Field Notes

Old Faithful

by JHWS GuideJun 28, 2024
Two People Stand On The Boardwalk In Yellowstone National Park To Take A Photo Of Steam Rising From A Geyser

Yellowstone and Old Faithful go hand-in-hand, almost synonymous for those who know of the region but haven’t yet visited. Old Faithful is hands down the most famous attraction within the boundaries of the park and is the most visited spot in Yellowstone!

Geothermal Features in Yellowstone

Yellowstone is famous for hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, pristine natural beauty, world-renowned wildlife, and wondrous geothermal features. Churning just below the surface of the world’s very first national park is an enormous magma chamber- the belly of the Yellowstone Volcano. This mammoth sized hotspot influences the surface and groundwater in a way that creates features like hot springs, mud pots, and geysers. There are over 10,000 geothermal features in Yellowstone, and geysers make up over 500 of them.

Geysers form when there is a chamber below ground with a restricted opening to the surface and intense heat from the hotspot. Groundwater fills the chamber and, thanks to the restricted opening, pressure builds which allows the temperature to rise well beyond boiling point. Once the pressure becomes too great, it erupts, forcing all of the water out of the chamber and out through the opening. Groundwater fills the chamber again and the process repeats. Geysers can vary greatly in size and frequency. Some are constantly erupting, while others don’t erupt for years at a time. Some are just tiny spouts in the ground, while others can reach hundreds of feet high in the air with thousands of gallons of water per eruption.

The Grand Prismatic Spring In Yellowstone National Park Shows A Rainbow Of Colored Algae

Why is it Called Old Faithful, and When was it Discovered?

Native Tribes of the region would have known about Old Faithful long before Anglo explorers, likely thousands of years prior. In the context of the history of the park, Old Faithful was discovered in 1870 during the Washburn Expedition, one of three core expeditions leading to the establishment of Yellowstone. There are accounts of previous adventurers who reported witnessing Old Faithful during the 1860s, but the Washburn expedition was the first official documented observation. It was named when the explorers realized that the eruptions were very frequent and consistent, erupting every 60-70 minutes.

Today, it is still very frequent and predictable, but it has changed over the years. Since the 1950s, the length between eruptions has increased. Now, eruptions occur on average every 94 minutes plus or minus 10 minutes. This change was incremental over time, increasing after each earthquake event. There are major and minor eruptions which determine whether the next one will be slightly earlier or later. Old Faithful shoots up to an impressive height that can vary between 100-180 feet, averaging out between 130-140 feet high. The duration lasts anywhere between 1.5 to 5 minutes, depending on if it is a major or a minor eruption. Every event dispels anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 gallons of water!

Despite the change in its regular schedule, it is still considered very faithful for a geyser! Despite its fame, it is not the highest geyser, nor the most frequent geyser, nor the most predictable geyser in the park. There are others that are taller, like Beehive Geyser. Clepsydra Geyser beats it in both frequency and predictability. What makes Old Faithful special is that it is the most frequent and predictable for such a tall geyser.

Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

Visiting Old Faithful

Because Old Faithful is the most popular place in the park, the area has become built up over time. Right next to the geyser is the Old Faithful Inn, which is a sight to behold in itself even if you are not staying there. The Inn, one of the largest log structures in the world built in 1904, encapsulates the origins and the spirit of Yellowstone National Park. There are other amenities such as gift shops, restaurants, and other lodges on the premises. Known as the Upper Geyser Basin, it is an extremely thermally active area stretching over two square miles. There are many other geothermal features to observe along the boardwalks that weave through the landscape, particularly geysers. The Upper Geyser Basin is home to 25% of the world’s total geysers!

Timing your visit can be helpful in keeping the rest of your day on schedule. Depending on how much time you wish to spend in the area, you may want to look ahead to see when the next prediction is. You can do this by calling the Old Faithful hotline or by utilizing apps online. Remember, it can go off ten minutes before or after the predicted time. If you’re in a time crunch, arriving just after an eruption has occurred can set you back quite a bit if you wish to see the next one, but luckily there is plenty to do in the area. Making this one of the first stops on your adventure can help you structure the rest of your day, and the morning sees far less crowds than the afternoon.

Best Way to See Old Faithful: Yellowstone Tours

By taking a guided tour of Yellowstone, you don’t have to worry about the routes, parking, or timing your arrival to see an eruption. Your experienced guide not only knows the best way to witness it, but they can tell you so much about the geyser and history of the area, answering whatever questions you might have! Depending on your itinerary and how much time you wish to spend in the park, we have a couple of options:

Yellowstone Full Day Tours

For a park that sprawls 2.2 million acres, you can see a lot of it in a day with us! Starting off from Jackson, you will be picked up from your lodging by your personal guide for the day. You will travel through beautiful Grand Teton National Park on your way to Yellowstone early in the morning. We start early so that we can pack in as much as possible, and these are the prime time hours in the day to encounter wildlife. Once in Yellowstone, our route consists of the lower loop of the park. The road system is a figure-8, the upper loop and the lower loop roads covering the park’s interior. Traveling the lower loop, we will see many highlights like geothermal basins, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and Hayden Valley. One of these highlights will of course be Old Faithful! Your guide will time and organize your visit to the geyser so that you get the best experience with it that allows for ample time for everything else.

Yellowstone Multi-Day Tours: 2-Day and 3-Day

If you wish to spend more time in the park and would like to explore at a slower pace, a multi-day tour is a fantastic choice. Day tours cover a lot of ground and see so much, but things keep moving in order to return to Jackson by evening. With multi-day tours, you can see more of what interests you and spend more time at each spot. Explore the boardwalks around the upper geyser basin and see Old Faithful erupt more than once, from different angles and different lighting. Additionally, you will be able to take advantage of more dawn and dusk hours in prime wildlife habitats for the opportunity to have truly wondrous wildlife sightings. Whether you choose a 2-day or 3-day tour, you will come away from your adventure with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Yellowstone as a national park and what makes it so special.

Old Faithful is certainly the most famous spectacle in Yellowstone, but it’s not the only thing that will amaze you! It’s time to take that trip of a lifetime- let us help you make it the best that it can be!