They come by the millions each year, throngs of folks like you or me, from all across the country, from all around the world. They flock to the boardwalk that encircles this, the most famous natural fountain on Earth. Every hour and few minutes, Old Faithful puts on its command performance—just often enough so that if you miss it you can take the kids for ice cream, shop for postcards and film, and be back in time for the next show.
The geyser clears its throat, coughs a couple of times, then gushes steam and scalding water high into the air, then higher yet, forming a graceful plume that the wind fans out into sheets of mist. After a few minutes and several thousand snapshots, Old Faithful dies down until all that remains of it is a steaming hole in the ground.
If you come here thinking that once you’ve seen Old Faithful you’ve seen Yellowstone National Park, think again. Consider, for starters, that within an easy walk of Old Faithful, within the so-called Upper Geyser Basin, lies the greatest concentration of geysers and hot springs on the planet. And this is only one of many geyser basins in the park, which combined contain more than 400 geysers, perhaps three-fourths of all the geysers on Earth. All told, the park has some 10,000 thermal features of astonishing variety, form, and beauty.
Add to this stunning waterfalls, one of the largest mountain lakes in North America, an extraordinary canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon for color and beauty, and a wealth of animal life that makes a drive through Yellowstone seem like a safari.
Early visitors to the park often colored their descriptions of the steamy, sulfurous terrain with references to the devil and hell. Today, the atmosphere seems less underworldly than otherworldly. Steam hisses up from vents in the crusty earth. Scalding water gushes unexpectedly from pools and mounds and cracks. Vapors rise from azure pools, and bacteria and algae growing in the runoff add touches of orange, yellow, brown, and green. Puddles of mud bubble and blurp and spit. The pungent odor of sulfur stings your nostrils. If not for the familiar lodgepole pines that blanket most of the park, you could easily imagine that you’re on another planet. In places, Yellowstone is just that strange.
Yellowstone lies atop a geological “hot spot.” Thousands of years ago, an eruption that dwarfed that of Mount St. Helens ravaged this area, leaving behind a huge collapsed volcanic crater within the boundaries of the park. Not terribly far beneath your feet here lies molten magma, whose heat creates the thermal features found throughout Yellowstone. Most of these features are concentrated in the western side of the park.
In the northwest part of the park lies aptly named Mammoth Hot Springs, an ever-changing landscape of steaming, dripping terraces. The fragile mineral deposits, sugary white and cupping lovely aqua pools, get my vote as the most beautiful formations in the park. But equally enchanting are the exquisitely tinted hot springs found all over Yellowstone, with names like Chromatic, Beauty, Emerald, and Morning Glory, and colors to match. Midway Geyser Basin contains the largest single hot spring in the world, Grand Prismatic Spring, more than 370 feet across.
Beauty of a more conventional sort dominates the eastern part of the park, but even here, Yellowstone adds its own twist to things. The frigid waters of vast Lake Yellowstone are bordered in places by steaming hot springs. The yellow-hued, thousand-foot-deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River looks as though it could have been painted by an artist’s brush, so wildly and richly colored are its walls. It also contains two gorgeous waterfalls, which can be viewed from numerous vantage points along both sides of the canyon, some a short walk from your car, others a short but invigorating climb down into the canyon.
Even with all this splendor about, by all means do visit Old Faithful. If you can, view it from different spots and at different times of the day: at dawn, when the heavy steam condensing in the cold morning air blankets the geyser basin; after dark, when the sound of the eruption takes precedence over its sight. Walk down the boardwalks past Old Faithful and open your senses to the circus of wonders surrounding you. Watch Beehive Geyser blow off like a fire hydrant, Riverside Geyser arc over the Firehole River, Plume Geyser surprise you with a final delayed splurt as you pass. Listen to the sizzle of the hot pools. Smell the infernal, sulfur-scented air.
While you’re visiting the Upper Geyser Basin, be sure to go inside Old Faithful Inn, an early hotel that looks like a Lincoln Logs version of a Hyatt Regency. The original part of this frontier palace was built over a single Wyoming winter and spring from local trees and rocks, and much of the metalwork was forged on site. It established a style of rustic architecture that was adopted throughout the park system. Stand in the lobby and imagine what it was like in the old days, when tourists arrived by stagecoach from the train stations outside the park, brushed the dirt from the roads off the long “dusters” they wore to protect their dresses and suits, dined in elegance in the hotel dining room, and walked outside to watch Old Faithful erupt as we still do today.
Wherever you are in the park, keep your eyes peeled for bison, elk, moose, deer, coyote, and other wildlife. Watch for the marmots that live under the boardwalks. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a black bear; if you’ve even luckier, a grizzly bear or a wolf. You can never tell what you’ll find, or where. One morning I discovered an entire herd of bison tromping through the parking lot and past the front door of Old Faithful Inn.
To make the most of your time here, read up on the park before you visit. Don’t feel as though this will spoil the surprise—Yellowstone has more surprises than you can imagine. Heed the warnings about staying on the boardwalks, and don’t even think about feeding or approaching the wildlife. And visit the park’s many visitor centers and museums to learn more about what makes Yellowstone so strange and so special.
David Romanowski, 1998