The "Old Faithful" of California
In a Petrified Forest

Calistoga, CA

October 26, 2002

When I hear of that natural phenomenon called a Geyser, my thoughts immediately turn to that famous "Old Faithful" waterspout that blasts into the sky on a highly predictable schedule in Yellowstone National Park.  Although not a total novice traveler, I was somewhat surprised to find one of these natural marvels elsewhere in these wonderful United States.  We were drifting south out of Oregon and passing through California's Napa Valley when we found ourselves out near the coast just north of San Francisco in the little community of Calistoga.  Here, I was surprised to find that there are many "Old Faithful" geysers around the world.  They are also claimed in Wyoming, Nevada, Iceland, New Zealand and Russia, and of course, right here in Calistoga.  We wanted to find out more about this geothermic wonder, so we stopped by to watch and learn its secrets.  This particular geyser blows water, heated to over 200 degrees, 60 feet in the air, every 40 minutes. One can almost set a watch by its timing.  The geyser exists because of conditions deep within the earth.  This includes a natural supply of water, in this case an underground river,  a very hot heat source, which is believed to be red hot magma or lava waste buried deep underground, and a series of fissures, fractures and cavities, all surrounded by a solid rock formation capable of withstanding the tremendous pressures that build up when the water boils. The area around Calistoga and neighboring Geyserville claim to be the largest geothermic area in the world.  The particular geyser we were watching is considered a "capped geyser", in that the water produced is captured and use commercially for an assortment of things. All the buildings on the property are heated with this natural hot water.  It flows by gravity to a heat exchanger outside the gift shop.  Occasionally, the caps are removed, otherwise the mineral build-up will seal it off. The capped Geyser was drilled about 1916.  There are several wells drilled in Calistoga, and when they reach hot water they are known as geothermal hot wells.  Many of these hot wells feed the hot pools in the spas, thus Calistoga is known as the "Hot Springs of the West".  Some wells are tapped for mineral water.  This water is bottled. Sometimes carbonation flavorings and fruit juice are added. Just before it shoots its watery content high into the sky there are a few pre-geyser spits and some bubbling, then comes the rumbling, which crescendos into a roar, by which time all those gathered to watch are pressed into a semi-circle around the small pond created by its offering.  With this, the mineral laden water shoots skyward and there is a quick shift in position as those surrounding it move to avoid contact with the scalding water as it is carried by the wind.  Within minutes the show is over and the land returns to its normally quiet self, only to be repeated in 40 minutes.  Besides its obvious heat producing benefits, this old geyser provides some very valued information leading to some surprising predictions. While waiting for the timed event we read all the signs posted around which attempted to explain what we were witnessing. One directed us to check out the infrared detector which was mounted on a post and pointed at the geyser. When the geyser erupts, the detector is activated and information is relayed into the gift shop where a taped printout automatically records all the eruptions day and night. With this information, owner Olga Kolebek is able to predict earthquakes in advance.  The old faithful geyser of California erupts approximately every 40 minutes on a yearly average, but when it deviates from 2 to 3 1/2 hours apart, it indicates a good size earthquake is imminent within a radius of 2 to 300 miles. 
As if that weren't enough, the entire area is a California registered historical landmark, and not for its fantastic fountain.  It is for the petrified forest that surrounds the the site. Dating from the Eocene period, this is the only known example of a petrified forest in California.  Its size scope and variety of petrifaction is unique in the world. Opalized wood, obsidian, quartz crystal, petrified coral and fossilized insects number among its wonders. It is believed that some 3 million years ago, this area was covered by giant redwoods.  The landscape was much different then and volcanoes like near by St. Helena were more prevalent. At some time a volcano probably no more then a few miles away erupted causing a massive earthquake. The thermal blast coupled with the upheaval in the earth caused the trees to come crashing down, all facing the same direction. The whole hill was then covered with mud and ash. In time, water seeped down through the dust, carrying volcanic ash.  Gradually the wood was replaced by the silica in many cases cell for cell. This process was not selective to just the trees, anything else found in the soil that could be petrified was converted.  This included old fossils from back when the area was covered by a sea, to the bugs and worms that were in the soil at the time of the eruption.  So perfectly was this accomplished that very thin sections of the petrified wood can be studied microscopically and their structure determined. This process of petrifaction took a long time and  the original mud and ash deposited ages ago were eroded away. After we finished watching the geyser water show, we started off on the mile long trail, which at times was quite steep as it meandered among the uncovered petrified trees.  These are big trees. The Giant is 60 feet long with a diameter of 6 feet and was over 2000 years old when it fell. Not all the petrified trees were redwood, there are also white oak and pine.  The process of uncovering these behemoths is no simple task.  It starts with locating the hidden tree.  Then a backhoe digs out the hillside from behind to near the tree trunk.  Next, pick and shovel work is done around the top and sides of the tree.  Finally geologists  use picks and brushes to remove the rock of the trunk itself. It was quite a walk but well worth the effort.  We ended our adventure with a visit to the museum and gift shop where all sorts of petrified artifacts were on display. I rated the trip well worth it.

***THE END***