Jul 30, 2017
by deTraci Regula
Since first coming to Geyserville as a visitor many years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the story of these mysterious sulphurous “geysers” somewhere beyond Geyser Peak and I yearned to see them, or at least what is left of them. Along with local author Arisa Victor, I joined up with the rest of our tour group at the Oriental Hall parking lot here in Geyserville and boarded a bus that usually spends its time transporting wine tasting groups to various wineries. Today, it was ready for a more adventurous journey. The road to the Geysers geothermal steam field is sixteen miles of beautiful back country, first traveling through quiet vineyards and then through an abundance of many different types of trees lining the route. Periodically, as the road climbed higher and a sudden break in the trees would show a distant vista, I could sometimes pick out in the distance the large eucalyptus tree which rises up from the southwestern part of Isis Oasis Sanctuary. Most of my attention was spent on the pine trees and other species. At moments, the road became bumpy and dropped down to a single lane. Our guide,Brian Benn, who has worked at the Geysers for about thirty-four years, regaled us with tales of the road’s turbulent past. Local bandit “Black Bart” twice robbed the stagecoach that used to travel over this road, carrying rich tourists up to the Big Geysers Resort. Not much remains to show where the hotel once stood – a few large low stones along the side of the road marks the old entrance just before the guardhouse which grants rare access to the geothermal installations beyond.
Many of the other participants on our bus knew Calpine workers and asked which plants were which, so they could tell their friends they had sighted “their” plant. Our first stop showed us some of the transmission system which consists of metal pipes winding over the ground, leading from the steam wells which were drilled here to take advantage of a huge 60-cubic-mile steam field, originally holding and heating trapped seawater from millions of years ago, eventually becoming part of this mountain range through the magic of plate tectonics as edges of the continents slowly crash into each other, ever so slowly. Then, a few steps down the road, the “original” geysers could be observed along a stream lined with dark green plants, a rare pannicum species that only grows at the Geysers.
Turns out that the “geysers” never were geysers – that was either a geological terminology mistake or, perhaps, a shrewd move to build interest in the area by the western discoverer of the phenomenon, William Bell Elliott. The correct term is fumarole. While in some of the fumeroles water gathers in a hollow and bubbles, they are not going to suddenly spew into the sky like a classic geyser. And the bubbles are largely escaping gases from beneath the water, not evidence of boiling. A more than a century old pamphlet I have in the Isis Oasis archive describes each fumarole with a fanciful name and describes the differences in the waters from each. I tried to match what I was seeing with what was described, but time has taken its toll and the landscape itself has changed. One of the more prominent fumaroles Brian said was relatively recent and would not have been seen at the time of the greatest popularity of the Geysers. At that time, the Geysers were a popular tourist destination, with a complicated regular route involving a ferry and several changes of coach to make it up the mountain. Possibly Elliott was not so interested in drawing visitors to the Geysers, as he also called them “The Gates of Hell”. But what is left is definitely not ominous. Some outcroppings nearby are actually a cheerful pink and white, the end result of the mineral-rich steam gradually transforming the stone above. Even the miles of modern piping don’t overwhelm the power and beauty of nature on the mountain. But personally, I would love to see easier, more continuous access to our famous geysers and for the related hot springs to be restored for the enjoyment of the public in some way.
Calpine offers regular tours from Geyserville, Calistoga, and Middletown. The tours are free but they fill up fast, and you may find yourself on a waiting list. The bus we were on had no restroom but there were restrooms on the second floor of the power plant we toured later. Bring your own snacks and water for the approximately 4-hour tour. On our bus, a cooler of free small bottles of water was provided; there is nothing to buy during the tour. And it may take some patience to see the Geysers. I signed up a full six months in advance, and still was waitlisted for several months until finally seats became available. You can sign up on line for future tours at geysers.com.
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