Faithful fans of geysers swear by the steamy show at Yellowstone
It’s a brilliant morning in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park and more than 20 people have gathered on the boardwalk to stare into a bubbling, steamy pool of mud. They’re waiting for a show. Like a dragon dozing beneath the earth’s surface, Grand Geyser is snoring and sighing, belching bubbles and puffs of steam.
“When Grand erupts, it can shoot up to 200 feet in the air — 25 percent taller than Old Faithful,’’ Bob Bailey says from the crowd of onlookers.
Tourists in windbreakers and hiking boots listen as Bailey reports over a two-way radio, “Grand has overspill.’’ After Bailey’s report, comes another, “Beehive has indicators . . . Beehive is going to go!’’
“People, if you want to see a show go to Beehive. Grand won’t be for another 45 minutes,’’ Bailey says excitedly. And the crowd is off and running with Bailey in the lead, sprinting several hundred yards down the boardwalk.
Bailey is neither a park ranger nor a scientist, but one of a dedicated number of geyser groupies who return to Yellowstone each year to watch, document, and share their love of geysers.
“We call ourselves Geyser Gazers,’’ Bailey says.
Every spring Bailey and his wife, Emily, pack up their RV and head to Yellowstone. Last year they spent 36 days in the park. On a typical day the couple will get to the basin by 7 a.m. and watch geysers for up to 12 hours.
In the spring the park roars to life — water gushes from the waterfalls along the Yellowstone River, and wildlife like bison, moose, bear, and bighorn sheep appear with newborns in tow. Geyser fans return too. Bailey estimates there are 100 to 150 regular gazers who spend multiple weeks in the park each year.
Yellowstone is one of the world’s most active geothermal sites. According to the National Park Service more than 300 geysers, or two-thirds of all geysers on the planet, are within the park’s borders. Situated on top of a former volcano, the park has all the main ingredients for geysers — water, heat, earthquakes, and plumbing (tunnels in the rock beneath). Geysers are natural hot springs that spout water and steam into the air; some geysers spout at regular intervals, but often their plumbing can be temperamental.
“The geysers change dramatically from year to year,’’ Bailey says. “In April 2008 Giant finished a three-year period where it erupted more times than in the previous 50 years. Now it’s almost dormant.’’
Bailey talks about geysers as if they’re family pets. He knows each by name and by their unique behaviors. His favorites are Grand, Daisy, Beehive, Giant, and Artemisia. Gazers like Bailey are so familiar with Yellowstone’s geysers they often know before rangers when a geyser will erupt. They frequently radio reports to the visitor centers, share information with tourists, and post observations on the Geyser Observation and Study Association website.
“Sharing the experience with others who are seeing a geyser for the first time creates wonderful memories for those of us who have seen a hundred. It’s contagious,’’ Bailey says. Although, he laments, “most people don’t get beyond Old Faithful.’’
Those who do can explore miles of boardwalk paths crisscrossing the crusty, lunarlike surface of the basin, where craters contain pools of iridescent turquoise water and cones emit sulfur smoke. Some are fortunate enough to catch a spectacular eruption.
“If you see people running, follow them,’’ Bailey advises.
Back at Beehive, a crowd has formed and the geyser is beginning to percolate. Fountains of water are bubbling up from its anthill-like cone.
“When Beehive really goes it will scare the pudding out of you,’’ Bailey says.
Beehive erupts. It blasts water more 100 feet in the air. Onlookers downwind are pelted with cold water from the plume. “Sounds like a jet engine,’’ Bailey yells, beaming with pride.
Heather Denny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.