Along this 16-mile section of the park, you will be able to view the Lower, Midway & Upper Geyser Basins as well as the Firehole River. This area contains the four types of hydrothermal features: geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots.
Since our time was limited, we parked the car and viewed this large area of hydrothermal activity on foot by walking along the boardwalk trail at Fountain Paint Pots. As luck would have it, the geysers were erupting and we ran into a herd of about 20 bison (of course tourist didn't heed warnings and were way to close to the animals).
The Geyser and springs here are not as dramatic as other areas but what makes this unique is its location on the banks of Lake Yellowstone. Many of the Geysers are on formations a little ways off shore.
This is one of the most dramatic of the Norris basin geysers. It also happens to be one of the most regular and predictable of the Norris geyser. Thus, making it a favorite stop for tourists. It erupts every 30-60 minutes. If you are in the Norris area for any amount of time, you are sure to be able to catch it.
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest geyser basin in Yellowstone, with many of the hot springs and furmaroles (steam vents) having temperatures over the boiling point. Norris is divided into two sections. These are the Back Basin, which is in a more forest like setting; and Porcelain Basin which is beautiful, yet desolate looking, lacking vegetation. No plants can live in the Porcelain section, because of its hot, acidic water which springs from many thermal features in the basin. The Norris Geyser Basin is constantly changing, due to the many earthquakes in the area, usually so small that you won’t even feel them. Each year hot springs and geysers become dormant, while others appear or become active once again, once clear springs may become muddy or even temporarily become geysers. Usually these earthquakes are just a disturbance and after a few days or a little over a week the featured once again returns to the previous state. Sometimes, however, the earthquake is large enough that permanent changes are created. Steamboat Geyser is the one we really would love to see. When we moved to Cody, Steamboat was considered to be dormant, possibly to never erupt again. However, one year it once again sprang into action. This is the world’s tallest active geyser, throwing water more than 300 feet (90 m) high. The eruptions, however, are not predictable, and are very rare. When it does erupt it is usually active for 3 to 40 minutes. It is common, however to see it throwing bursts of water from 10 to 40 feet in height. Of the geyser’s I have seen erupt in this basin, Echinus is one of my favorites in the park. Echinus use to be predictable, regularly erupting about every hour. Unfortunately an earthquake has permanently interrupted this regularity, and Echinus is now unpredictable. If you are lucky enough to catch an eruption, it is worth the time. This is a fountain geyser, so if you can, watch the entire show. The pool slowly fills and then it begins to boil, next it begins to erupt with bursts of water that last from 3 to 5 minutes. Then the water drains back into its opening like water flowing down the drain of a sink. Please be aware that this geyser is the largest acid-water geyser known, with its waters almost as acid as vinegar. For this reason you will want to protect your camera lenses.
My second photo is of Cistern springs, located in the Back Basin. This springs has a variety of colors created by the algae and bacteria living in it. Each one requires a different temperature, so those living near the hottest area, will be different from those on the edge. My Third photo is of Emerald Springs, also in the Back Basin. This is a 27-foot deep pool, which is lined with yellow sulfur deposits. The yellow color, combined with the reflected blue color of sunlight, gives this springs its beautiful, emerald green color. Photo 4 gives you an example of the more wooded look of the Back Basin. Photo 5 is another overlook view of Norris Back Basin.
Be sure to check out my short video featuring Porcelain Basin, which is located in Norris.
Also, take time to view this excellent 4:15 minute video on Norris Norris Geyser Basin
Besides the wonderful geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin you will see beautiful hot water pools, and bubbling hot springs. As an example, with temperatures over 299 degrees F, Crested Pool is almost constantly boiling. Because of the high temperature, less bacterial growth can live in this pool making the water a crystal clear blue color. Morning Glory Pool a long time favorite of people visiting Yellowstone, is also located in the Upper geyser Basin. Unfortunately people throwing coins and trash into the water have damaged Morning Glory. These become embedded into the sides and the opening of the spring has been reduced. This in turn has caused the water temperature to cool some, allowing orange and yellow bacterial to grow in the now cooler water. These are just two of the wonderful pools to gaze into. Look into the pools and enjoy the variety of colors and textures of each
Check out my video, titled Chinese Spring. This hot spring, located in the Upper Geyser Basin, is a small spring, that is 12.5 feet deep. The story behind this spring is that the name came from a Chinese laundryman who unintentionally caused this spring to erupt while using it to do laundry. Under normal conditions, this spring does not erupt, so enjoy the bubbling, but don’t expect to see an eruption.
I would plan at least two hours to walk the boardwalks and trails around the Upper Geyser Basin.
West Thumb overlooks Yellowstone Lake, and although a small basin, contains some interesting and beautiful features. Below the surface of Yellowstone Lake are hot springs and hydrothermal vents. Some of these are just offshore in West Thumb. If you look closely, you may be able to see some of their swirling patterns on the water’s surface. This geyser basin pours an average of 3,100 gallons of hot water into the lake every day, but despite of this the lakes average below the surface summer temperature still remains at 45 degrees F. Again, the colors that you see in the spring waters here are due to the heat loving microorganisms, called thermophiles that live in the springs.
Mud Volcano is not the most beautiful of the active areas in the park, but it is interesting. I especially love the Black Dragon’s Caldron, and the mud volcano is so much fun late in the summer or in the fall, when the waters are not watered down by spring rains and snow melt. I read once that the mud volcano sometimes would hurl football-sized blobs of mud. I have never seen this, but I have seen it when it is thick and plopping out tennis ball size pieces of mud. The Dragon’s Caldron is not very pretty to look at, but the sound that it makes is worth the stop.
