Yellowstone National Park has more than 10,000 thermal features, including 500 geysers. But its 4.1 million annual visitors seem to fixate on only one.
During peak summer months, an estimated 2,000 people stuff into the stadium seating at Old Faithful as the park’s most predictable geyser spouts boiling water up to 17 stories high. Not 2,000 people per day, but 2,000 people per eruption. The geyser goes off every 60 to 110 minutes.
Coming to Yellowstone in Wyoming and not seeing its star attraction, however, is like traveling to Niagara and skipping the falls. “Even though it’s crowded, it’s still well worth the visit,” says Taylor Phillips, founder of Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures.
So strategize. Phillips takes clients to the end of Old Faithful Observation Trail, with smaller crowds and a “from above” view. The second-floor rooftop deck of historic Old Faithful Inn has the same benefits and a nearby coffee bar. Or reserve Room 150 in the Inn’s Old House and watch Old Faithful erupt through your window.
The best strategy of all? Visit during off-peak times — before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m. in summer, or any day and time in winter. (An average February in Yellowstone gets 32,000 visitors; July’s average is 922,000.)
With Old Faithful dutifully checked off, skip the single-file trudging around Upper Geyser Basin. Instead, drive about one hour (30 miles) north to Norris Geyser Basin.
Here, you can see the same types of thermal features — some would say better — as around Old Faithful, enjoy some personal space and maybe catch an eruption of the unusually explosive Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world. “With the adjacent, rich, riparian meadows, there’s typically better wildlife viewing,” Phillips says.
Norris is the hottest, most acidic, most changeable and most varied thermal area in Yellowstone but gets about half the visitors Old Faithful draws. Start at the 88-year-old Norris Geyser Museum, built in a style known as National Park Service Rustic and on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 2¼ miles of raised boardwalks and trails from the museum pass fumaroles; geysers; hot springs; colorful pools; boiling mud; Echinus Geyser, the largest known acid-water gusher; and Green Dragon Spring, a sulfur-lined cave filled with emerald-green boiling water that generates so much steam it looks as if the cave is exhaling smoke.
Yes, seeing Steamboat erupt during your hike is unlikely. Its eruptions vary between four days and 50 years apart. But 2018 has been an extremely active year. Between March 15 and Oct. 8, it erupted 22 times, shooting water up to 345 feet in the air for three to 75 minutes.
Wherever you head, download the Park Service’s “Yellowstone — Geysers” app, which predicts eruptions. And may the geyser gods be with you.