One of the main reasons people visit Yellowstone is for the geysers and hot springs. Coupled with the fact that visitors also get to see beautiful nature and wildlife, this makes for an incredible amount of variety when visiting Yellowstone National Park.
It’s size, variety, and uniqueness contribute to Yellowstone being one of the most visited National Parks in the country.
In this article I’ll cover the 11 geyser basins of Yellowstone, along with their main features. My goal is to help you plan your trip to Yellowstone. You probably won’t be able to see all 11, but hopefully this article will help you choose which ones are of most interest to you.
What are geysers?
First, a little about geysers. This term is often used as a catch-all for geothermal activity. There are 5 main kinds of geothermal activity in Yellowstone. All of them require water and heat from the magma below the earth’s crust.
- Geysers. Geysers shoot water. This is caused by having a restriction, which builds pressure until it explodes.
- Springs. These are hot pools of water. The main difference between springs and geysers is the plumbing: with springs, there is not a bottleneck, or restriction, which builds pressure.
- Mudpots. These are bubbling pots of mud. They usually stink.
- Fumaroles. These are steam vents. The main difference here is they have less water than the other formations, and it burns off by the time it gets to the surface, and is released as steam. They also stink!
- Travertine terraces. These are unique to the Mammoth area, and they are ever-evolving terraces in which the water has worked its way to the surface, then cascades down the hill side.
OK, now time for the geyser basins. I’ll work North to South.
1. Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth is an incredibly popular spot because it has so much to offer: hot springs, a city, a visitor center, Fort Yellowstone, a hospital, Roosevelt Arch (a few miles North), a campground, swimming in the boiling river, and a lot of Elk hang out here.
The hot springs are among the most unique in the park. They are located on a hill overlooking the city. They are travertine terraces.
There is a very short loop road (which you can also walk) at the top of the hill. You can park there and walk to the bottom of the terraces. It’s about 1.3 miles to the bottom. There are multiple boardwalks; just wander as you wish until you get to the bottom.
We usually have a driver (someone in our group who isn’t interested in doing the walk) drop some of us off at the top, then park at the bottom and wait. Some will park at the bottom and walk up the terraces and then back down.
2. Norris Geyser Basin
Norris is the hottest part of the park. It is located closest to the magma underneath.
To me, this is interesting in that it looks like a big wasteland.
There is a northern and a southern trail. Combined, they are about 3 miles. The northern end is mostly springs. The southern side has a few interesting geysers, including the tallest geyser in the world, Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat Springs used to go off about once a year. But strangely, it has become very active in the last few years. In 2018 it went off over 30 times! In 2019, it went off over 40 times. It’s eruptions last up to two hours, and it shoots 300-400 feet hight. By comparison, Old Faithful shoots about 150 feet high.
So it’s worth a stop here; you might get lucky and see the tallest geyser in the world go off.
3. Gibbon Geyser Basin (Artist Paintpots)
This basin is quite large, but most of the geyser areas are off the beaten path. The area that people visit the most is the Artist Paintpots, which is quite small. It has a walking path that is about a mile out and back.
The area has murky springs and colorful areas surrounding the springs, along with a beautiful overlook.
4. Lower Geyser Basin
Lower geyser basin consists of a short drive on Firehole Lake Drive, in which there are at least 3 active geysers, and a short walk on the Fountain Paint Pots trail.
This area is small, but has the four main kinds of geothermal activity located within it: geysers, springs, mud pots, and fumaroles.
Firehole Lake Drive is a one-way road. Here are the 3 main geysers to look out for:
|Geyser||Erupts how often||Erupts for how long||Eruption height|
|Great Fountain Geyser||9-15 hours||1-2 hours||100-200 ft|
|White Dome Geyser||10 min-3 hours||2 min||30 ft|
|Pink Cone Geyser||9-22 hours||1-2 hours||30 ft|
Great Fountain Geyser is one of six geysers for which the park will make predictions. So check the Yellowstone App before starting off your day.
On the Fountain Paint Pots trail, you’ll see some springs and mud pots. Of particular interest is the Clepsydra Geyser, which always erupts!
5. Midway Geyser Basin
The star here is the Grand Prismatic Spring, and there are two ways you MUST see this: next to it, and from above.
To walk next to it, simply park at the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot. You’ll cross a bridge over the Firehole River, and take a short boardwalk to the edge of the spring. You’ll also walk past Opal Pool and Excelsior Spring. Excelsior empties into the Firehole River, and you can see this discharge while crossing the bridge.
When you’ve finished, get in your car and drive to the next parking lot, which is the Fairy Falls lot. This is a hike to Fairy Falls, but along the way, there is a overlook to the Grand Prismatic Spring.
To get to the overlook is less than a mile. You can continue to Fairy Falls (a hike that totals 5 miles out and back), or walk back to your car.
6. Upper Geyser Basin
This is the biggest basin of all. It’s big enough it needs to be divided into three categories.
Biscuit Basin is just a short little walk (less than a mile loop) next to some springs. The prettiest is Sapphire Pool. Jewel Geyser is also located here, and it goes off every 10 minutes (although it only lasts for a few seconds).
Black Sand Basin
This place seems to be the least visited of the three areas in the Upper Geyser Basin. BUT, that makes this a little hidden gem. We stopped here on our last visit, and it was fantastic. Ironspring Creek runs right through it, and Cliff Geyser erupts fairly frequently. It has some colorful springs and it sits close to the trees and hills.
The Old Faithful Area
Of course this is the crown jewel in the geyser world. I know of people who are Old Faithful snobs: “I don’t care for Old Faithful; It’s not even the tallest or most predictable geyser.” These people are like the people who won’t listen to the radio because it plays popular music. They listen to indie music, and know better than the rest of us.
Old Faithful is amazing. True, it’s not the tallest or most predictable. But it’s the best combination of both. There are 4 other “predictable” geysers near Old Faithful, and only one is slightly taller.
My suggestions for this area are:
- Check the Yellowstone App (the official NPS app) for expected geyser eruption times before starting your day. You may be able to time your visit here to see some geysers erupt.
- Do the audio tour provided in the Yellowstone App. Download it before your trip so you have access to it even without coverage. It will take you on a walk around the geysers and tell interesting stories about some of them.
Here are the 5 predictable geysers:
|Geyser||Erupts how often||Erupts for how long||Eruption height|
|Old Faithful||1.5 hours||5 min||110-180 ft|
|Castle Geyser||14 hours||20 min||75 ft|
|Grand Geyser||6-7 hours||9-12 min||200 ft|
|Daisy Geyser||2 hours||3-5 min||75 ft|
|Riverside Geyser||6 hours||20 min||75 ft|
7. Lone Star Geyser Basin
This mostly consists of a 5 mile (out and back) trail to a huge cone geyser. It erupts every 3 hours and lasts 30 minutes. It goes 40 feet high.
8. Shoshone Geyser Basin and 9. Heart Lake Geyser Basin
I listed these together because they are in the lower part of the park, and they are very removed from the main roads. To get to either one, you need to hike 15-20 miles round trip.
They don’t have boardwalks, and it is recommended you take an experienced guide if you go to either of these basins.
10. West Thumb Geyser Basin
This is an extremely popular area, being between Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake. You’ll see deep, colorful springs. And you get to walk on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The boardwalk is about a mile long.
11. Mud Volcano Basin
Located between Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley, this is maybe the stinkiest basin. It’s not the most scenic, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
It has some steam vents, like the Dragon’s Mouth, and a heavy smell.