For a day that started late, we had certainly managed to backload a productive sight-seeing afternoon on Wednesday, August 18. Norris Geyser Basin is a few miles north along the Grand Loop Road from the Artist Paint Pots. It’s at the junction between the Grand Loop and the aptly named Norris-Canyon Road, the last attraction on our way back to the campground for the evening. The master itinerary that Elizabeth and I spent hours building had us visiting the Artist Paint Pots and Norris after lunch. In reality, it was close to dinnertime by the time we got to Norris Geyser Basin. To compound matters, *this* of all places was where we had our biggest struggle finding parking. Cars were lined up to enter the lot and waiting for people to leave on the other side. It took 10-15 minutes to get a parking spot. Of all places, it was *Norris*.
Finally, we got out into a spitting rain that refused to quit. From the parking lot, there was a dirt path that led past the small visitor’s center-type thing – a little bookstore/gift shop and a separate museum, where rangers were crowded to under the gazebo to get out of the elements. A study of the Norris map showed a rather daunting task to see things:
The entire loop is about 3 miles. Maybe Elizabeth and I could have done that. Maybe the 3 of us could have done that if we’d gotten up and at em on schedule. But it was chilly, and approaching dinnertime, and we weren’t actively trying to kill Pam. Plus, I was getting tired myself. It was sometime this afternoon (my memory has faded on exactly when, but I think it was after we’d finished at Norris) when I commented that with the weather so cold and rainy, and with how much we’d seen, it felt like a perfect time to take a nap. Elizabeth never broke stride from her walk and said “You can sleep when you’re dead”. That was it for nap talk.
Anyways, given the circumstances we decided to shave some of the Norris trails. We’d walk the loop of the Porcelain Basin, a name that promised good views. Then we’d head on out to Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world. The rest would be left to future Yellowstone visits.
The Porcelain Basin extended out to the north and west from the little pagoda. There’s a path that leads along the side of the hill delineating the geyser basin before you descend into the thermal zone. I’m kind of obsessed with this shot overlooking the whole basin. If you wanted to encapsulate the otherworldly nature of Yellowstone, you could do a lot worse than this picture.
The most striking features of the Porcelain Basin were the big old steam vents extending around the valley, and the white, brittle sand that dominated the landscape. Sometimes you’ll read that the geyser basins of Yellowstone are like being on an alien planet. Maybe I felt that a bit at some of the other locations, but on this cold, dark day when steam rose ominously out of the cracked ground, I truly understood what people meant. The first steam vent we passed by was the Ledge Geyser, which as the name implies perched right in the hillside beneath us. The geyser outputted an impressive amount of steam constantly at a great enough rate that I could hear it making a noise somewhere between a hiss and a roar.
Now that’s alien.
Even more alien was the view to the north from the far side of the Porcelain Basin. At the edge of the basin in the distance was a seemingly endless array of steam vents, fumaroles, and geysers, sending pure-white steam up toward the heavens. In the foreground, the aptly named Tantalus Creek streamed north-to-south through some braided structure that would make you feel like you were somewhere in the Southern Plains watching a river cut through a wide channel, except instead of cutting through sand the creek was cutting through glassy travertine of various browns and greens. I don’t think there are enough words to describe the vibes I got out here in the middle of the thermal area. It might never get old, no matter how many we visited.
And, of course, on the back side there was one more recurring joke of mine to resurface:
As a Certified Lover of Rivers and Streams, the winding channel of Tantalus Creek on the backside of the basin loop made for a fascinating sight:
As did the little pools and ponds that feed the creek at all hours of the day (shown here in the distance is Crackling Lake):
I cannot tell you how strong the temptation is to dip your toes into a creek like that. Only the near-certainty that you will scald yourself and maybe fall in and die kept me from doing so.
After visiting the out-of-this-world Porcelain Basin, Elizabeth, Pam, and myself backtracked toward the entrance of the basin and then headed south into the Back Basin. Elizabeth set a punishing pace down the boardwalk. It was a wonder that Pam was still up and at em, because by now I was starting to feel the fatigue in full force. We never stopped going, going, going. On the way to Steamboat Geyser, we passed by a particularly photogenic little spring called Emerald Spring.
And a couple hundred yards further down the boardwalk, we came to one of the main attractions of Yellowstone National Park: Steamboat Geyser. Some of its major eruptions reach over 300 feet in height, a feat that no other geyser in the world can claim. For a while I had entertained dreams of seeing a major eruption at Steamboat – the major eruptions are not very predictable, but the intervals between them appear to be relatively even. It had been going off about once a week through the spring and early summer of 2021, when it just… stopped. Major eruptions began occurring more on the order of once a month. I put that dream to bed.
Still, even without major eruptions it was likely that we could see a minor eruption of the geyser. It frequently throws water a couple dozen feet in the air in fits and spurts, which is far better than nothing. After watching Steamboat fume and steam for a few minutes, we were about to leave when the sound of splattering water made us pause. It was a minor eruption from Steamboat, letting us know that we hadn’t made the pilgrimage out here for naught. The spraying water lasted a few more minutes before dying down.
I don’t know about the other two, but my walk back to the car felt much better after having seen that. All in all, while we didn’t spend much time at Norris, it definitely seemed worth the stop in the bookstore so that Elizabeth could get a Norris-specific stamp in her NPS book. My parents had actually specifically singled out this geyser basin as an example of one you could skip in Yellowstone without losing too much of the vibe of the park. That in and of itself may have been true, but I thought it was one of the park’s more underrated sections.