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Old Faithful

Yellowstone – Old Faithful Geyser Basin

The Old Faithful geyser basin is much more than its famous namesake – it’s a vibrant circus of spouts and pools, the largest concentration of geysers in the world. While Old Faithful itself erupts to a height of 140 feet every 90 minutes or so, the area hosts a number of other famous players, notable for the length or height of their eruptions and the widely-varying frequencies. Observers can make fairly accurate predictions of the time of the next blow by marking the time and volume of the last eruption. These are the folks walking around with notebooks, and their estimates are posted on the prediction board at the visitor center.

We woke up early that first morning and bundled up – t-shirt, fleece pullover, fleece jacket, windbreaker, hat, gloves. That’s Memorial Day weekend at 8000 feet.

Getting an early start at Old Faithful is a mixed blessing – you get the place pretty much to yourself and the fog and light is unworldly, but the flipside is that all the fog and unworldly light mess with the sights themselves. Morning is not the best time to visit Morning Glory pool. Try later in the afternoon when the shadows clear.

Grand, Pt. 1

As we puttered about in the fog of Geyser Hill we could hear a constant whumping and splashing coming from the direction of a tower of steam. We got to Grand Geyser just as a small early-morning crowd began to disperse. We asked a woman with a notebook what happened, and if we just missed it. Sure enough the racket we’d heard was Grand going off – one of the basin’s best, and yes we’d just missed the thing. It sits idle for about ten hours between eruptions.

We were told it wasn’t a great show, too much steam to see. We believed it – neighboring View Geyser continued to billow curtains of vapor, obscuring pretty much everything around the pool. Still, we just missed a big one.

Dejected, we slouched off to take in the rest of the lower basin.

My favorite feature in that part of the basin is probably Grotto Geyser, weirdly-shaped and constantly churning.

One aspect that surprised me was the varied sounds of the geysers, the way they mutter in between blasts. Grotto sounds like wild surf from one side, like a huge pasta kettle from the front. Giant Geyser sounds like the Devil’s washing machine. Some spatter, others gurgle. One pond near Norris sizzles like a pan of bacon. I need to go back with some high-end recording gear, maybe a semi-pro digital video setup.


We strolled as far as the little boardwalk spur at Morning Glory pool, then turned back with thoughts of breakfast starting to cloud our vision. Far across the open ground a tourist enjoyed an Oblong Geyser eruption – he had the geyser to himself. For a split second we contemplated running across the no-man’s-land between the boardwalks… must have been the hunger talking. Instead we hung a right to visit Daisy, another one of the park favorites. This one sits idle for about 4 hours in between 75-foot blasts.

There was a good bit of splashing at the cone – the book said this “play” is an indication of the geyser about to erupt. We waited. We looked at each other and walked around the clearing to the upwind benches. Sat and waited some more. I pulled out my notebook and scratched out what we’d seen so far that morning. My hands were pretty cold.

After about ten minutes we gave up and walked down to the path back to Old Faithful. A wet hiss drew my attention back uphill.

“Melanie, it’s going.” This was the first time I’d ever had to announce an eruption. I need to work on a new catch phrase.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE IT” she replied – half excitement, half exasperation.

We clomped back up the boardwalk and had the 9:20 eruption to ourselves. This made our entire day.

After breakfast and a shower I took my notebook and iPod out to the basin to catch up on my travel notes. I caught one healthy Old Faithful blast, but not before I overheard a field trip chaperone order her students to use their “six-inch voices.” I snorted. She heard me. Shoulda used my five-inch snort.

I took my notes and met Melanie at the next Old Faithful eruption. By this point we were inside the four-hour Grand Geyser blast window and we hurried off with the same anxious stride we employed after Steamboat blew.

Grand, Pt. 2

This time around there were dozens gathered at the benches surrounding Grand. The activity of nearby Turban Geyser tends to announce a Grand blast – Turban will bubble for a few minutes then go quiet, and at the end of four or five cycles Grand will go off. A group next to us would eagerly relay Turban sightings – “T-4!” – via walkie-talkie to a wisecracking friend we never saw.

There was a lot of talking out there in the bright afternoon sun, much of it about getting Target-quality goods at Wal-Mart prices.

A dude on the next bench dropped his map into the basin. He made no effort to retrieve it. Melanie muttered something about looking for a stick, either to retrieve the map herself or knock the dude’s block off. The guy who got the cheap Target gear began to recount a recent car accident.

I just wanted everybody to shut up so I could think.

Melanie gave up and sat down at nearby Spasmodic Geyser, which had suddenly begun agitating. I stepped to watch teenagers on a school trip get sprayed by Tardy Geyser. One of the boys asked – to nobody in particular – if “this [was] the rear end of the Earth.”

Another student shouted that Grand was erupting. Dozens of adults and children scrambled back up the boardwalk to rejoin the crowd at the benches.

The eruption lasted a good ten minutes. It was worth the wait.