Not so long ago, you’d be considered incredibly lucky to witness Steamboat Geyser blow its top. And despite a significant increase in the geyser’s eruptions, you’d still have to count yourself lucky today—the world’s tallest geyser puts on a spectacular show each time it erupts, spewing water up to 300 feet high and throwing huge amounts of mud, sand, and silica into the air. Even the steam phase that follows the eruption can last for several days.
Until recently, these dramatic eruptions generally only took place once every few years—if at all (with a few exceptions in the 1960s and '80s). But things took a drastic turn in 2018, when Steamboat erupted a record-breaking 30 different times.
The Hottest Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park
Steamboat is tucked away in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin, approximately 20 miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs. Norris holds the distinction of being the hottest and most volatile geyser basin in the park. Visitors who venture here will discover a little over two miles of vibrant thermal features dressed in sapphire blue, toxic-looking green, and fiery orange. Divided into two regions—Porcelain Basin and Back Basin—Norris is often punctuated by the sounds of hissing steam and the acrid smell of sulphur.
The Evolution of Steamboat’s Eruptions
Steamboat's eruptions have been sporadic and infrequent prior to the record-breaking year of 2018. In fact, the geyser experienced periods of complete dormancy throughout the 1990s and late 2000s. In the past year, however, Steamboat erupted on 30 different occasions—surpassing the previous all-time record of 29 eruptions in 1964. The most recent and record-breaking eruption took place on December 8, 2018.
“The heightened activity at Steamboat this year is uncommon but not unprecedented,” said Jeff Hungerford, Yellowstone’s park geologist, in a December 2018 press release. “We have seen similar activity twice previously; once in the early 1960s, and again in the early 1980s. Conversely, the world’s tallest active geyser has also exhibited years of quiescence or no major eruptions, with the longest being the 50-year period between 1911 and 1961. We’ll continue to monitor this extraordinary geyser.”
Tips for Visiting Norris Geyser Basin
Not surprisingly, the popularity of Norris Geyser Basin has shot up with visitors since the news of Steamboat’s record-breaking activity has spread. This time of year, when many of the park roads are closed to personal vehicles, visitors will need to book a snowcoach or join a snowmobile tour out of Gardiner or West Yellowstone to get to the basin. In the summer months when roads reopen to personal vehicles, visitors can reach the basin by heading in from the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana, and traveling south from Mammoth Hot Springs for approximately 20 miles. It’s a good idea to get to the basin as early as possible, as the parking area will often fill to capacity by mid-morning.
No matter what time of year visitors decide to go, it’s important to remember Steamboat’s eruptions—like most thermal features in Yellowstone—are still unpredictable. Here at the Gardiner Visitor Center, we recommend planning to stay in the area for several days and be sure to line out other attractions you’d like to see. But rest assured, if you are one of the lucky park visitors to catch a Steamboat Eruption, it's safe to say it's an experience you won't soon forget!