Travel

This Trippy Rainbow Geyser is What Happens When You Poke a Hole in Nevada

It’s basically a scalding-hot natural sprinkler

Nevada is a wild place above ground. But below desert landscape, clown motel, car forests, and alien-themed bars, Nevada is even more otherworldly. The state is thinning, slowly being torn apart inch by inch, fault by fault. Long ago, volcanoes molded this landscape to their liking, leaving behind lava fields, deep craters, super-heated reservoirs, and hot springs, each now a clue into their once-sweeping rule. 

The underground chaos isn’t over, either. Fly Geyser is proof: a colorful, show-stopping testament to Nevada’s subterranean heat, geothermal potential, and overall wild geologic story. Popping up on the edge of the Black Rock Desert—home to Burning Man—it’s here to remind us that Nevada is far more explosive than its desolate expanses let on.  

Especially after a little human intervention.

In 1916, the owners of Fly Ranch—then Ward’s Hot Springs—wanted to irrigate their 3,800-acre parcel of desert. They found plenty of water when they drilled down deep, but it was too hot for agricultural use. Mineral-rich water started spewing out of this spot at around 200ºF, eventually calcifying into a desert sprinkler nearly 12 feet tall. 

Then in 1964, a geothermal power company drilled a few hundred yards away from this first site, and what they found wasn’t hot enough for their needs, so they capped their well and left.

The cap failed pretty quickly, dried up the first site, and today’s Fly Geyser was born. But note: It’s not actually a geyser. 

“The definition of geyser requires sporadic or episodic eruptions,” explains Carolina Munoz-Saez, a researcher at Columbia hired by the Burning Man owners to study the formation. “Fly Geyser is a perpetual spouter that’s constantly emitting boiling water.”

Whatever you call it, that mineral-rich boiling water has no off button. It’s been gushing 24/7 for over half a century, forming a trio of travertine cones similar to Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs or the stalagmites in your favorite limestone cave. Water constantly spews around five feet in the air—visible even from County Road 34—precipitating into cones around six feet tall, a bit higher if you include the travertine terraces they sit on. The geyser isn’t the only geothermal feature in this area, either: 30–40 pools dot nearly 75 acres, some hot, some cold, all a part of #weirdNevada.

For the record, this is quick work by Mother Nature’s usual molasses-slow patterns. 

“Fly Geyser was a well so it’s bringing hot water from the reservoir very quickly to the surface,” explains Munoz-Saez. “There’s also particularly intense silica precipitation near the vent due to rapid cooling and evaporation.”

But the geyser’s fast formation also has to do with climate—she adds that the weather here is very dry, “increasing the evaporation rate of the water and the precipitation of silica as well.” 

As for the geyser’s vivid rainbow colors, that’s pretty standard—a result of thermophilic algae, the same that surround the psychedelic Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone. The geyser may be “manmade,” but the colors, the science, and the experience are 100% real.

How to see Fly Geyser

The Burning Man Project bought Fly Ranch in 2016, the land is now open to those who sign up for one of their nature walks, retreats, or gatherings. About 20 miles north of Gerlach, most will come across the geyser on the Burner Byway, a starkly scenic road that connects drive-through art exhibits, hot springs, desert landscapes, delightful diner food (shout out to the ice cream machine at Bruno’s Country Club), and, of course, one tiny, tiny event: Burning Man.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.