Crowds of people were coming back to parking lot the moment we arrived. I still hoped for the best, but the fact was indisputable. We chose the wrong time to visit Old Faithful Geyser, one of the biggest attractions in Yellowstone National Park. The famous landmark just finished erupting. It would repeat its spectacular “show” in approximately 1.5 hours.
At this point, we had two choices. Getting back into our car and seeing nearby places in Yellowstone before attempting our next, more successful visit to Old Faithful sounded like a good alternative. Instead, we decided to stick around and wait for the next eruption. Leaving the Upper Geyser Basin without laying our eyes on the wonders performed by Old Faithful itself simply felt wrong.
Let’s Visit Old Faithful
Old Faithful is one of the most recognizable features to visit in Yellowstone National Park. Along with the Grand Prismatic Spring, the geyser entices endless crowds of amused visitors to this remote region of Wyoming every year. Majestic in size, even more spectacular in action, Old Faithful is the epitome of volcanic activity underneath the surface in Yellowstone.
The famous hydrothermal feature adorns the single most concentrated geyser basin in the world and sits next to the Old Faithful Historic District. This alone gives plenty of reasons to visit the Old Faithful area and feast your eyes on the famous eruptions. Ample other geysers along with the Old Faithful Inn and a visitor center entertain the travelers exploring the Upper Geyser Basin. One thing is undeniable. You must visit the Old Faithful area when in Yellowstone at least once.
Tons of questions, however, arise prior this trip. Is Old Faithful an ultimate destination to visit in Yellowstone National Park, after all? How big is Old Faithful and how often it erupts? When is the best time to visit the Old Faithful area? How faithful is Old Faithful?
This complete guide to the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park answers all of the questions you might have prior your visit. Furthermore, it introduces you to some other places you should explore near this world-famous hydrothermal feature. On top of that, our Visit Old Faithful guide shares some interesting facts and provides a few tips and tricks on how to stay safe when experiencing the geyser.
History of Old Faithful
Old Faithful is one of the largest and most famous natural attractions in Yellowstone. Shaking the ground and ejecting hundreds of gallons of boiling water into the air for at least more than a century, the geyser was discovered on September 18, 1870. The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition stumbled upon the huge, erupting natural wonder while traveling down the Firehole River from the Kepler Cascades.
Nathaniel P. Langford, one of the members of the group, observed the hydrothermal feature and recognized its predictable pattern. The geyser would erupt at regular intervals of time. Amused by its predictable behavior, the first visitors named it Old Faithful. The name suited the geyser and has stuck with Old Faithful up to this day. Thus, you can rest assured that if anything else goes wrong, your visit to the Old Faithful area will be somewhat predictable.
First geyser to be named in Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful has stayed faithful with its eruptions. The number of grand “shows” has reached more than a million since the northwestern area of Wyoming and small parts of Montana and Idaho became the first national park in the United States.
First, but not First
Interestingly, Yellowstone, created in 1872, was considered the first national park in the world for a long time. The latest research, however, proved it to be wrong. As turned out, Bogd Khan Uul National Park in Mongolia was created almost a hundred years before Yellowstone, making it the first protected territory in the world.
Guinness World Records, however, still gives the first place to Yellowstone National Park. Although we know it better now, it’s pleasing to relish on the fact that Yellowstone was once considered the world’s first national park. Moreover, the newest disclaimer didn’t impact the area. Nearly four million people visit Yellowstone and its biggest attractions – the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful – every year.
Reasons to Visit Old Faithful in Yellowstone
Old Faithful is a grand and mystifying site to visit in Yellowstone National Park. Yet, it’s not even the biggest geyser in the area. Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin surpasses the popular Old Faithful. With its eruptions reaching more than 300 feet into the air, the Norris’s attraction rises to fame as the world’s tallest geyser. Yet, the endless crowds visit the Old Faithful area every day, overlooking the Steamboat Geyser.
What makes Old Faithful so enticing? Does it accumulate any chemicals in the air that work like a magnet and inevitably allure the visitors?
Predictable Patterns of Old Faithful
The answer is simple. There is no magic spell and no chemicals are dispersed into the air during the eruptions. The predictable patterns of Old Faithful, however, make a visit to Yellowstone a little bit more organized. The regular eruptions help plan your itinerary and schedule your time accordingly. In a region that brims with other natural wonders, you can’t take this predictability for granted.
Wasting hours and hours to hope to see how the geysers erupt don’t suits most of the nature lovers. At the same time, even a thought of visiting one of the most famous national parks in the world without feasting the eyes on at least one geyser’s eruption is unbearable. Old Faithful brings some order and relief to your visit. It guarantees to impress with some of the most anticipated “actions” in Yellowstone National Park every hour or two.
