Yellowstone: Norris Geyser Basin

Distance: 2 Miles
Elevation Gained: 200′
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1:00
Critters: Bison, Elk, Geese

– Most active geyser basin
– Cold morning air created a lot of dramatic steam
– We got stuck on the road behind a heard of bison
– We got to drive alongside a bull bison
– We practically had the geyser basin to ourselves

– None


I always hated getting up early when I was a kid. It used to be that, come Saturday and Sunday, I would sleep in as late as possible, which often meant sleeping past noon. I would also enjoy staying up as late as possible, often as late as 5 am. I didn’t figure there was anything about being awake in the morning that was worth the pain of having to wake up. I figured that 5 am was a godawful hour for anything to be doing anything, and that the only way to remedy 5 am’s existence was to sleep right through.

How things have changed.

All year long, I have been in the habit of waking up at 5, 6, sometimes even 4 in the morning to get out and hike. I do this to beat the heat, catch the best lighting, see the most animals, and get home in time often so that I can work or go to school. While I also love hiking around sunset for many of the same reasons, sunset time is often unavailable to me due to school and work, and so the morning has become my time for hiking. I’m grateful for this since it turns out that the morning is one of the best times to be up and moving.

Kelly gracefully consented to wake up at 5:30 am in order to get to the park before 7. After coffee and a quick scramble, we hit the road and enjoyed the 45 minute drive into the park. We road along the Gallatin River, past the forest that is still recovering from the 1988 inferno that charred one-third of Yellowstone. Along the way, a number of small lakes threw mist in the air,  and the light caught on the mist, creating a gorgeous light-ray patterns and silhouettes.

Plain and simple, the best way to experience Yellowstone is to get up early. First of all, morning is when most of the animals are out and about. Driving in, we saw a small herd of elk not a few miles away from the western entrance. After we passed Madison Junction, we shared the road with a huge bison bull. Once the bull decided to step off the road, we saw the herd. About 40-50 bison roamed about the banks of a river and a nearby plain, eating and drinking and making their low grunts. Bison calves nursed from their mothers, and the huge creatures lumbered along looking for choice forage.

After a stop to watch the herd, Kelly and I continued on to our first stop: Norris Geyser Basin. Norris Geyser Basin is known for being the most active, hottest and most acidic basin in the park. It contains the tallest active geyser (Steamboat Geyser), even though that geyser erupts infrequently.

The basin is composed of three areas: Porcelain Basin, Back Basin, and One Hundred Springs Plain. Porcelain and Back Basin are accessible by a mostly boardwalk trail. In many of the geyser basins, the trails have to be raised above the ground since there is often super-heated water lying just a few inches under the ground. If a person were to put too much weight down, they might break through the crust and suffer severe burns.

At Porcelain Basin, which we visited first, the water temperature can get up to 450 degrees, which is about twice the temperature at which water boils. As a result, the park has to move the boardwalks around to prevent them from deteriorating and breaking from the combined heat and heavy foot traffic. 

Kelly and I walked slowly along Porcelain Basin, enjoying the heavy steam being kicked up in to the air, the pungent sulfur smell, the crisp, clean air, and the relative lack of people. It’s not often that you can have a geyser basin mostly to yourself in one of the most popular parks in the country, which is yet another reason to recommend getting up early and seeing as much as you can before the rest of the sight-seers wake up.

We saw a number of fumaroles, springs, geyser, streams that support a wide palette of colorful bacterias, lakes, forest, and huge pillars of steam that sometimes blocked off the sun. In many places, the water was an icy blue surrounded by bright white earth, all belying the intense heat being produced from the underlying hot spot.

After the quick .5 mile loop around Porcelain Basin, we set off for the longer loop around Back Basin. The trail started out through lodgepole pine forest, which blocked out the rapidly gathering crowds. Really, the earlier the better if you want to enjoy solitude here; by 9:00am, everybody is out in full force.

At Back Basin, we took a 1.5 stroll that looped around the perimeter of the basin, passing by more springs, fumaroles, vents, and geysers. The most surreal effect of a place like this is that you feel like you’re in a place that doesn’t belong on Earth. Sure, we all know that, miles beneath the surface, volcanic activity occurs continuously. But on the surface, we don’t expect to see red, green, blue, yellow, and pink bacteria strains mixing with 400 degree water while steam and boiling water eject violently from the ground. It seems more appropriate for Venus, but not for the vast, rolling plains and mountains of Wyoming.

After completing the loops, we headed back to the car for the next destination. We got the best combined experience here in the first part of the trip to Yellowstone: few people, more animals, best environmental conditions. The rest of the park, as I will describe, was incredible, but this part may have been my favorite portion.

July: 35.6 Miles
Year-to-Date: 790 Miles

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