Midway Geyser Basin is another interesting, but small geyser basin. You can stroll this boardwalk in about 20-minutes. In Midway you will see the large crater of Excelsior Geyser, which last erupted for two days in 1985. Today this huge pool produces about 4,000 gallons of scalding water each minute. Grand Prismatic Springs is another popular site in this basin. 370 feet wide, this is the largest and one of the most beautiful hot springs in the park. The algae and bacteria that live in the hot water causes the wonderful colors that you see in the pools. My photo shows what some of these bacterial mats look like.
Biscuit Basin is not as popular as Black Sand Basin, and has no large explosive geysers, but when we first visited this little basin we were surprised how much we enjoyed it. There is a lovely meandering river by this basin, where if you are lucky you may see an Osprey hovering overhead in mid flight, looking for a fish dinner. We found pools such as Black Opal Spring, Wall Pool, Sapphire Pool, Shell and Mustard Springs quite lovely, and the colors of the run off from the springs are a beautiful yellow and rusty orange. This is a nice, quick, side trip if you are in the park for a number of days.
Photo two shows the lovely Sapphire Pool within Biscuit Basin.
For a view of Shell Spring, a small, bubbling hot springs in Biscuit Basin, see my video, Shell Spring in Biscuit Basin.
Fountain Paint Pot Geyser Basin has an easy half mile loop boardwalk. Here you can see a variety of hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles (steam vents). Fountain Paint pots contain mud pots, but remember that mud pots vary with the season. In early summer and spring these are thin and watery from the rain and snowmelt. By late summer and fall they have thickened, and often become quite thick. This is when mud pots are really fun and interesting to watch. But be careful, if you are visiting them when they are thick, sometimes the mud bursts plot mud right over the guardrail and onto your shoes! Fumaroles will be hissing and roaring as you walk past them, pools contain beautiful colors, and you may catch a geyser as it erupts. The erupting geyser in this photo is Clepsydra.
Firehole Lake Drive is a two mile one-way drive that will take you past a small group of pools and geysers. We drive through here whenever we are in the area, as it is a quick drive and one of our very favorite geysers, Great Fountain Geyser is located here. Even when not erupting, the beauty of this geyser can be enjoyed, especially if you catch it as the sun is setting. Eruptions average 100 feet (31 m), but sometimes a rare burst of 200 feet (61 m) or even more can be seen. This geyser when in its active cycle, which includes bursts of hot water alternated with calm periods, lasts for 45 to 60 minutes. Although Great Fountain does go through periods of irregularity, generally it erupts about every 9 to 12 hours. As fountain geysers typically do, the pool slowly fills. About 70 to 100 minutes before the eruption starts the pool will begin to overflow, and violent boiling begins before the first burst. If you are not able to catch Great Fountain Geyser, you may be able to watch White Dome Geyser erupt. This is a very nice geyser, with a large cone, indicating that it is an old geyser. White Dome averages an eruption height of about 30 feet, with the eruption lasting about 2 minutes. White Dome usually erupts every 15 to 30 minutes. Be aware, however, it can vary to more than 3 hours.
Artists Paint Potss is sort of an off the beaten path place, in that people on a short time schedule tend to skip this one so that they can see the larger geyser basins. Here you will walk a short trail that climbs to a high point where you can see some wonderful mud pots. I like these best in late summer and fall when the pools are filled with thick, gray, mud that just spits out blobs and flat plate like disks of mud from their centers. It is just fascinating to watch. Unfortunately mud pots vary with the season. In spring and summer these areas are watered down from rains and snow melt, so the mud is more like gray colored water, and you do not get the full pleasure of watching the thick stuff just plopping up. As the season goes on and the ponds get drier, that is when the show is really fun to watch. Besides these wonderful mud pots there are also a few pretty hot pools to enjoy.
Black Sand Basin is a nice, small geyser and hot pool area that will not take you very long to walk. Named for black volcanic glass, some of the most popular and beautiful springs in Yellowstone are in this small basin. Be sure to see Emerald Pool and Rainbow Pool while in the area.
Photo two shows the beautiful Emerald Pool located in Blank Sand Basin
The Upper Terrace Road circles back on itself, so we decided to park our car at the entrance parking lot and get out for a proper look at impressive looking Angel Terrace. There is quite a large network of boardwalks there that allow good exploration of a number of interesting geological features. We started off with this view of its brilliant white formations intermingled with colorful bacteria left behind during major underground thermal activity. The 2nd photo shows just one of the many boardwalks, this one leading to a sharp drop-off into the distant valley and also showing how widespread the thermal activity is at this location. I finally made it down to the boardwalk (3rd photo) for a stroll toward that impressive canyon. The last two photos give a good idea of how varied Angel Terrace is with its weird flow-shapes, beautiful colours, stark skeletons of dead trees, dripping formations and waterfalls. There was so much to see that it was difficult to take it all in. Well, at least we tried but – by 10 AM we had to get on the road south to Norris as we had more exploring to do along the western side of Yellowstone’s loop roads.
Only a half hour later, as we continued our drive toward Old Faithful, we came upon another geological treat of Yellowstone that we had not yet encountered. This time it was the Grand Prismatic Spring flowing into the Firehole River with such colour that we simply had to stop once again! There is a footbridge there that will allow passers-by to access the largest hot spring in Yellowstone – the 370-ft diameter Grand Prismatic. According to park literature, its name came from “the deep-blue colour of the pool and the rings of yellow- and orange-coloured thermophiles surrounding it”. Little did we know at the time that according to Wikipedia “The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world next to those in New Zealand.” So much to see, so little time.
The 21-mile long Firehole River was so-named by early fur trappers because of the steam that rose above it. In reality, that steam was caused by the many geothermal features of Yellowstone that empty into it, causing its waters to become as hot as 30 C! Not knowing that we were missing a major attraction, we took these few photographs and continued southward to our main objective.