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Calistoga, California

California's Old Faithful

California's own majestic geyser is powered by a subterranean volcano. 

Say the name “Old Faithful,” and most people think of the geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  But did you know that California has its own Old Faithful geyser?

California’s Old Faithful is located in Napa Valley near the town of Calistoga. It’s not as powerful as Yellowstone’s, but it is every bit as faithful, erupting every 10 to 45 minutes depending on the time of year and the amount of rainfall feeding the water table.

Eons ago, this part of what is now Napa Valley was a volcano. The volcano exploded in a massive eruption about 4.3 million years ago and expended much of its energy in the process. The explosion was so powerful that it flattened a grove of redwood trees about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the southwest. The trees were buried in volcanic ash and fossilized, creating the present-day Petrified Forest. The remains of the volcano continue to simmer gently beneath the valley today, creating the geothermal features and hot springs that the area is famous for.

Although the geyser is powered by natural geothermal processes, its creation was a matter of human accident. In the late 19th century a settler was drilling for a well on his land when he drilled into a natural steam pocket and the well erupted, nearly killing him in the process. What the settler thought of the new geyser he had created is not recorded.

The land was purchased in 1906 by ranchers Fran Rache and his wife Grace, and in 1916 they drilled a second well nearby, creating a second geyser. For a short time the two geysers coexisted, but they soon capped the second one, and some years later they began using it to feed a therapeutic pool that they built out of the area’s lava rock.  In 2009 the second well was put out of service and the therapeutic pool stands empty today.

In 1974 the land was purchased from the Raches by Howard Cream and his wife Olga (Kolbeck), two avid geyser enthusiasts, and the new owners continued to develop the property into the tourist attraction that it is today.  In addition to the geyser itself, the property now features a visitor center, a small geology museum, picnic grounds, and two bocce ball courts. There is also a small zoo with populations of llamas, Jacob four-horn sheep, and Tennessee fainting goats. The goats don’t actually faint, but rather they have a genetic muscle disorder called myotonia congenita which causes their muscles to freeze for about 10 seconds when they are startled or frightened.  To the disappointment of some visitors to Old Faithful, however, the fainting goats there don’t faint much anymore for the simple reason that after many years they have become accustomed to the crowds of people and nothing much startles them.

Olga and Howard divorced in 1987 and Olga Kolbeck became the sole owner of the property. She managed it until her death in 2008 at the age of 93.

The site has been the subject of geology studies by groups from the U.S. Geological Survey, U.C. Berkeley, and the Carnegie Institute, and from 1990 to 2002 there was a seismograph in use at the property to measure and document seismic activity. The geyser has been found to be at least a partial predictor of earthquakes because its eruption cycles slow down in advance of an earthquake.