by Matt – February 11, 2021
Norris Geyser Basin is one of my favorite places in Yellowstone because it is such an unusual place. We ranked Norris #9 on our list of things to do (video) in Yellowstone, although it certainly could have been much higher.
In our Yellowstone guide, we allocate a few hours for you to visit Norris on your trip.
What is Norris Geyser Basin?
Norris Geyser Basin is one of about 11 major geyser basins in Yellowstone National Park. Norris is the closest to the magma below the earth and contains, therefore, the hottest geysers in the park. It also changes the most.
Norris is unusual in a few ways:
- It sits just outside the Yellowstone Caldera: a huge crater formed the last time the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted (about 600,000 years ago). Most of the geyser basins are located within the caldera.
- It sits upon two faults: the Norris-Mammoth fault, and the Hebgen Lake fault. Faults, volcanos, and earthquakes are closely connected. So it’s no surprise that many Yellowstone earthquakes (there are over 1,000 per year) are at or near Norris. The epicenter of the famous Hebgen Quake of 1959 was located near Norris.
- The waters at Norris are acidic, rather than alkaline. It contains some very rare acidic geysers, including Echinus Geyser.
Norris is one of the largest geyser basins, and it contains the four major geothermal formations:
- Geysers. Geysers are like hot springs, but they have a constriction in the plumbing underneath. This causes the hot water to build pressure and eventually blow.
- Hot springs. These are just hot pools of water. Similar to geysers, but no constriction, so the water is free to gradually rise and fall.
- Mud pots. These are boiling pots of mud, caused by the acid melting the surrounding dirt and material.
- Fumaroles. These are steam vents. Steam vents are just like hot springs, except that the water burns off before it gets to the surface. Because Norris is so hot, there are a lot of steam vents here.
Why is it called Norris?
It’s named after Philetus Norris, who was the 2nd superintendent of the park. The first superintendent was unpaid and didn’t really do much to stop the poaching of animals in the park (what incentive did he have?).
So the government brought in Norris, who was a fur trapper and had visited the park before, to try to bring some law and order.
He hired Harry Yount as a “game warden” to help police the poachers. As a result, Yount is recognized as the first Park Ranger ever. Fittingly, the Museum of the Park Ranger is located near this area.
Yellowstone is massive, and the two quickly figured out that there was no way they could police the entire area themselves. A few years later, the government used the Army to manage and police Yellowstone. You can learn about this time period by visiting Fort Yellowstone in Mammoth.
Norris couldn’t stop the poaching but had a much easier time of naming places in the park after himself. Norris had already founded the town of Norris, Michigan, so he was used to naming things after himself.
He named Norris Geyser Basin after himself, as well as a mountain peak. He tried renaming some features like Gibbon Falls and the Gibbon River, but someone finally stopped the megalomaniac before he named the entire park after himself.
He served as superintendent for about five years, getting paid $10,000 per year, before being let go.
How do you get to Norris Geyser Basin?
Norris is located in the center of the park on the west side of the grand loop road.
To get there, you will drive to the intersection of the Grand Loop Road and Norris Canyon Road, which is a four way stop. The entry is actually the intersection. Just turn west and enter the parking lot.
The parking lot has 143 spaces, 17 of which are for oversized vehicles.
Parking tends to fill up quickly. If you can’t find a spot, you may need to park on the Grand Loop Road.
You can drive north about half a mile, park on the Grand Loop Road, and enter the park on a walking path that leads into the basin.
Why should you visit it?
In short, it’s unlike any place in the world. Because it’s the hottest basin, trees don’t grow well there. So while much of Yellowstone is lodgepole pine forest, at Norris, you walk around in awe of this desolate wasteland.
It also has the tallest geyser in the world: Steamboat Geyser. Steamboat Geyser used to erupt very infrequently. It would erupt once or twice per year, and once went 50 years without erupting at all.
