Thursday, May 9, 2019

Norris Geyser Basin - Yellowstone National Park


Norris Geyser Basin is unlike any of the other popular areas of Yellowstone National Park. The geysers are hotter, the trails are longer, and the features aren't as well known. If you are prepared for a long walk in an area with little shade then you can have an enjoyable visit to this area. But if you are expecting just another quick jaunt down a boardwalk you aren't going to like Norris Geyser Basin very much.

Location: Norris Geyser Basin is located on the west side of the park at the intersection of the Norris/Canyon Road and the Upper and Lower Loops of the Grand Loop Road.

Hiking Distance and Time: The Porcelain Basin trail is about .5 miles and the Back Basin Trail is 1.5 miles. Don't let these distances fool you though, there is no such thing as a quick trip to Norris Geyser Basin. Plan on spending anywhere from 1 to 4 hours here.

Operating Seasons and Hours: Norris opens with the Grand Loop Road in late April and closes in late October. However, during the summer the Park Rangers often close the parking lot after it fills up in the middle of the day. It usually reopens when the parking lot clears out a bit. To be on the safe side, plan your visit before 10:00 am or after 5:00 pm.

Date of Visit: Often during the summer of 2017.  Also visited in July 2002, May 2008, July 2010.

In the summer of 2017 I received a job with Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Yellowstone National Park. I moved there with my husband and our four young children. We lived in a 25 foot RV and spent all our free time exploring the park. This is one of many posts that I will write about specific features within Yellowstone National Park. Be sure to check out my other posts for more tips for your Yellowstone visit.

If there is one area in Yellowstone that is the most like Hell - it's Norris Geyser Basin.  There's the obvious smell of brimstone, but there are a lot of other things that make Norris akin to Hell.  Here's a small list.

1. It's hot.  There is very little shade and no drinking water.
2. The only bathrooms are gross vault toilets by the parking lot.
3. The trails are long and steep and did I mention LONG.
4. You can get lost on the long trails.
5. The parking lot is literally closed during peak times.

If you want to enjoy your visit to Yellowstone go right a head and take Norris off of your list. You'll be doing yourself a favor.

What's that? You still want to go visit Norris?  I don't think that's a good idea, but since you are going anyway I'll give you some tips on how to have a decent visit.

The main thing you have to understand about Norris Geyser Basin is that is a rougher place to visit than other popular thermal areas in the park.  Everyone thinks it's going to be like the geyser basins near Old Faithful - with flat boardwalks that only take a few minutes to traverse. Instead it has steep hills and long trails. You really need to be prepared for an excursion into the Norris Geyser Basin.

There other thing about Norris Geyser Basin is that there really aren't any singular features that make a visit to the area worth it. Sure there are a handful of cool features, but there isn't anything that is spectacular. You end of walking around thinking, "Is this it? I've done all this walking for this?"

Even though I don't really like the Norris area, my family ended up going there a lot.  Why? Well it was the closest geyser basin to our home in Canyon Village. When you are living in a 25 foot RV with four high energy kids you need somewhere to take them to explore. And that somewhere was often Norris. We would come to Norris in the evenings every couple weeks. And I know Brandon often took the kids here while I was at work.  The kids ended up as de facto tour guides because they knew the area so well.

Based on my frequent visits to the area I've come up with five suggestions for how to have an enjoyable visit to Norris Geyser Basin.  Ignore these are your own peril.

1. Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon. This is my standard advise for visiting all of Yellowstone but it's really important in the Norris Geyser Basin. You'll want to plan your visit to Norris for a time before 10:00 am or after 5:00 pm. That's because the park rangers literally close the parking lot when it gets too full during the day.  You don't want to drive all the way there, and then find that it's closed. Also air will be cooler if you visit in the morning or evening.  Cooler air makes the thermal features look better. 


2. Bring plenty of water.  There is no drinking water available in Norris Geyser Basin. So make sure you have some before you venture into this area of the park. The trails are long and there is no shade.  Plus the geysers and hot springs themselves are among the hottest in the park. You will want water.

3. Bring a Map - you will get lost without one.  On one of our early visits to Norris I turned to Brandon and said, "Norris is the IKEA of Yellowstone."

