Yellowstone Forever

October 19, 2009

Envisioning a More Serene Old Faithful Area

The Old Faithful Inn is a National Historic LandmarkNo trip to Yellowstone is complete, especially for first-time visitors, without seeing Old Faithful erupt. On any given summer day, 25,000 eager visitors flock to the Old Faithful area. However, the wonder they experience in the presence of fascinating hot springs and the iconic geyser is often tempered by frustration. Finding a parking spot, lack of shade from the hot sun, navigating through crowds, and locating the features they most want to see can be more exhausting than exhilarating.

As the most popular destination in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful area receives around 90% of the Park’s total annual visitation of more than 3 million people. In addition to the geyser itself, many visitors want to spend time in the area to see the Old Faithful Inn, a National Historic Landmark and the grand centerpiece of the Old Faithful Historic District.  Beginning next summer, visitors will also be welcomed to a brand new attraction -- a state-of-the-art Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.

A bird's-eye-view of the Old Faithful AreaWith this popularity come problems with congestion and unintended impacts to the natural landscape. The planners, who originally developed the area in the early 1900s, could scarcely have envisioned the number of visitors being served today.

To address these challenges, Yellowstone National Park, with assistance from the Bozeman, Montana architecture firm JLF & Associates, invited students and members of the academic and professional planning and design communities to participate in a five-day charrette—a specific design technique to tap into interdisciplinary experts and encourage synergistic, creative ideas and solutions.  The purpose of the charrette, entitled “Re-choreographing Old Faithful,” was not to make changes that would compromise the historic integrity of the area, but rather to allow for improved crowd flow and a more pleasant visitor experience.

Bison grazing in the Upper Geyser BasinFive professional design firms and illustrators* from coast to coast and architecture students and professors from Montana State University answered the call to join the Park’s Comprehensive Planning and Design staff for the charrette last month.  All of the experts waived their usual fees, and the Yellowstone Park Foundation secured private donations to cover other expenses related to the design process.

The goal was to discuss the challenges facing the Old Faithful vicinity and prepare a visionary statement and design solutions. At the beginning of the five-day process, Yellowstone Superintendent Lewis addressed the charrette teams.

“The Old Faithful area has a long and rich history of hosting visitors, and the world’s largest concentration of geysers and hot springs is one of the resources of which Yellowstone is most proud,” said Lewis. “But as a result of the spectacular sights the Old Faithful area has to offer, it can be crowded, confusing, and intense.  This week will be filled with opportunities to restore the sense of calm for visitors and their families within this magnet for visitation.”

Old Faithful Inn, envisioned without parking lot in frontThe teams came up with proposals that addressed the following priorities:

  • Allow for optimal visitor access and learning in the geothermal areas, while protecting the sensitive resources and emphasizing safety.
  • Connect the visitor in new ways to the rich history of the area.
  • Improve vehicular and pedestrian circulation, aids for visitors to get oriented and find their way around the area, and opportunities for shade, rest, and solitude.
  • Consider how open and unused spaces can be better utilized or made more attractive in keeping with the appearance of the area.

Designers imagine a new approach to the Visitor Education CenterIntrinsik Architecture, a distinguished planning, design and building firm in Bozeman, Montana, was one of the firms enlisted to participate. They came with a unique perspective from having visited Old Faithful many times over the years with a variety of guests. Rob Pertzborn, a partner at Intrinsik, calls the problems facing the area complex and challenging. Yet he considers the iconic Old Faithful the most significant site on which his firm has ever been asked to work. 

“During the charrette, our team was watching a particularly long and spectacular eruption of Castle Geyser, while seeing mobs of people just standing around the Old Faithful boardwalk waiting for it to erupt. They couldn’t see Castle Geyser and probably didn’t even know it was there,” said Pertzborn. “If people were more aware of the other equally awe-inspiring features to see in the area -- both natural and cultural -- we would have less of a surge of pedestrian and vehicle traffic flowing away immediately after each Old Faithful eruption.  Visitors would significantly improve their experience by exploring what the Upper Geyser Basin truly has to offer.” 

Some of the ideas generated included improving walking and biking opportunities (see drawing, above right), enhancing signage and other ways to help people plan their visit, providing a shuttle connecting facilities and thermal areas, orienting visitors to the rest of the thermal features found in the Upper Geyser Basin, creating a native plant garden (see drawing, below), potential new uses for the vacant Photo Shop building, and reestablishing the sense of grandeur of arriving at the Old Faithful area (see drawing, above left).

Illustrator's sketch of a native plant garden behind the InnSupport from the Yellowstone Park Foundation will fund a final report about the charrette, which will help inform the Comprehensive Planning and Design team's activities in the following years.

Comprehensive Planning and Design Chief Eleanor Williams Clark, who coordinated and led the charrette, is enthusiastic about its outcome. “I hope that when the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial in 2016, the Old Faithful area will be providing visitors with a magical experience befitting Yellowstone and its importance in the worldwide national park movement” said Clark.

Illustrations of the Old Faithful Inn by Stewart White. Illustration of the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center by Christopher Grubbs. 

*Old Faithful Charette Participants:

Design Firms

OLIN Studio: Philadelphia, PA
SmithGroup: Phoenix, AZ
Fentress: Washington, DC
LDA Architects: Cambridge, MA
Intrinsik Architects: Bozeman, MT

Professional Illustrators

Henry Sorenson: Montana State University, Bozeman, MT
Dick Sneary: Kansas City, MO
Bill Hook: Seattle, WA
Chris Grubbs: San Francisco, CA
Stewart White: Baltimore, MD


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