World’s Most Popular Geyser
The predictable nature of Old Faithful certainly makes it the most irresistible place to visit in Yellowstone and the United States. Some outdoor lovers go even further and insist that Old Faithful is the most popular geyser in the world. They might be deadly right about it.
One of the Largest Geysers
Old Faithful is one of the largest regularly erupted geysers in the national park. In fact, Yellowstone’s rangers currently predict the eruptions of just 5 out of nearly 500 geysers in the area. Old Faithful lives up to its name. It has increased the time between its eruptions by only approximately 30 minutes in the last 30 years.
The Best Time to Visit Old Faithful
The best time to visit Old Faithful and the other natural wonders in Yellowstone National Park is from June trough September. During this time all roads in the park are open. Traversing from one place to another doesn’t present any challenges even for private cars. The warmer months, however, mark a massive influx of tourists. Practically, any visit to Old Faithful during this time guarantees huge crowds gathered near the famous attraction in anticipation of its next eruption.
Arriving early, though, let you secure a good spot to enjoy the astounding view of the geyser’s cone. Fewer crowds visit Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin to gaze at Old Faithful in mornings (dawn until noon) and evenings (after 6 p.m.). Around noon, tour buses flock to the area, bringing too many visitors to comfortably enjoy the geyser.
Old Faithful also sees fewer visitors at sunrise while its “performances” become even more epic due to colorful layers the sky puts on.
Although most of the roads in Yellowstone open from April until early November, colder weather during shoulder seasons keeps the crowds from visiting the Old Faithful area. Fewer people gather near the viewing platform, allowing to enjoy the eruptions from many angles without any disturbances.
The shoulder seasons (late spring and mid-September through October), however, may bring gusty winds and subfreezing temperatures. Nevertheless, it’s a small price you pay for a chance to visit Old Faithful without the maddening crowds.
Visit Old Faithful During the Winter Season
While Yellowstone National Park is more of a seasonal attraction, it’s still possible to visit Old Faithful in winter. As many roads in the area rest under snow and ice waiting for the warmer days, only snowmobile and snowcoaches can enter the park. Therefore, booking a guided tour is often the only way to visit Old Faithful in winter.
You can embark on a day adventure in Yellowstone and Old Faithful from Jackson, Bozeman, or Salt Lake City. Spending a few days with a guide based in the Upper Geyser Basin is another option to experience Yellowstone’s winter wonderland.
Yellowstone National Park takes a couple of short breaks throughout the year. It closes its doors from November until mid-December and early March until May. Winter recreation season when you can finally visit Old Faithful lasts from mid-December until early March.
Although the winter wonderland suits Yellowstone National Park, skiing on slippery boardwalk can be dangerous. Yellowstone’s rangers recommend that the visitors never rush and, if it’s appropriate, take off their skis and walk along the boardwalks. Those who visit Yellowstone and have a privilege to see Old Faithful in winter claim that it’s one of a kind experience that worth all the effort.
You can access the Old Faithful area as part of a snowcoach group or join a guided snowmobile tour. Yellowstone National Park’s guests that don’t want to give up their independence even when visiting Old Faithful in winter, need to apply for a non-guided snowmobile permit.
Location and How to Visit Old Faithful
Old Faithful peeks through a crack in the earth’s crust in the Upper Geyser Basin, in the southwest section of Yellowstone. The famous geyser sits in front of the Old Faithful Inn with a large parking lot behind it. Upon arrival, find an empty spot to park your car and walk toward the Old Faithful viewing area, located just a few minutes away.
Parking situation looks more than promising when you visit Old Faithful during the shoulder seasons. You can park anywhere you please. Luck and persistence, though, often need to be your allies when looking for an empty spot in summer or early fall.
From the parking lot, walk toward a broad pathway that runs straight to the Old Faithful viewing area. A large platform with tidily arranged benches that remind of a circus or tiny amphitheater sits at a safe distance from the geyser. If you visit Old Faithful shortly before it erupts, a large crowd of Yellowstone’s guests usually already occupies the area in anticipation of the grand “show”.
Where to Start Your Visit to Old Faithful
We were somewhat unlucky to arrive when Old Faithful just completed its eruption. The next one would follow in roughly 1.5 hours. All we could do was simply exploring the other areas and buildings at the Upper Geyser Basin while waiting for another eruption.
We didn’t check any prediction schedules posted in the area. As the previous “show” just ended, by adding a few number (a thorough prior research helped), we could “predict” the time of the next eruption on our own.
