Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog & Trip Reports

Chasing Steamboat – An Unforgettable Experience with the World’s Tallest Geyser

“Oooooh, this might be the one!”

I lost track of how many times we had said (or thought) that in the past three days. But this time it really did look like a more substantial minor eruption than any of the previous ones. Alas, the minor eruption (or “minor” for short) fizzled out and we were left continuing to wait for a moment that we half expected would never arrive.

The day was June 10, 2022, and fellow Yellowstone Wild guide Aleska and I were on our third day of staking out Steamboat Geyser in Norris Geyser Basin. Why would we do such a ridiculous thing, you ask? Well, because simply put, Steamboat is worth it. It is the world’s tallest active geyser, with major eruptions shooting a powerful jet of water more than 300 feet into the air (the tallest on record so far was August 27, 2019, which hit a whopping 403 feet in height during the water phase).

Steamboat Geyser in steam phase, towering over the surrounding forest at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

Steamboat in steam phase, towering over the surrounding forest at Norris Geyser Basin.

However, Steamboat is completely unpredictable. For much of its life, it has been known to go several months to years between eruptions. In fact, from 1911 to 1961, it didn’t erupt a single time. For those keeping track at home, that is 50 years—half a century—of lying dormant, waiting for the perfect moment to wake up and strike again.

For reasons that are not entirely understood, Steamboat entered an unusually active phase in 2018, with 163 major eruptions between mid-March of 2013 and early May of 2023. The peak of this activity was in 2019 and 2020, with a staggering 48 eruptions in each of those two years. Since then, it has been quieting down a little, averaging a few weeks to a few months between eruptions.

There is no way to tell for sure when Steamboat will erupt, but we had been observing the geyser throughout the spring of 2022 and noticed that it was looking enticingly active in early June. With a three-day weekend on our hands, we figured we would try our luck and see if we could catch an eruption. Every morning we would head down from Gardiner to Norris before sunrise, set up our camp chairs on a corner of an observation platform, watch Steamboat until sunset, and then head back to Gardiner for a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again.

Steamboat Geyser in steam phase, positioned in front of the sun at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

One of the many minor eruptions that piqued our interest but ended up fizzling out and not developing into a major eruption.

Even with this much time and effort invested, catching a Steamboat eruption still takes a healthy dose of luck. Sure, it had been looking “good” for a week at that point, with frequent large minor eruptions that often included concerted play from both main vents. The last eruption had been on May 23, so we were closing in on three weeks since it last went.

But Steamboat can look “good” for weeks before it actually erupts. Heck, it can look “good” for weeks and then mysteriously fizzle out and not erupt for a year. Or it could erupt in the middle of the night when we’re back in Gardiner. We knew our odds were not high, but it was surprisingly enjoyable to sit in a camping chair staring at a geyser for 12 hours straight, so we didn’t mind the challenge.

As our three-day weekend drew to a close, we knew our chance was rapidly evaporating. Since we both had trips the next day, our plan for June 10 was to watch until noon and then throw in the towel and head back home to get organized for the next work week.

Around 10 a.m., things really started to heat up (metaphorically speaking). There were some outstanding minor eruptions that drew an audible gasp from many of the folks on the boardwalk. We leaned forward in our chairs, intently watching for some sign that this one would be the big one. It fizzled out again, but man was it ever feeling promising.

Over the next hour the minor eruptions started getting more frequent, more intense, and taller. Every time another minor would start, I would gaze up into the sky and wonder what it would look like if it actually blew its top for real.

“If it’s still looking like this at noon, we’re not leaving,” we told each other after an especially good minor. We both agreed wholeheartedly.

Steamboat Geyser erupts a minor eruption in front of the sun at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

Another particularly strong minor eruption told us that we might be getting close!

Around 11:15 a.m. the minor eruptions started to become almost continuous. Normally, the jets of water spurting out of the north and south vents shoot out at an angle, but now they were starting to shoot up vertically, converging over the knobbly rock between the two vents that the “Geyser Gazers”—geyser aficionados who have developed a strong culture of observers here in Yellowstone— have dubbed “E.T.” The excitement in the crowd was electric, with multiple people shouting words of encouragement to the old beast.

Another few minutes, and the intensity picked up further. My heart was pounding; my hands clenched in anticipation.

Suddenly, a huge burst rocketed up a few dozen feet into the air.

“YEEEEEEESSSS!” This absolutely had to be it. Come on, Steamboat! You got this!

The huge burst died back down for a brief second, and then the entire geyser burst into eruption. A deafening roar of water shot skyward for hundreds of feet. It took a couple seconds for the realization to sink in that this was finally happening: Steamboat is really erupting right now!

It is hard to put into words the immense feeling of relief that swept over me: relief that this had all paid off; relief that a lifelong dream was being fulfilled before my very eyes. My hands and knees were shaking, and tears filled my eyes. It was absolutely one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed in Yellowstone.

Steamboat Geyser shoots water 300 or more feet into the air in full eruption in Yellowstone National Park.

Steamboat Geyser in water phase on June 10, 2022, shooting a powerful jet of water a few hundred feet into the air.

As the one-year anniversary of “our” Steamboat eruption approached in 2023, I thought it might be fun to go back down there and spend another day in that trusty old camping chair, watching the shadows move across the land and hoping for a repeat eruption.

Steamboat had actually been looking really good for a week or two, and I thought there was a very real possibility that it might smile upon me again exactly one year later. Sadly, Steamboat had other plans, and it decided to erupt on June 9, 2023, while I was sitting at home in Gardiner.

Rather than be frustrated I missed it by a day, I smile and tip my hat to this majestic legend. The unpredictability is what makes actually catching a Steamboat eruption so satisfying. Hopefully I will be able to see her in her full glory again someday. Until then, I will look back fondly on that incredible June morning in 2022, when the stars aligned and Steamboat played for us all.

For a complete list of up-to-date Steamboat Geyser eruptions since this blog was published please visit the National Park Service website at:

Photos and content courtesy of Yellowstone Wild Guide Rob Harwood.

Rob Harwood is the author of this blog post.

To learn more about Rob and the rest of the Yellowstone Wild team visit our “About Us” webpage.