Elevation change for the Norris Geyser Basin
Elevation profile and route courtesy of the HAZ Tracks App
Distance: Varies: < 1 mile or up to 3 miles
Best time of year: Year-round
The Norris Geyser Basin should be high on everyone’s list of sights to see in Yellowstone, or at least part of it. It’s not only the hottest geyser basin in the park, but it’s also home to the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser. Unfortunately, eruption times for Steamboat are completely unpredictable, so if you catch it erupting, count yourself as one of the luckiest visitors to Yellowstone.
The path from the parking area will take you past a Yellowstone Association Bookstore and then to a small museum. A pop-in to the museum is a good idea before starting on the trail so you can have a better appreciation for what you’re about to see, whereas visiting the bookstore on your way out will make sure any unanswered questions you have get answered thoroughly, or will provide you with more activities and trivia.
My preferred route is to save the best for last and to explore the whole system. To do this, from the museum, head back out toward where you came in and make a right. This will bring you down a trail where you first past Emerald Spring, a beautiful green pool that stands out remarkably from the green of the trees around it thanks to sulfur in the water. Just past Emerald Pool is the enormous Steamboat Geyser, if you’re lucky enough to see it. If you have the time, you can sit and wait for a little while and hopefully see a much smaller eruption from it. Smaller eruptions tend to be a bit more frequent, but just as unpredictable. There’s an upper platform for those feeling optimistic, whereas the main boardwalk will also continue past it.
The trail then winds downward to Cistern Spring, a colorful hot spring thriving with both bacteria and algae near its edges to give it incredible color.
Tip: If you see Cistern Spring’s water receding, head back up to Steamboat Geyser! The two are linked and an eruption at Steamboat Geyser will drain Cistern Spring.
The trail also forks at Cistern Spring. Right will bring you on a shortcut through the Back Basin Loop. Those short on time can head that way. For those with the time to see more, there are some fantastic features waiting to the left.
Around a few turns is Echinus Geyser, tucked away at the back end of the trail system. It’s one of the oddest and unique geysers in the park. It’s the largest acid-geyser in the world, most of them found in the Norris Geyser Basin, but at the same time, its eruption times have varied drastically in recent decades. It was quite active in the 1990s, but has seemed to calm down since then. With each eruption, a shower of iron, arsenic, manganese, and aluminum rain down on the area surrounding the source, creating the unique formations and colors you see around it. Activity has been fairly low in recent years, so once again, if you get to see it erupt, you are very lucky! …provided you’re a safe distance from the water.
After meandering down from Echinus Geyser, you’re brought past a number of scenic and interesting formations, Puff ‘n’ Stuff Geyser being one of them, and eventually winding up at Green Dragon Spring. The sulfur rich water and steam have left the cave stained yellow, making the water appear green. For those that have been to the Mud Volcano trail, this will be very reminiscent of the Dragon’s Mouth Spring, with more color but less sound.
The trail continues through some more scenic features and then passes around Porkchop Geyser. There’s a unique history here. In 1985 the geyser began to constantly erupt for over four years until it finally blew itself apart in the fall of 1989. Rocks were sent flying over 200 feet away! Now, it’s a quiet hot spring surrounded by remnants of its disastrous explosion.
Past Porkchop Geyser is the colorful but simple, Pearl Geyser, and beyond that is Vixen Geyser, which shoots a needle of water up in the air quite regularly. It’s worth a stop for a couple of minutes to see it in action.
Minute Geyser is just a bit farther up the trail beyond the shortcut trail from Vixen Geyser and is a sad testament to how poorly the park was treated in its early days. Early visitors clogged the geyser with rocks (among other things) that have now left a remarkable geyser dormant. It used to erupt every 60 seconds to heights of 50 feet. It’s now nearly inactive, though its eastern vent does still produce some activity.
Beyond Minute Geyser, the trail begins to head back up toward the museum and main area. Along the way, you’re teased with views of the Porcelain Basin through the trees. Like I mentioned earlier, going this route saves the best for last.
Head left at the junction to be brought down toward the Porcelain Basin. Along the way downward is the Black Growler Steam Vent, a fumarole that is constantly ejecting scalding steam into the air, and accompanied by Ledge Geyser, a rarely erupting geyser that actually shoots water outward rather than upward because of its unique angle.
Just beyond Ledge Geyser is a fork in the trail leading off to the right. Following that will lead you to a view that can easily make you feel like you’re on another world entirely. Passing Hurricane Vent on your right, continue just past another fork (which will loop you back around to the top of the walk you just started) for an incredible view of the Porcelain Springs. This is a massive area of constantly changing terrain and bright white geyserite deposits covering the landscape. What initially sounded like wind in the trees or lots of highway traffic can now be seen as intense fumarole and hot spring activity below. The view stretches for hundreds and hundreds of yards with dome mountain rising above the trees on the other end. “Siliceous sinter” is responsible for the milky color (and the name) of many of the springs below.
From here, you can head back toward the main trail until you’re back on the loop you started prior to the detour. The trail loops past many other hot springs and sparkling features coated with colorful bacteria before winding around to Crackling Lake, a colorful blue and green lake with many popping and hissing sounds that gave it its name.
Continue up the trail back to the main area where you can pass through the museum again (this time to put it all into perspective) and into the bookstore if you wish to further your education.
Getting there: From the Madison Junction, head north on the main highway for 13.3 miles until you reach the Norris Junction. Make a left turn and follow the road into the parking area. Look for the walkway on the west end of the parking lot.