By Sarah Amador
Where can you go in the world and find yourself surrounded by award-winning wineries, in the middle of a dormant volcano, and at a ringside seat to a geyser that shoots 100 feet into the air? If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s the Old Faithful Geyser of Calistoga.
Geysers are rare, as there are only about 1,000 in the world. Half of them can be found in Yellowstone National Park and many are located in New Zealand’s Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. And one of them is right here in Calistoga!
During Thanksgiving vacation, my husband and I visited the geyser. We left the foggy redwood groves to emerge in the northern tip of Napa Valley, a setting that I have always thought rivals northern Italy for beauty. The mountains fanned around us in a swirl of amber and golds. When we arrived at Old Faithful, the geyser was already showing signs of erupting. The steam was spraying out about 15 feet into the air.
A boy began jumping and shouting, “Dad, it’s coming! I hear it Dad!”
The kid’s excitement was contagious, so I stepped closer. He was right. Bubbles were forming at the geyser mound, popping like bubbles in a jacuzzi. Then there was a gurgling and the smell of sulfur. I was already a safe distance away, but now I backed up more. A minute later, Old Faithful expelled a stream of 122-140°F hot water 30 feet into the air! A rainbow formed near the side of it and arced out across the pond.
During the rainy season, the geyser erupts more often. It’s been rainy, so we saw it shoot up four times during our visit. We stayed for about an hour and half, and the geyser never stopped for long. The highest eruption reached about 50 feet.
Normally, the geyser will erupt every thirty minutes. It is because of this faithful regular eruption that this Calistoga geyser has earned the distinction of “old faithful.” Only two other geysers in the world have been given this title.
My husband and I wandered the property, reading signs which informed us that we were standing in the center of a once active volcano. This volcano has been dormant for more than 3 million years, ever since it it exploded during the Pliocene Period. When you’re in the heart of wine country, you don’t expect to see lava rocks, but we did. We also saw an ash flow, the same kind we saw when we visiting the Petrified Forest. In fact, it’s partly due to the minerals brought forth from this volcanic activity that makes the wine in this area so good.
It was mind-boggling to imagine what was happening under my feet. Two miles under us lay a giant cavern. At that very moment, the cavern was filling with water from an underground river, water that had been flowing over hot rocks heated by magma until it reached 350°F. When the cavern fills with hot water, the water boils and expands, creating tremendous pressure. That’s when steam and water finds a way through the fissures and fractures just like steam finds its way and pushes up through the spout of a kettle.
We found a private cabana with a view of the geyser and sat down to a picnic. Over fruit and chocolate we pondered the watery phenomenon that kept erupting in front of us, while savoring the view of Mount Saint Helena and the expanse of fall colors across the mountains. The Adironack chairs were comfortable and we basked in the warmth of the sun.
After we were full and warm, it was time for more exploring. We passed a therapy pool once used by visitors to benefit from the water’s healing properties. Next we followed signs to the museum. Even though the museum was being renovated, there was still plenty to learn. We discovered more about the earth we stood on and how Mount Saint Helena got its name. We saw the seismographs that proved the Calistoga geyser’s ability to predict earthquakes. Many studies have been conducted regarding this connection, perhaps the most prestigious by the Carnegie Institute of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In fact, according to the Old Faithful Geyser of Calistoga’s manager, the geyser predicted the 6.0 earthquake in Napa this last summer. The day before the earthquake, the geyser started behaving strangely, only erupting every two hours. Old Faithful Geyser of Calistoga called USGS to report it that day. During the next few days, the geyser continued its strange behavior, sometimes erupting every 20 minutes, and sometimes not for an hour.
A trip to Old Faithful also offers guests an experience at the petting zoo. We crossed the new courtyard with a central fountain to feed famous Tennessee Fainting Goats (thankfully, they did not faint), marvel at how four-horned sheep manage to eat, and held staring contests with the llamas. For the first time, I fed a baby goat and felt her tongue on the palm of my hand! Too cute for words.
Visiting hours at Old Faithful are from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, seven days a week, no appointment necessary. (Spring and summer hours are longer.) Picnics are encouraged and there are plenty of comfortable spots to unwind. If you’ve collected a bottle of wine along the way, the staff says, “bring it on in.” A visit to the geyser is a great treat for families or romantic dates. In the summer, live music is offered in the evenings and the geyser is lit up by spotlights.
Cost is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors (55+), $8 for children (4-12). Children ages 3 and under are free. You will find Old Faithful at 1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga. For more information, visit www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com or call (707) 942-6463.