Years ago we'd gone to IKEA and got lost wandering around in the display areas.  At first it had been fun because we were looking at some cool things.  But gradually we realized we were in a giant maze and we had no idea how to get out. I honestly started to panic a little bit.  Fortunately Brandon found a store map and figured out how to get us out of the display area.

That's how Norris is.  At first you have fun following the trails and seeing the thermal features.  But soon you'l realize that you don't know a quick way back to the entrance.  And if you are on the Back Trail there is NOT a quick way out.  You'll want a map to help you avoid the longest trails and to get back to the entrance.

Usually there are trail guide books located at the entrance.  If you can't grab one of those take a picture with your phone of the large maps on display at guide posts.  You'll be able to refer back to the picture when you need to make a decision.

4.  Use the restroom before you go down the main trail 
The only restrooms are the vault toilets in the parking area.  Even if they are disgusting (which they usually are) they are better than nothing.  And nothing is what you'll get as soon as you follow the main trail into Norris Basin.  I can't tell you how many times I had to run back up that trail with one or two of my kids who needed to use the bathroom.

5. Be prepared to WALK.  There is only one main trail down into Norris Geyser Basin.  After about a 100 yards the trail splits into two.  You can go left into the Porcelain Basin or you can go right to the Back Basin. Porcelain Basin is smaller, but does have a steep decent. The Back Basin has a boardwalk for part of the way and a gravel trail on other parts.  The trails are long and this is where you will get lost if you don't have a map.

There is also a trail connecting the Porcelain Basin to the Back Basin. I'm not sure the exact distance of this trail, but it feels like it's 5 miles long. There are a few interesting features on this trail, but not quite enough to make it worth the distance if you've had a long day of sight seeing.

Now that you are acquainted with the rules of visiting Norris Geyser Basin we can talk about what you can expect to see.

When you first enter Norris you walk down a dirt trail to a Museum. Don't expect any fancy displays or interactive exhibits here.  It's really nothing more than a glorified log cabin.  It does provide some nice shade.

The trail splits near the Museum.  This is where you will make the most important decision of your whole visit. Do you go Left to the Back Basin or do you go Right to the Porcelain Basin?

The Porcelain Basin is smaller and has features closer together.  If you just want a quick visit to Norris then go to the Porcelain Basin. The decent into the Porcelain Basin is steep though.  If you can't go down a steep incline or stairs don't try to go down into the Porcelain Basin.  You can see some the area from a porch next to the museum.  Most of the features in the Porcelain Basin are hot pools and their run off channels.  They create pretty colors and can be very stunning when the air is cool.

If you are short on time, or just want a quick peek at what Norris has to offer, then I suggest you follow the trail through the museum breezeway and then down the hill into the Porcelain Basin.

This is a picture looking back toward the trail down from the museum.  As you can see the decent is pretty rapid.  You'll pass some hot springs and may even be treated to a small geyser eruption.  
Part of the trail branches off and skirts around the edge of the Porcelain Basin.  This trail will take you near some of the prettiest colored pools in the area. 
Once you get down from the hill you'll be walking an a boardwalk near hot springs and across geyser runoff channels.

Even though I kind of hate Norris, I always like looking across the Porcelain Basin.  It gives me an interesting perspective on how small and insignificant humans are compared to forces of nature.
If you are visiting early in the morning you'll see lots of columns of steam rising up from every thermal feature.  If you are visiting later in the day you wont see as much steam.
The boardwalk for the Porcelain Basin loops around and so you don't have to retrace your steps to leave the basin.  You will have to re-climb the hill though.

Before you reach the top of the hill you'll come to a trail that branches off and heads to the Back Basin.  DO NOT take this trail unless you are prepared for what it is like. This trail is long, and boring, and will make you question all your life decisions up to this point.

If you are interested in visiting the Back Basin, go back up to the Museum and follow trail up there into the Back Basin. This trail is often a boardwalk and passes several interesting features on the way into the Back Basin.

The Back Basin is larger with features that are spread out. The boardwalk extends past Echinus Geyser and then becomes a gravel trail.  The Back Basin loop trail is about 1.5 miles long, though on hot days it will feel much longer. There are many geysers of various sizes and eruption frequency located on this trail.  Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the park, is located along the boardwalk. Steamboat Geyser eruptions are rare and unpredictable so don't expect to see one on your visit.

