Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park


When I arrived at Norris Geyser Basin, I knew I was making my last major stop inside Yellowstone National Park, which also meant it would be the final big attraction before my hurried drive back to Salt Lake City, for the flight home.  Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much.

Norris Geyser Basin provides two easy ways to explore: the Porcelain Basin Trail and the Steamboat/Echinus Geyser Trail.  I first headed to Porcelain Basin: a wide-open area white-washed by geysers.  The landscape unfolds just after you pass through the small museum (which really isn’t much more than an open-air visitor center).  A path takes you down a small hill, then loops around the basin, spending part of the time on boardwalks.

Porcelain Basin provides plenty of opportunities to get an up-close look at geysers and springs, and walk through some sulfur-smelling clouds of steam.  (Walk through enough steam clouds, and the sulfur smell will cling to your hair and clothes.  I had secretly hoped that once I took my overnight flight home, then jumped in the shower, I would once again smell the geysers.)

The trail comes close enough to some clear blue springs, that you can peer down into the incredible world that exists underground, amongst all that boiling water.

This is Constant Geyser.  It will erupt frequently, but the show often lasts less than ten seconds.

Whirligig Geyser changed in the summer of 2000, when the water became more acidic, allowing green algae to grow around its rim.  It’s dormant now, but when it used to erupt, the water would swirl in its crater, while emitting a rhythmic sound that can be heard around the basin.

Pinwheel Geyser is next to Whirligig, and provides another close look at the colorful outflow.  Where the water is too hot for photosynthetic microbes, it runs clear.  Cooler areas turn orange, and even cooler spots turn green with different microbes.

You can think of the geyser runoff as a sort-of living thermometer.  Between 122-140o F (50-60o C), “chemotrophs” live in the water, thriving on the geyser’s iron-rich water (which explains the rust color).  At 100-133o F (38-50o C), “Cyanidium” and other thermophilic algae survive.  Just like green plants, they photosynthesize, using sunlight for energy.  

The trail loops around, passing through a thin stand of dead trees, before climbing the hill, back to the museum.  On the other side of the museum, another trail awaits:

Steamboat & Echinus Geysers Trail

The area south of Porcelain Basin is called the Back Basin, and it’s here that you find at least a dozen more geysers and springs.  The trail is longer than the one through Porcelain Basin — a mile or more, if you want to see all the geysers.  You don’t have to go all the way around to see two of the basin’s more notable geysers, though.  Steamboat Geyser is just 2/10 of a mile from the trailhead, and Echinus Geyser is only 1/10 of a mile beyond that.

I think the photo above is Emerald Spring, which makes sense, given the green water.  You’ll find it near the start of the trail, next to the boardwalk.  Just beyond it, the trail goes downhill…

… to Steamboat Geyser.  Steamboat is famous, because it has the tallest eruptions of any geyser on earth.  When Steamboat Geyser finally decides to have a major eruption, it can reach heights of 300-400 feet — that’s a 40 story building!  (Smaller eruptions can also occur frequently.)  A sign at the geyser reported that its last major eruption was May 23, 2005.  Even so, three years later, I was still expecting the big one to occur, at the very moment I was watching it.  I think everyone was — including a dozen or so people who were sitting, watching, and waiting.

I decided to walk as far as Echinus Geyser.  Its eruptions can vary from every few hours, to months apart.  There was no excitement while I was watching.

Before walking back up the hill, I took another branch of the trail, and stopped at Cistern Spring.  Cistern is connected with Steamboat Geyser.  When a major eruption occurs at Steamboat, the water level in Cistern Spring will drop — and sometimes the crater empties completely.

When my hike around Norris Basin was done, I knew I needed to be making progress towards the park’s western exit.  But instead of heading south, I decided to squeeze in one more attraction, that was just a few miles east, along the road that ties the Grand Loop together in the middle.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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