To avoid any uncertainty, though, it’s recommended to visit the Old Faithful Visitor Educational Center to find out the estimated time of the next eruption. This certainly gives peace of mind and help you plan how far you can venture from the area to make it back before the eruption starts.
Be sure to get back to the Old Faithful viewing area at least 30 minutes before the predicted time. The geyser is a living hydrothermal feature which behavior can’t be measured to a second. Often, Old Faithful erupts about 10 minutes after the predicted time. On rare occasions, however, it “performs” ahead of schedule.
How Frequently does Old Faithful Erupt?
Old Faithful erupts approximately 20 times a day, down from 21 times prior to the 1959 earthquake. Although inspiring, the number of the eruptions doesn’t say anything to the first-time visitors of Yellowstone National Park. Interval or wait time for the next “show” is all what matters. Fair enough!
On average, Old Faithful erupts about every 65 to 95 minutes, splashing an enormous amount of water into the air and the ground around it. The duration of the “performance” determines how long the visitors need to wait for the next eruption. Longer eruptions consume more water underneath the surface and require more time for Old Faithful to restore its resources and energy. Thus, the visitors need to wait longer to see the next eruption.
If the eruption lasts more than 2.5 minutes, the wait time between will be approximately 95 minutes. The wait time after a shorter eruption is about 65 minutes.
Yet, there’s always a certain degree of unpredictability when you plan a visit to Old Faithful. The famous eruptions are predicted with a 90 percent confidence rate. The remaining 10 percent reserve the right for any kind of surprises Old Faithful feels like putting on. Often, the untamed geyser adds to or subtracts 10 minute from the predicted time.
How Big are Old Faithful’s Eruptions?
Old Faithful is famous not only for its predictable nature, but also the scale of its eruptions. The famous geyser shoots a column of boiling water from 100 to 180 feet into the air. The average eruptions reach heights of 130-140 feet and last between 1.5 to 5 minutes.
The size of the eruption, however, depends of the amount of water accumulated and boiled underneath the surface. Old Faithful get its water from many sources, including precipitation such as rain and snow. The latter reach the depth of about 10,000 feet below the surface where a large magma body heats the water and forces it up through the crack in the earth.
How Much Water does Old Faithful Eject?
An enormous column of ejected from the ground boiling water is the highlight of every visit to Old Faithful. The amount of discharged liquid depends on the duration of the eruption. During a shorter, 1.5-minute eruption, Old Faithful splashes approximately 3,700 gallons of water on the ground of Yellowstone National Park. A longer eruption of approximately 4.5 minutes ensures that 8,400 gallons of boiling water reach the surface.
Regardless of the quantity of the expelled water, a visit to Old Faithful during its eruption is a sight to behold. The ejected water intermixed with thick steam depict the power and untamed beauty of the park that we ought to preserve.
On the other hand, the misty blanket surrounding Old Faithful warns about the dangerous side of Yellowstone National Park. The water temperature at the vent during an eruption can be as hight as 204 degrees Fahrenheit. The steam temperature almost doubles this number, exceeding 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Visit Old Faithful: How Faithful is the Geyser?
The view of the erupting geyser never ceases to impress. Active Old Faithful often serves as the biggest inspiration to visit Yellowstone National Park in the first place. Some geologists and scientists, however, raise concerns about the future of the geyser. The number of the Old Faithful’s eruption has decreased in response to earthquakes that shook the ground near Yellowstone National Park. Consequently, the wait time for the next eruption has increased. However, if you visit Old Faithful for the sake of just one of its eruptions, you won’t notice any differences.
Interestingly, prior to the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake, Old Faithful experienced similar eruptions more than one hour apart from each other. After the earthquake, the eruption patterns changed. Old Faithful adopted two characteristic intervals: a short and a long.
The wait time increased even more after the 1983 Borah Peak Earthquake. The eruptions spread further from each other after yet another earthquake that occurred near Old Faithful in 1998. Therefore, some people don’t dismiss the possibility of Old Faithful joining the family of dormant geysers in Yellowstone one day. If it happens, fewer tourists would visit the Old Faithful area and possibly the park.
The geyser, however, endures. And yet, similar to any other volcanic activity in Yellowstone, the eruptions of Old Faithful indicate the presence of a supervolcano underneath the surface. This unique living organism constantly changes, putting to sleep some of its parts while resurrecting the others. As for now, you can visit Old Faithful and not worry about it being unfaithful.
Calculating Predictions of Old Faithful’s Eruptions
When you visit the Old Faithful area and look at the predictions schedule, you naturally assume that the newest electronic devices do this extremely important job. Alas, the calculation methods are rather quaint. The naturalists at Yellowstone rely solely on good, old-fashioned observation, stopwatches, and log books to provide the visitors of Old Faithful with the estimated time of the next “show”.
