Beyond Old Faithful: A Geyser-Gazing Guide to Yellowstone National Park
The abundant geothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park expresses itself in a variety of ways: erupting geysers, steaming springs, hissing fumaroles, burbling mud pots, and the eggy aroma of gas escaping the earth’s crust (excuse you). Hit all the hydrothermal highlights—from good old Old Faithful, which unfairly hogs most of the attention, to less-renowned but still impressive displays—with our collection of Yellowstone’s crème de la steam.
But first, a word of warning: Do not venture beyond trails and boardwalks in the park’s thermal areas. Ground surfaces are unstable and water temps are scalding. Stay safe and unboiled.
For more help planning a trip to this spectacular region of the United States, check out Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, available in print and e-book editions.
Pictured above: Castle Geyser, one of the picks we'll recommend below
Closest entrance: West (11 miles)
Artist Paintpots near the Norris Geyser Basin holds a series of milky white and bluish pools alongside gurgling mud pots spitting glop several feet in the air. The 1.2-mile loop trail is refreshingly uncrowded—hike the upper portion for an elevated view over the colorful basin. Across the road from the trailhead is Elk Park, where you have a good chance of seeing a large herd of those majestic ungulates.
Closest entrance: North (26 miles)
Yellowstone’s oldest, hottest, and most acidic basin changes constantly as features go dormant, new geysers force their way up, and mineral-laden hot springs plug old tunnels. Two loop trails (0.8 mile and 1.5 mile) supply views of Porcelain Basin’s baked-white landscape and thermal displays such as the 30-foot-high Constant Geyser (whose eruptions are decidedly inconstant); Congress Pool, which might be a hissing dry vent or a boiling puddle depending on its mood; and the highlight—Steamboat Geyser (pictured above), the world’s tallest at 400 feet (though eruptions aren’t predictable). When you’re through pounding the boardwalks, learn all about the landscape at the stone-and-log Norris Geyser Basin Museum.
Closest entrance: North (5 miles)
Mammoth’s signature feature looks like a series of stairsteps frosted with chalky white trimming. Bright greens, oranges, and yellows cover some of the travertine terraces, and intricate ripples of rock glaze others. Steam rises from pools in some areas, and others resemble dry, bare, white fields. A series of interconnected boardwalks wind through the active terraces, granting an up-close look. Start with the Lower Terraces, where the boardwalk takes you past major features and then climbs 300 feet to an observation deck. Walking the whole thing covers about a mile and a half.
Closest entrance: East (27 miles)
At West Thumb Geyser Basin, you can see hot springs pouring into Yellowstone Lake as well as brightly hued pools, brownish-green paint pots, and shoreline geysers. The 0.25-mile inner loop and 0.5-mile outer loop trails are less crowded than the park’s bigger basins. The lakeside Fishing Cone geyser gained fame in the late 1800s when anglers would catch trout and then cook them, still on the line, in the spring’s hot water—a practice that is emphatically not allowed today, for health reasons.
Closest entrance: South (36 miles)
About 3 miles south of the busy Old Faithful area, you’ll find the trailhead for one of Yellowstone’s best easy day hikes, the 4.8-mile round-trip trek to Lone Star Geyser. The trail winds along the Firehole River to the geyser’s cone, where a 30- to 45-foot plume erupts every 3 hours or so. Wide meadows and sunny riverside rocks perfect for basking make waiting for the next spout more than pleasant.
Closest entrance: West (30 miles)
And now for the one you have probably already heard about. Old Faithful Geyser is not the park’s largest or most frequent eruptor, but it has remained remarkably predictable, spewing 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of boiling water up to 184 feet every 90 minutes or so. Views of the iconic geyser are excellent from the boardwalk, but an even better spot is Observation Point. The 1.6-mile round-trip trail that takes you there departs from the boardwalk on the way to Geyser Hill, past the Firehole River Bridge, and climbs 160 feet to an eagle’s-eye view over the basin. While you're in the area, don’t miss the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center for a primer on Yellowstone’s natural plumbing system.
Closest entrance: West (30 miles)
The area encompassing Old Faithful contains the world’s largest concentration of geysers. After you’ve seen the star attraction, plenty more thermal features await along the boardwalk northwest of Geyser Hill. Castle Geyser erupts from a fortresslike sinter cone about every 14 hours. Closer to the Firehole River, Beauty Pool and Chromatic Pool display brilliant rings of blue, green, yellow, and orange created by heat-loving microorganisms. And every 6 hours or so, Riverside Geyser (pictured above) shoots water and steam in an arch over the Firehole, sometimes causing rainbows.
Closest entrance: West (37 miles)
At 370 feet in diameter and 125 feet deep, Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin is one of the largest hot springs on Earth. A boardwalk leads you close to the bright blue pool ringed by striking bands of yellow, green, and orange thermophiles. But the best way to see the spring is from the overlook platform reached via a moderate, 1.2-mile round-trip hike from the Fairy Falls Trailhead. The aerial view from the top shows off the spring’s full grandeur.
Closest entrance: West (38 miles)
This 2-mile, one-way detour north of Old Faithful winds through another remarkable (and usually uncrowded) thermal area. Great Fountain Geyser (pictured above) blows water 100 feet in the air amid pulsing eruptions that last up to an hour, and White Dome Geyser erupts from a giant sinter cone built up over centuries. Stop at Firehole Lake to stroll the boardwalk along a massive hot spring circled with travertine deposits.
For our most complete resource for planning a trip, including maps and tips on the best trails and viewpoints, check out Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, available in print and e-book editions.