five minutes, and water sprays up to 140 feet and spews up to 8400 gallons. The water heats at about 200 degrees, with the steam heating at a whopping 350 degrees! The geyser erupts 20 times per day, so you don’t have to wait long to see the show. Viewers see the geyser from the boardwalk sitting about 300 feet away. Here’s a fun fact: Old Faithful, upon being discovered, was used by the explorers as a washing machine! The clothes erupted washed and unharmed (unless it was wool, those were ripped to shreds). The historic Old Faithful Inn (1903–04) is one of the country’s great national park lodges; Old Faithful Lodge (1918–28) and other vintage buildings are also in the vicinity. In 2010 Yellowstone park officials opened the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. The facility provides park visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the geology, hydrothermal properties, and scientific study of Old Faithful and other hydrothermal features in the park.
Riverside Geyser (Upper Geyser Basin)
The Riverside Geyser, next to the Firehole River at the base of a wooded hill, often forms a rainbow after erupting, as in the picture above, due to its strategic location and angle. A picturesque, cone type geyser that blows approximately every six hours for twenty minutes and reaches jet heights of 75 feet with a steam phase following. The geyser formation looks like a chair and has two vents on either side, but it erupts only from the lower vent. Visitors can watch the eruption from the other side of Firehole River.
Steamboat Geyser (Norris Geyser Basin)
Steamboat Geyser, in Yellowstone National Park’s Norris Geyser Basin – the world’s tallest currently-active geyser.
We won’t bury the lede – Steamboat Geyser has only erupted fewer than ten times in the last twenty years. What makes it remarkable is when it DOES erupt, the stream reaches heights of almost 400 feet in the air! Plus, it sounds like a massive steam engine during the explosion, so it was named for a steamboat. It is the tallest active geyser in the world. In Yellowstone National Park’s recorded history, only two other geysers have exceeded Steamboat in size: Excelsior Geyser in Midway Geyser Basin and Sapphire Pool in Biscuit Basin.
White Dome (Lower Geyser Basin)
White Dome is a very old geyser as its 20 foot high cone suggests. Eruptions occur thru a 4 inch wide vent and reaches heights of 30 feet. It erupts quite regularly, at around 15 minutes. The name is descriptive of the white-colored deposits found in the area. The sinter cone, built upon an older hot spring mound, is 20 feet high. It may not be around forever as continued internal deposits may seal it up. Although not has heralded as its neighbor, the Great Fountain Geyser (see above) many millions of visitors are wowed by its performance as they wait for the Great Fountain Geyser to erupt.
Now that you have an outlook at the best Yellowstone geysers, please consult the official Yellowstone National Park website to plan your trip properly to ensure you hit all the ones we’ve listed. Also, stay in a vacation rental nearby in order to save money while still having the space, privacy, and amenities you’re used to at home.