Visit the Old Faithful Visitor Center to find the schedule and predictions. The naturalists, however, track the time, heights, and length of the eruptions only during the operating hours of the visitor center. No Old Faithful geyser’s predictions are available when Yellowstone closes its doors from early November to mid-December and from March to April.
Apart from the Old Faithful Visitor Center, you can visit the Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and other buildings nearby to get the information about the predicted time. The results are also published on the webcam page. The site along with the NPS Yellowstone Geyser app and Yellowstone’s geyser prediction Twitter feed allow you to plan your visit to Old Faithful accordingly without missing its eruptions.
Visit Old Faithful: Where Can You See It from?
You don’t need to worry or reserve a specific spot to visit the Old Faithful area and see the geyser in action. The gigantic columns of slashing water accompanied with thick mist are a sight that you can see from everywhere in the Old Faithful area. The majority of the visitors, however, prefer to watch the eruptions from the benches in the Old Faithful viewing area.
The lucky guests that just arrived can see Old Faithful in its full glory from the wide path between the parking lot and the viewing area. No running closer to the geyser is necessary.
During our visit, though, I enjoyed seeing Old Faithful from different angles. The viewing area ensures the closest look. The boardwalks that snake around the basin, however, show the geyser from different perspectives, allowing to appreciate its magnificence again and again.
Can You Predict Old Faithful’s Eruptions Yourself?
If you happened to visit the Old Faithful area when a large crowd of people heads back to the parking lot, it means only one thing. The geyser just finished erupting. In this case, you don’t even need to check the official schedule of the geyser’s eruptions. The next “show” should be in 65 to 95 minutes, plus/minus 10 minutes.
Use this time to visit other natural wonders in the Old Faithful area. But be sure to get back to the viewing area at least half an hour before your “predicted” time. Alternatively, you can linger in a place with a good view of Old Faithful while waiting for the eruption and still exploring other geysers and hot springs.
The second way to predict the eruption is by keeping a watchful eye on Old Faithful. You can register a significant change in the geyser’s behavior as it gets closer to the eruption. A few minutes (it was good 20 minutes for us) before the “show”, Old Faithful releases noticeably more steam. The thick mist forms columns and balls that surge up into the air. Use this hint as a signal to find a good view of the geyser as quickly as possible.
Those who visit Old Faithful for the first time might confuse this pre-eruption phase with the actual eruption. I surely did it. But once you see the real eruption, you can’t mistake it for anything else. The columns of boiling water are profound despite the heavy steam surrounding them.
Old Faithful keeps shooting liquid into the air for what it seems like eternity. In fact, it’s only a few minutes. The “show” is over almost as unexpectedly as it started. You might want to stick around Old Faithful for another 1.5 hours to see the second eruption from a different angle or visit other areas of Yellowstone National Park.
Can You See Animals Near Old Faithful?
Bison, bears, deer, and other animals can freely roam across the Old Faithful area, astounding the lucky visitors of Yellowstone. A thin layer of snow covers the ground around the hydrothermal features in the colder months. Still ensuring the easy access to vegetation underneath, these areas provide food for the starving wild inhabitants of Yellowstone. Predators, aware of the herbivores’ behavior, also flock to the hot springs and geysers, including Old Faithful, in search of food.
You can spot large animals such as bison near Old Faithful at any time. The wildlife is oblivious to the crowds as long as the latter don’t get closer and disturb it. Usually, the bison roam in herds. Occasionally, “loners” appear near Old Faithful to the delight of the park’s visitors.
Visit Old Faithful: Safety Tips
Stay on the boardwalks. It’s illegal to walk off the designated boardwalks when visiting Old Faithful. The thin crust of Yellowstone’s ground is not safe to walk on. Hydrothermal heat trapped underneath the surface can cause serious burns. Fatal accidents happened in the past. So, there is not need for another proof of how dangerous the ground of Yellowstone and the Old Faithful area can be.
Follow signs. You can’t stress enough how important is to follow the signs, especially when visiting Yellowstone and Old Faithful for the first time. There is a reason why these pointers and maps exists. It all comes back to the previous safely tip, but again, it’s better be safe than sorry.
Keep a safe distance from the wildlife. Although Old Faithful sees fewer wild animals compared to other sections of Yellowstone (the huge crowds of visitors might be the culprit), the wildlife doesn’t shy away from this area altogether. Thus, alway keep a safe distance. Yellowstone recommends staying 25 yards away from any animals. For the bears and wolves, increase this distance to 100 yards.
