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  • Trevor Perkes

Why is Yellowstone’s Most Famous Geyser Called Old Faithful?

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Being the most famous “anything” in the world would be considered quite an honor. Being the most famous geyser in the world is without question an honor, but with this reputation comes an expectation for performance.

Old Faithful’s consistency in performance (eruptions) was the single most important characteristic that caused Henry D. Washburn, leader of the Washburn Expedition into Yellowstone in 1870, to give it the name Old Faithful. Expedition written accounts of the first encounter with this geyser talk about how it “spouted at regular intervals nine times during our stay.” Later in the account comes the reference of “the columns of boiling water being thrown from ninety to one hundred and twenty-five feet at each discharge.” It was also the first geyser given a name in Yellowstone.

My father was born in 1959, the same year that the 7.2 magnitude Hebgen Lake Earthquake, located near Yellowstone, shook the earth and in the process altered the consistency of Old Faithful eruptions. My father absolutely rejects a cause-effect relationship, though. Prior to the quake Old Faithful erupted 21 times each day. Today however, Old Faithful erupts around 20 times per day averaging 74 minutes (interval frequency is between 60-110 minutes) between eruptions. So, one could say that Old Faithful is still faithful, and consistent, and delivers on performance expectations.

What else is special or unique about Old Faithful?

1. Old Faithful geyser sits in the Upper Geyser Basin in the Southwest section of the park, the most concentrated area for geysers on planet earth with 150 geysers located in a 1-square mile area.

2. When Old Faithful erupts it shoots its hot water (around 204° F/95.6° C) from 100 to 180 feet high (average 135 feet), lasts between 1.5 to 5 minutes in length, and delivers between 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of water with each eruption.

3. Old Faithful has a little bit of a colored past in that military personnel stationed in the park during its early years used the hot water geyser to do their laundry. Certain clothes it cleaned quite well, and other fabrics were thrashed in the process.

4. With the geyser being such a draw for most park visitors, the Old Faithful Inn was constructed during the winter of 1903-1904 by 1,500 craftsman. Its rustic architecture inside and out provides a truly iconic experience for all visitors.

What are the best places from which to watch Old Faithful erupt?

Some people like to join the crowds and watch Old Faithful erupt form the wooden boardwalk that bends around the established perimeter of the geyser, placing them about 105 yards (96 m) away from the geysers cone. I prefer to take the trail that leads to Observation Point, an overlook area that is approximately 150 feet higher than the geyser. If you really want a treat, take the hike in the early morning hours for a beautiful view of several steam vents rising throughout the geyser basin, and for a very different and spectacular view of the Old Faithful eruption looking down upon the area.

Other enjoyable and relaxing locations from which to watch Old Faithful erupt are the Old Faithful Porch or its 2nd level balcony, or from the Old Faithful Lodge. Each of these allows you to comfortably sit back in the chairs, enjoy a cold or hot beverage, and watch Old Faithful do its eruption thing.

Also, you can watch Old Faithful erupt live and in your own home by accessing the Old Faithful Webcam, compliments of the Eyes on Yellowstone program funded by Canon USA, Inc. through a grant to Yellowstone Forever.

When are the best times in the day to watch Old Faithful erupt?

Here again the preference of the individual determines the best time of day to watch the eruption. If you don’t want to contend with the crowds then visit Old Faithful in the morning hours before the bus tours begin arriving at noon, or after 6:00pm when the busses and most visitors leave the area. The cool morning hours also seem to intensify the effect of the hot water as it shoots upward, and the rising of the sun for the day makes a memorable occasion.

Can you only watch Old Faithful during the summer season?

No. While the roads to Old Faithful are closed to regular vehicle travel during the winter months, snowmobiles and motorized oversnow vehicles called snowcoaches take park visitors directly to Old Faithful during the winter season. To accommodate winter visitors that want to stay overnight, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays open during the winter.

How can I learn about when the next Old Faithful eruption is predicted to occur?

Located in the Old Faithful Visitor Center is the prominently displayed Geyser Eruption Prediction Sign. The next predicted Old Faithful (as well as other geysers) eruption time is listed and constantly updated with each anticipated next eruption time posted when an eruption has just been completed.

Is Old Faithful the biggest geyser in Yellowstone?

No, the distinction of the biggest (shoots water the highest) geyser in Yellowstone belongs to Steamboat Geyser located in the Norris Geyser Basin. In fact, it is also the tallest active geyser in the world. When it erupts, which is very infrequently, it shoots water upwards of 300 feet (91 m). The history of Steamboat geyser eruptions show that it may sit silent for months and even years between eruptions. It also has had times of 30+ eruptions in a given year decades ago. 2018 was a unique year for this geyser as three major eruptions occurred in the span of 6 weeks during the summer season in the park. So, it comes down to a game of luck. May it be your good fortune should you venture to visit Steamboat geyser on your next visit to Yellowstone National Park.

A final comment about Old Faithful

The intervals between eruptions is gradually, yet very slowly, getting longer and the National Park Service believes that small earthquakes, of which Yellowstone National Park experiences between 1,000 to 3,000 per year, may be a contributing factor to this trend as the quakes can alter the underground water system structure of geysers.

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