Old Yellowstone: History of Excelsior Geyser

If Old Faithful Geyser has all the pomp of a performance, Excelsior Geyser in its heyday had the excitement of an event.

You wouldn’t know it visiting Midway Geyser Basin today. Consisting of two large pools, Midway’s main attraction is undoubtedly Grand Prismatic Spring. But Excelsior Geyser (or rather, its crater) is the first feature you pass on the boardwalk. A steaming body of teal water running off into the Firehole River, Excelsior has been like this for most of its recorded history. For a time though, it was the largest geyser in the world

Some of its eruptions were estimated at 300 feet tall, 300 feet wide. Just imagine: a football-length sheet of water bursting from the ground, rising the length of a football field!. And imagine the sound it must have made when it hit ground again! This was the case for fortunate visitors in Yellowstone National Park between 1878 and 1890.

Postcard of Excelsior Geyser & Grand Prismatic Pool; Frank J Haynes; No date

Visitors and officials alike lavished Excelsior with praise, but its most important endorsement (in all likelihood) came from naturalist/environmental paragon John Muir. He wrote at length of Excelsior’s virtues in the Yellowstone chapter included in his book, Our National Parks:

“Near the Prismatic Spring is the great Excelsior Geyser, which is said to throw a column of boiling water 60 to 70 feet in diameter to a height of from 50 to 300 feet, at irregular periods. This is the greatest of all the geysers yet discovered anywhere.”

Muir added that Excelsior was incomparable. There was nothing in the world that could match it:

“In New Zealand, the Te Pueia at Lake Taupo, the Waikite at Rotorna, and two others are said to life their waters occasionally to a height of 100 feet, while the celebrated Te Tarata at Rotomahana sometimes lifts a boiling column 20 feet in diameter to a height of 60 feet. But all these are far surpassed by the Excelsior.”

In Muir’s recollection, Excelsior surpassed even the Great Geyser of southwestern Iceland, the spring whose real name (Geysir) inspired the name “geyser” in the first place.

At the time Muir was writing however (1898) Excelsior was already on the wane for a while. It ceased to be a regular major attraction after 1890, though the Geyser Observation and Study Association claims eruptions may have occurred in 1891 and 1901. Further, it was eclipsed by the sudden appearance of New Zealand’s Waimangu Geyser in 1901; a spectacle so unearthly even Muir had to concede it surpassed Excelsior. As suddenly as it erupted into visitors’ imagination, Excelsior settled into tranquility.

But as we know, nothing in Yellowstone National Park stays the same for long. In 1985, Excelsior Geyser suddenly resumed activity, erupting continuously for 46 hours, between September 14 and 16. Some eruptions managed to reach heights of 75 feet and 75 feet in width! And while most of Excelsior’s eruptions during this two-day period did not climb higher than 30 feet, its resurgence was nothing short of marvelous. But besides art and photographs, the only memory of Excelsior Geyser’s glory days is its crater.


Just because Excelsior doesn’t erupt regularly these days doesn’t diminish its value. Indeed, in terms of thermal features, Excelsior Geyser is no slouch. It produces approximately 4500 gallons of runoff per minute, which comes out to 6 million gallons a day. To put this in perspective, an Olympic size swimming pool contains 660,430 gallons; that means Excelsior Geyser discharges a little over nine Olympic swimming pools worth of water on a daily basis.

And of course, as the first feature that greets you as enter Midway, Excelsior produces a resoundingly massive impression.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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