A Night Eruption of the World’s Tallest Active Geyser, Yellowstone’s Steamboat Geyser

On the night of July 20th, 2018, The Outdoor Society witnessed an extremely rare event above the Norris Geyser Basin. As the night sky expanded above us, we sat, watched and listened as the world’s tallest, currently active geyser, Steamboat Geyser, erupted just a short distance away. From our vantage point, we snapped pictures and watched in awe, realizing how lucky we were to see an eruption. 

Exploring Yellowstone National Park at night becomes an entirely different experience, as the landscape transforms once it is wrapped in darkness. As the final rays of the sun fade away and the heavens are all that illuminate the land of grizzly bears and bison, geysers and mountains, you never know what you might see. Parking a car at any pull off in the park at night, killing the engine, turning off all noise and light, America’s first National Park becomes a whole new world. The night of July 20th, 2018 was one of those nights, when a simple trip around the Park became a unique and amazing event. 

Our goal that evening was simple. Head into the park in the afternoon, try to catch a sunset at Old Faithful and do some stargazing on the drive back north out of the park. As we drove into Yellowstone, we crossed the park and headed into Hayden Valley in hopes for some early bison rut action. Driving through this famous prairie, we were skunked on animal sightings, missing a grizzly bear by five minutes and seeing only a few resting bison near the road. The day was off to a slow start, but that was ok, as animal watching wasn’t the goal for us that day. Shrugging it off, we headed to Yellowstone Lake for a few, stumbling upon a gloriously huge bull elk before we headed to Old Faithful. 

A huge bull elk near Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park

At Old Faithful, we parked easily in the warm summer evening, walking to the boardwalk just in time for the projected eruption time. While the Old Faithful region can be a chaotic scene during the middle of the day, the early morning and late evening hours tend to be relaxed and less crowded, parking was not an issue at all. As we sat on the boardwalk, minutes passed, the sunset began in full, and the mosquitoes started their attack. As the pretty sunset hit its peak and the light started to fade, Old Faithful finally erupted into the twilight sky above. We watched as an Osprey flew overhead, encapsulating a perfect experience at this popular and scenic Yellowstone destination.   

Hopping in the car again, we headed toward the geyser basins of Yellowstone, seeing the final burst of light out along the western horizon. We stopped here and there, taking pictures and watching the moon and Venus together above, distracting us from the constellations popping out every minute. We drove around Firehole Lake Drive, where we saw a porcupine, a few minor eruptions of geysers and more impressive night views. As we left that area, we figured that the night’s amazingness was coming to an end. We were beyond content with this, especially after seeing such amazing beauty all evening. Little did we know that a quick, random stop would make this night one for the ages.

Twilight eruption of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park
Overlooking the Midway Geyser Basin at twilight in Yellowstone National Park

The drive back through the park at night is usually uneventful, aside from the constant paranoia of bison, elk or bears jumping into the road around every corner. My eyes were working overtime and I needed a break, so once we passed the Norris Geyser Basin junction, I pulled off at the Norris Overlook and figured I would snap a few pictures and calm my nerves. As the car shut off, we heard a constant roar in our ears, confusing us, as more often than not, we are greeted with silence at pull offs after dark. Getting out of the car, we took a quick glance in the limited light toward Norris and saw one of the most rare events in the park. 

Under the half-moon light, the unpredictable and gigantic Steamboat Geyser was erupting in the distance. Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest active geyser, reaching up to 300 feet in height during eruptions. Steamboat’s major eruptions typically last from 3 to 40 minutes, followed by minutes or hours of steam. What makes this geyser so amazing is that it does not erupt on a predictable schedule, with recorded intervals between major eruptions ranging from just four days to fifty years. More remarkable is that Steamboat Geyser was dormant from 1911 to 1961. So seeing Steamboat erupt is incredibly rare, unless you happened to be here between March and June of 2018. In 2018, Steamboat had erupted 12 times, a rare burst of activity for this huge geyser, but in the 28 years before 2018, Steamboat had only erupted a total of 11 times. 

As we stood, watching and listening to the huge eruption off in the distance, we noticed lights shining on the erupting geyser from right near it. Immediately, I debated jumping in the car and driving to the geyser basin to get a first hand view of it, but passed on that opportunity so we wouldn’t miss any of it. Instead, we sat at the overlook for quite awhile, listening and watching this breathtaking event from above. I snapped a few pictures, using the light from the other geyser watchers below to shine as a spotlight for my pictures. Eventually, I picked my jaw off the ground, wiped drool from the side of my mouth and pulled myself away from the view. Realizing how lucky we were, we left the park in awe, the roar of the eruption still ringing in our ears. We were stoked to have witnessed so much in just a short period of time and this spur of the moment stop, showing a rare eruption of Steamboat Geyser, was the icing on the cake. 

The night sky and Steamboat Geyser erupting, as seen from the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
Mars (left), the night sky and Steamboat Geyser erupting, as seen from the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

Note: I am not a night sky photographer and I am aware my pictures could be much better. My medium is natural landscapes and occasionally wildlife, and I have only taken night sky pictures a handful of times. When I do occasionally take star pictures, I do try to capture what you can really see while out there, not relying on photoshop and blending together many images to form one picture. Most of the amazing night sky pictures you will see online or in galleries are stacked images (numerous pictures blended together) and do not represent anything you will ever witness with your own eyes. I believe that stacked images are an art form and beautiful, but are not a proper representation of the night sky. 


EXPERIENCE YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK WITH THIS INCREDIBLE GUIDEBOOK.

After having been to Yellowstone over 30 times in 20 years,  I have put on the miles, stopped at nearly every gas station, rest stop and scenic area from Seattle, Washington to Gardiner, Montana. I have stayed in the campgrounds, eaten at the restaurants and experienced the lodges. I know Yellowstone, I know the drive and I want to share it with you. The information I give has no hidden agenda. I want to give you the best trip to Yellowstone from Seattle as possible and this guidebook can do that.

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By Doug and Mathias on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State