Once in a while you get a chance to visit a place that will forever live on in your memories. Norris Geyser Basin is all that and more! You would think that crowds of visitors at such a popular attraction would be a deterrent, but Norris somehow rises above all those attentions. Set in the heart of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, it is a truly awe inspiring display of geothermal power.
We arrived early in the morning with the hope that fewer people would have the same idea, but there were already a fair number of cars in the parking lot. Norris Basin is very well developed. There is an elaborate network of elevated boardwalks to ensure that foot traffic stays where it should and there are plenty of park rangers to keep an eye on things. I had a short conversation with one of the rangers who told me that she was continually surprised by the number of people who underestimate the dangers of geothermal features. The ground is ever changing and incredibly unstable, of course, and over the years many lives have been lost through carelessness. The gist of her message was to heed the warning signs, and stay strictly on the designated paths. Update: In the summer of 2016 a visitor lost his life in one of the hot pools here, adding to the list of unfortunate accidents over the years.
Rather than drive to Norris Geyser Basin, you can also simply walk there from the Norris Campground which is not far away. As with all campgrounds it fills early so arrive early and stake your site accordingly!
Norris Geyser Basin is essentially divided into two areas, the Porcelain Basin, and the Back Basin. There’s also a museum and historical display to take in if you have the time. I began at the Porcelain Basin, mostly because the sounds emanating from it were so bizarre I was immediately drawn in that direction. The hissing and belching from steam, water, and hot springs everywhere and the heady aroma of sulphur in the air were a real jolt to the senses.
Fumaroles, like the one you see below here, are the hottest features in the basin, reaching temperatures of between 199 and 283 degrees Fahrenheit (93 to 138 degrees Celsius). Some can emit a shrill, squelching hiss that’ll startle you more than a little if you’ve never heard it before.
Other features seem unrecognizable from one moment to the next, like the Hurricane Vent. One moment a boiling mass of grey and steam, the next an inviting turquoise pool.
So how does the Porcelain Basin get its unusual coloration? The park tour explains that best…
“The milky color of the mineral deposited here inspired the naming of Porcelain Basin. The mineral, siliceous sinter, is brought to the surface by hot water and forms a “sheet” over this flat area as the water flows across the ground and the mineral settles out. This is the fastest changing area in Norris Geyser Basin, and siliceous sinter is one of the agents of change. If the mineral seals off a hot spring or geyser by accumulating in its vent, the hot, pressurized water may flow underground to another weak area and blow through it.”
“Siliceous sinter is also called geyserite. Deposits usually accumulate very slowly, less than one inch (2.5cm) per century, and form the geyser cones and mounds seen in most geyser basins.”
Below is an example of the boardwalks the park builds for preservation and public safety. They are both a labour of love as well as marvels of engineering and design. As an aside, I can’t say enough about park staff. Everyone is professional, helpful, engaging, and informative.
Having barely scratched the surface of exploring Porcelain Basin, I then headed off to Back Basin to see what it had to offer. One could easily spend a full day touring both areas but I had but a few hours to check out both.
Steamboat Geyser is the most spectacular in the Back Basin, with eruptions sometimes reaching 300 feet into the skies above. I didn’t get the chance to see that, as its displays are completely unpredictable. It is also the world’s tallest active geyser!
Nearby Cistern Spring is a clear, constantly overflowing pool that is connected to Steamboat Geyser underground. During Steamboat’s major eruptions, Cistern Spring can be seen to drain, before refilling as the eruption subsides.
The Back Basin boasts many more geysers with colourful names. Here are a few more…
I was so enamoured of this place that, truth be told, I nearly lost track of the time entirely because there is so much to see. The power of nature is on full display at Norris, and it’s a show that should not be missed. It’s a strong reminder that while some forces alter our planet gradually, others are capable of changing it from minute to minute or even second to second! Beneath much of Yellowstone is a vast volcanic caldera, which many scientists consider to be highly unstable. Yellowstone National Park is, in other words, something you might want to see before its ground is forever altered.
Yellowstone National Park’s overview and tour of the Norris Basin can be found at this link