You never know when Steamboat Geyser is going to spout.
Old Faithful’s predictability is the exception; most geysers give little warning when they’re about to blow. The result, of course, is a surprise steam-and-water show. And in the case of Steamboat Geyser, there’s no other show like it Earth.
It all starts with a little rumbling, 24 hours or so before an eruption. Then Steamboat surges to life, throwing a pressurized flume of water over 300 feet into the air and turning the nearby slopes into a muddy mess. Historically, the eruption lasts between 3 and 40 minutes.
But how do you know if Steamboat is active? Your best bet is to keep your ears open and ask rangers—many of whom consider seeing Steamboat a rare treat in a National Park filled with them. If you hear that it is, consider changing your park plans. Yellowstone is filled with wide mountain valleys teaming with bison, brown bear, elk herds, and wolf packs—earning it the nickname the American Serengeti—but few park sights can match the insane spectacle of Steamboat.
Here’s the good part: If you’re lucky enough to visit during an active period (it tends to erupt about once a year, though the interval ranges between four days and 50 years; the last major eruption was in July, 2013), it’s easy—and safe—to get within Steamboat’s spray zone. The .25-mile boardwalk starts from Norris Basin. Here’s the better part: Your walk won’t be for naught. Steamboat Geyser throws a minor, 20- to 40-foot eruption every few minutes. Here’s the best part: If you keep walking—turn left after Cistern Springs—you can pass through the park’s most active thermal region, featured burbling mud pots, and blue- and yellow-hued mineral-water pools.
Even if you miss the big one, there’s plenty to see and do in this don’t-miss-it geyser basin.