A few square kilometers of the Bishop Tuff in eastern California (USA) have evenly spaced columns that are more resistant to erosion than the surrounding tuff owing to the precipitation of mordenite, a low-temperature (100–130 °C) zeolite. We hypothesize that the columns are a result of instabilities at the liquid water and steam interface as cold water seeped into the still-cooling Bishop Tuff. We use two methods to quantitatively assess this hypothesis. First, scaling shows which hydrodynamic instabilities exist in the system. Second, to account for the effects of multiphase flow, latent heat, and the finite amplitude and temporal evolution of these instabilities we use two-dimensional numerical models of liquid water infiltrating hot tuff. These tests highlight several features of boiling hydrothermal systems. (1) The geometry of at least some convection appears to be broadly captured by linear stability theory that neglects reactive transport, heterogeneity of the host rock, and the finite amplitude of instabilities. (2) Slopes >10% set the wavelength of convection, meaning that these columns formed somewhere with relatively gentle topography. (3) For permeabilities of >10−13 m2, the wavelength of the instability changes through time, slowing infiltration, while for permeabilities <10−15 m2, cooling is dominated by conduction. The spacing and stability of columns increase with higher vertical permeability and decrease with higher horizontal permeability. These columns are a rare window into hydrothermal processes that may be widespread.