If you are feeling adventurous and have the time and stamina for a long walk then feel free to explore the Back Basin after seeing Porcelain Basin.

One of my favorite features in Norris is located at the start of the Back Basin Boardwalk.  This is Emerald Spring.  It is often full of bubbly gases and can even erupt a few feet.
The next feature of note is Steamboat Geyser.  This is the tallest geyser in the park, but it is not predictable and can span years between eruptions.  During our visits in 2017 the last eruption had been in 2014.  Steamboat Geyser did erupt a few times in 2018.  Still don't expect to see an eruption during your visit.

What you can expect to see are smaller bursts of water.  Even though these bursts of water aren't as high as a true eruption, they are fun to watch.  My husband says that watching these bursts for about 45 minutes one evening was one of his favorite memories in Yellowstone.
My kids were also often entertained by the water from Steamboat Geyser. We would follow the boardwalk down to the bottom of a hill near the geyser.  Run off would cascade down the runoff channel in cycles.  My kids loved watching the water come toward them.
After Steamboat Geyser the boardwalk continues past some small pools and geysers. It goes down some stairs and this is where you should turn around if you are having doubts about your physical ability to traverse the Back Basin.

The next geyser of note is Echinus Geyser.  This geyser is somewhat predicable, but I have my doubts. When my family visited Norris when I was 17 we spent quite a bit of time sitting on the benches near Echinus waiting for it to go off.  There was large crowd waiting with us, but we never saw an eruption. I'm not sure if the crowd formed because someone predicted an eruption or if some tourist just started a trend.  Either way I felt it was a waste of time.  I was still mad about it 15 years later and so I never even took a picture of Echinus during our summer in Yellowstone.  It doesn't deserve attention.

After you pass Echinus Geyser the boardwalk will abruptly turn into a dirt trail. This is your signal that things are about to get long and rough.  The trail will meander around several small and somewhat interesting features.  If you are visiting when the air is cool and you have drinking water then go ahead and follow the trail to these features.

One of the most interesting features is Green Dragon Spring. It's basically under part of the boardwalk. 
My kids liked Pork Chop Geyser.  The interpretive sign tells about how this geyser exploded in 1989. It's a reminder that Norris is a very active area.
There is one feature in the Back Basin that make even the longest hikes worth it.  Vixen Geyser.  My husband says this is his favorite geyser in Yellowstone.  Every few minutes the geyser erupts about 10 feet high.  It's nice to know that Vixen Geyser will always treat you to a show when you visit the Back Basin.
My kids always loved seeing Vixen Geyser erupt.
Here they are enjoying the show on evening. (And yes, I'm aware that my daughter is dressed as a bat.)


After Vixen Geyser you can follow a loop back to the board walk or you can go on the long trail that connects the Back Basin to the Porcelain Basin.  That long trail really feels LONG after a whole day of sight seeing so only attempt it if you are in the mood for a bit of a hike.  It is level and it does pass a few more geysers so it could be worth your time if you have the stamina.

More than likely you'll be ready to head back up the trail and leave Norris Geyser Basin.  If you didn't follow my recommendations you will probably swear off any future visits to the area. But if you did follow my recommendations you will hopefully have some good memories and pictures of your time in the Norris Geyser Basin.

Recommendation: As a jaded resident of Yellowstone National Park my recommendation is to skip the Norris Geyser Basin.  It does not provide a great experience for most of the people who visit it.  However, I acknowledge that it is an interesting part of the park.  If you are prepared for the long walks and the fact that there isn't a "must see" feature to reward your efforts, then Norris Geyser Basin is worth a visit.

Directions: Thanks to its central location at the junction of three major park roads, Norris Geyser Basin is very easy to find.


Places Nearby: The Norris Campground is located across the Grand Loop Road from the geyser basin. The campground is first come first serve so you'll have to plan accordingly if you want to stay there. There is a trail that leads from the campground to the Porcelain Basin. One of these days I'd love to stay at the Norris Campground and then walk over to the geyser basin in the early morning.  I'm sure it would be a lovely sight and might change some of my cynical opinions about Norris.

Want more Yellowstone Vacation Ideas? Visit my list of Things you can't miss and hidden gems along the way.

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I would love to hear what you think. Did I get it right, or was I dead wrong? What was your experience like?

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