Visit Old Faithful: Interesting Facts
As some old stories go, Old Faithful was a Victoria laundry at some point. In the 1880s, soldiers placed their dirty garments in the crater during inactivity of the geyser and waited for the forceful eruptions to eject the clothes while simultaneously washing them. This technique worked well for cotton and linen fabrics. Woolen clothes, on the other hand, were destroyed by the merciless geyser.
Greater than Grand Canyon
Those who ever saw the Grand Canyon, can be puzzled how Old Faithful, this relatively small area in Yellowstone, can be greater than Arizona’s signature landmark. The geyser might be spectacular and rather petite on the surface. Underneath the ground, however, lies an untamed beast. Home to one of the largest supervolcanos, Yellowstone traps the massive magma underneath Old Faithful. If erupted, it would fill the Grand Canyon 14 times over.
Higher than a House
The massive columns of boiling water ejected from Old Faithful can reach heights greater than 18 stories buildings.
Bears Feeding at Old Faithful
Feeding bears or any other animals in Yellowstone National Park is prohibited. In the old days, however, park’s managers attracted the visitors to Old Faithful by placing trash dumps nearby. Bears helped themselves with “food” from the garbage bins to the delight of the overjoyed crowds. One of those “bear diners” in the Old Faithful area even had a wooden sign that said “Such Counter for Bears Only.”
Places to Visit Near Old Faithful
While Old Faithful is the highlight of any visit to Yellowstone National Park, the area nearby presents some other landmarks you can’t miss. Start off with the largest historical hotel and finish with a few lesser-known structures in the basin. For history and architecture buffs, we have a post about the best historic buildings in the American West.
Visit Old Faithful Inn
Located behind Old Faithful, the Old Faithful Inn is known as the largest log hotel in the world. Some people insists, though, that it’s the largest log building in the wold. The massive lodge was design by Robert C. Reamer who strived to depict and preserve the wildness and uniqueness of this area of Yellowstone in his beloved Old Faithful Inn. The structure came to life during winter of 1903 – 1904 and instantly became an example of rustic architecture that inspired many other parks’s buildings.
Fully operating up to this day, the iconic Old Faithful Inn instills awe for the natural and man-made wonders of Yellowstone. The building is nearly 700 feet long and seven stories high. The highlight of the Inn, however, is its lavish lobby with a large fireplace.
The 327-room Old Faithful Inn is open for all visitors of Yellowstone National Park. Room rates, as you can expect, are out of budget travelers’ reach. Yet, anybody can enter the lobby, admire the decor, and dine at hotels’ restaurants.
Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
Besides the predictions of the Old Faithful’s eruptions, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center offers numerous exhibits to help you with history and geology of Yellowstone. Derived from century-old documents and ongoing research, the center’s collections narrate about park’s history, its famous hydrothermal features, life and wildlife in this extreme environment.
The Young Scientist exhibit room with its geyser model and hand-on exhibits intrigues the youngest guests of Yellowstone. Educational classes and groups are also available. Ranger-led programs, usually conducted in the evenings, enhance your visit with entertaining stories about the hydrothermal features, including Old Faithful itself.
Visit Old Faithful Snow Lodge
Nestled a few hundred yards away from the historic Old Faithful Inn, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is open from mid-December until early March. The place is smaller than the world-famous Inn. Nevertheless, it makes a winter visit to Old Faithful and some other areas of Yellowstone National Park possible and quite comfortable.
Visit Other Centers
A building with a few small offices sits across the west parking lot in the Old Faithful area. Less popular than other structures in this part of Yellowstone, it includes a ranger station, backcountry office, and clinic. The office of the district naturalist and the district library also clusters in the same building.
Hydrothermal Features Near Old Faithful
Home to Old Faithful, the Upper Geyser Basin is known as the most density concentrated geyser area in the world. It contains more than 150 geysers along with various groups of hot springs. This abundance certainly asks for some exploration before or after the Old Faithful’s remarkable “shows”.
Visit Old Faithful: Admission
Admission fee to the Old Faithful area is included in Yellowstone National Park pass. The pass costs $35 and is valid for seven days. If you plan to return to Yellowstone National Park within the same year, you are better off purchasing Yellowstone National Park Annual Pass ($70 ) or America the Beautiful pass ($80). The latter allows you to visit all national parks in the United States within the same year.
TIP: If you’re looking for more information for your upcoming trip to Yellowstone National Park, please check out these guides.
- 10 Things You Must See on Your First Visit to Yellowstone
- Visit Grand Prismatic Spring (The Ultimate Guide)
- Visit Midway Geyser Basin (Beyond Grand Prismatic)
- A Weekend Guide to Yellowstone National Park
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