Suddenly, in 2018, it erupted over 30 times. In 2019, it erupted over 40 times. In 2020, it kept up the pace, erupting over 40 times.
Currently it erupts every 5 to 21 days. It does not erupt on a predictable schedule, but it is common for “geyser-gazers” to gather and camp out for hours, waiting for it to blow.
These geyser-gazers record eruptions for just about all the geysers in Yellowstone, so you can check Steamboat’s recent eruption patterns on geysertimes.org. Perhaps it will erupt while you’re there!
What is there to do there?
When you enter the basin from the parking lot, you’ll see a small bookstore, which was originally a resting center.
Then you’ll see a small visitor center. These were built around 1930!
This is one of many “trailside museums” located all over Yellowstone. These were built to help people understand what they were seeing since Yellowstone was too big and had too many entry points to have one big visitor center explain the park, as many national parks have today.
Once at the visitor center, there are two directions you can go: to the Porcelain basin on the north, or to the Back Basin on the south.
The Porcelain Basin trail is about one mile round-trip.
It is named Porcelain for a reason — it looks white like porcelain. But there is color throughout the basin.
Here you will find many steam vents, blue springs, and green and orange water runoff.
The colors are actually millions of bacteria that can only live in very hot temperatures. Obviously, you should not walk off the boardwalks — you actually kill these living organisms, and you may injure or kill yourself.
In 2016, a man left the boardwalk in the Porcelain Basin, fell into a hot spring, and died. He was the 22nd person to die in a hot spring in Yellowstone, but he was the first whose body was not recovered. By the time the rangers found him, it was too futile to try to recover his body.
The Back Basin trail is about 1.7 miles long. There is a cut-off about half-way through, shortening the trail significantly.
I recommend doing the longer loop. This is a scenic trail with many different features along the way.
The Back Basin has Steamboat Geyser. It also has Echinus Geyser, which used to be a very regular geyser. There are viewing stations built around this geyser because it was so popular. But that stopped in the late 1990s, and now it is a very infrequent performer.
Porkchop Geyser once erupted and blasted rocks over 200 feet away. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the park service changed the boardwalk route around the geyser to make it more safe.
Which trail should you do?
You can’t go wrong with either trail. I really think they are equally great.
The Back Basin has more trees than the Porcelain Basin, which makes it both more and less visually appealing. The variety is nice. It feels like you’re in the Old West, but with more white background than red. Yet, the visual appeal of Porcelain is the starkness of it all.
In the video above, I recommended doing both loops, which is 3-mile hike. However, you do run the risk of geyser burnout if you spend too much time in the geyser basins! Many people tend to think they get boring after a while, which I understand.
So if you’re at all worried about burnout, I would choose the shorter Porcelain Basin because it is more unusual.
What is there to do near Norris Geyser Basin?
There are quite a few things to see and do near Norris:
- Norris picnic area. A great place for lunch after a morning Norris visit.
- The Museum of the National Park Ranger. Learn about how hard-core early park rangers used to be.
- Roaring Mountain. Located just north of Norris, this mountain can be seen from the road. It is always steaming.
- Virginia Falls. This is located just minutes away, on a one-way road.
- Norris Campground. This is a great location to camp, as it is located in the middle of the park.
- Artist Paintpots. This is another geyser basin just south of Norris. It’s small but colorful.
- Gibbon Falls. A beautiful roadside waterfall located just south of Artist Paintpots.
Depending on how much time you have, you’ll want to do some of these but not others. Yellowstone is huge, and you can easily get caught at lesser sites and miss the more awesome sites if you don’t have a good plan.
That’s why we’ve created a great game plan for you! We’ve been visiting Yellowstone for over 30 years, and believe me, we’ve had plenty of frustrating, inefficient trips. But we’ve learned from those mistakes, and you can learn from our mistakes as well.
I’m also a history professor, and I’m interested in telling the stories behind the park. I’m preparing an audio guide companion to the itinerary. Check it out and have a GREAT TRIP!