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December 11, 2023

Naming thermal features in Yellowstone is now a careful and deliberate process with significant opportunities for public input, although it once was as simple as pointing to a geyser and bestowing a designation.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week’s contribution is from Lauren Harrison, assistant professor in the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University.

Imperial Geyser, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
Imperial Geyser, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park. USGS photo by Lauren Harrison, July 2021.

Young Hopeful Geyser. Impatient Miser Geyser. Imperial Geyser. Puff‘n‘Stuff Geyser. How did many of the hot springs, mud pots, geysers, and perpetual spouters come to bear their colorful and descriptive names? How do newly found or described thermal features receive a name today? Naming the variety of thermal features within Yellowstone National Park has a long history with many colorful stories and eccentric characters. Let’s take a spin through the changing conventions of naming Yellowstone thermal features!.

Many of the names of thermal features within Yellowstone National Park originate in the distant past, first with fur traders and explorers (1805–1860) such as the famed John Colter, who described “Colter’s Hell” as early as 1807–1808, and then with prospectors (1860’s), explorers that included the Folsom, Washburn, and Hayden expeditions (1869–1871), and park employees and visitors after establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Indigenous people were in Yellowstone long before Euro-American visitors, but any names they gave to features in Yellowstone are unknown today.

Most of the names that have endured from this early period of exploration were the names applied by government surveyors or Park superintendents who had the power and privilege of making maps, reports, journal articles, historically important letters, or other written records that have survived to the present time. Some of these names accepted the descriptive names in widespread local use, mostly by stagecoach drivers who were the main tour guides for early Park visitors, but in many cases these names were deemed unacceptably coarse by the classically trained and educated surveyors. Much effort was expended towards eradicating these popularized names in favor of ones that referenced classical literature, political or biblical references, or sounded fancy, mythological, or suitably romantic to fit the expansive wilderness and beauty of Yellowstone. For example, Arnold Hague, a USGS surveyor, attempted to eradicate all references to “devil” and “hell” in Yellowstone place names, although he was not fully successful. Thermal feature names like Devil’s Bathtub, Hell’s Gate Spouter, and Little Lucifer still survive today.

River Styx, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
River Styx, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. This thermal feature is actually a subterranean hot water creek that likely collects water discharged from Mammoth Hot Spring pools that, after cooling and outflowing from vents, tends to disappear back underground through the porous travertine. River Styx is a Greek mythology reference to the river that surrounds the underworld and keeps with the tradition of using mythology for names of Mammoth Hot Spring thermal features (other examples include Aphrodite Terrace and Minerva Terrace). It was named in 1885 by G.L. Henderson, a park tour operator. USGS photo by Lauren Harrison, 2018.

In the modern day, names of natural features within Yellowstone National Park (and the entire United States) are officially designated by the United State Board of Geographic Names (USBGN) of the U.S. Geological Survey. The USBGN is a panel of Federal agency representatives that makes decisions about existing names that apply to natural features or geographic places, edifying them in common, legal, administrative, and published use by inclusion in the Geographic Names Information System online (available at Their work is ongoing and open to public participation—all meetings are open, and all people are allowed to submit proposals for name changes, ask for a decision to be made on names of a single feature that are in conflict, or suggest a new feature name.

Several guidelines are used regarding USBGN Official Names. First, names entrenched in current local usage are given priority if there are no conflicts with other rules of the board. No name considered derogatory by the Board of Geographic Names to any racial or ethnic, religious, or gender group will be accepted. Names associated with a commercial product or a living person will typically not be accepted. Names honoring a person who has been deceased more than five years will be considered but are generally discouraged, as names bestowing honor on figures once deemed to be distinguished sometimes do not age well within society’s changing cultural norms. Examples of culturally motivated name changes within Yellowstone National Park include the change of Squaw Lake to Indian Pond and Mount Doane to First Peoples Mountain

Similarly, naming places for notable figures often only identifies figures of privilege, whose stature relied on the support and contributions of invisible colleagues, family, and friends who may not have had the opportunities to hold prestigious scientific, popular, or government positions. In addition, thermal features are by convention not named after people, a tradition that dates to the 1870 Washburn Expedition. Members of that group agreed not to name thermal features after themselves or others, although this “rule” was not extended to other geographic features, as the name of Mount Washburn attests. Generally, names that capture the appearance, activity, location, or notable description of a place and that are unique, succinct, noncontroversial, and acceptable to local citizens are the gold standard to become official names—Mushroom Pool is a good example.

For thermal features, the additional complication of a dynamic and constantly changing hydrothermal system make duplicate names, the precise locations of historical named features, and mismatch between the name and current appearance of a feature particularly challenging. For example, many features begin as steam vents (which are typically not named), can blow out into a geyser (that will be given a name ending with “Geyser”), which sometimes can be perturbed by earthquakes, violent geyser eruptions, clogging of the vent by visitors throwing trash or rocks into the feature, or precipitation of minerals in the subsurface that can destroy the geyser activity. The result is a thermal spring with a name that includes “Geyser” even though the feature no longer exhibits geysering activity! Add on top of that colloquial names in common usage that sometime conflict with official names and confusing or patchy historical records and the result is a lively debate over the proper name for beloved and well-known features.

Mushroom Pool, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
Mushroom Pool, Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park. Old roads were routed very near this feature as early as 1895, when the pool was noted by the strange “vegetable formation growing on it.” This observation turned out to be prophetical: Mushroom Pool is famous as the location where Thermus aquaticus strain YT-1 was discovered by Dr. Thomas Brock. Eventually study of this bacterium led to modern DNA sequencing technology. USGS photo by Lauren Harrison, 2018.

The origins of colorful names that grace Yellowstone National Park’s thermal features many times are accompanied by interesting stories. Imperial Geyser (Imperial Group, Lower Geyser Basin) was most active between 1927 and 1929, when eruptions 80 to 150 ft (24 to 46 meters) high would continue for 1 to 5 hours and outflow a whopping 3,000 gallons (about 11,400 liters) of water per minute—that’s approximately twice the discharge rate of Old Faithful! The name was chosen among 17 submissions in 1929 by vote of National Editorial Association journalists who were visiting Old Faithful in July 1929; the runner up was “Columbia Geyser.”

And contrary to popular belief, the now-muddy and roiling “Congress Pool” in Norris Geyser Basin was not named after the legislative branch of the U.S. government, but rather to the Fifth International Geological Congress, which included a visit to Yellowstone in 1891.

(Acknowledgement: Much of the information in this article comes from the book “Yellowstone Place Names” by Yellowstone National Park Historian Lee Whittlesey.)

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