After leaving Norris Geyser Basin, we continued our drive south and passed through Madison, where visitors from the west (Idaho) can easily access Yellowstone. We did not even stop for lunch, because our main objective at that stage was to reach Old Faithful in time for its next eruption! However, about half-way between Madison and Old Faithful we came upon the one-way Firehole Lake Drive, so decided to do a bit of exploring there. Shortly after we turned off the main highway we came across two motorcyclists stopped beside the Drive and could not believe it when we saw that they were the same two guys from New England that we had enjoyed a long conversation with the night before, at our motel in Gardiner!
Continuing our way on the Firehole Lake Drive we saw Great Fountain Geyser actually having a major eruption as we began to drive towards it! The eruption did not last long so, by the time we actually got close to it, all we could see was a close-up view of its cone (2nd photo). We were happy enough to have seen what we did, because it normally erupts every 9-15 hours and we just happened to be on Firehole Lake Drive by chance. When it does blow its top, the plume can be as high as 75-220 feet.
This view of Porcelain Basin was taken from the hillside Ranger Office, after we had returned from our Emerald Spring walk, and shows a distant boardwalk with tiny visitors exploring the area. The 2nd photo shows a clearer view of the boardwalk as we began our hike down the footpath from the Ranger Office. With its wide open area devoid of trees, this hottest thermal area in the park is completely different from the area we had just walked, mainly because of the lack of plants due to the effects of the thermal vents and acidic water found in this basin. We enjoyed our walk on the boardwalk as we were constantly amazed at how different each of the thermal pools were and by their vibrant colours (3rd and 4th photos).
The thermal activity here contributed to the name of this geological wonder, thanks to the minerals that are brought to the surface by the various vents and then settle out as a ‘milky’ evaporated layer over the flat terrain.
We reached Norris Geyser Basin at about 11 AM and the sun was already getting very hot on this last day in July – no complaints though! This is where some of the world’s finest thermal features can be found and it was certainly different than the Mammoth Hot Springs area. After finding a spot in the almost full large car park area, we set off on a footpath through a forested area to explore this part of Yellowstone (and we had lots of company). Our first sighting, the 27-ft (8-m) deep Emerald Spring, was very impressive with its crystal clear waters presenting a beautiful sight. This is quite a hot spring at 78 C but it gets its colour due to the sunlight being filtered by the water to blue, which in turn is reflected off the yellow sulpher bottom which makes it appear as emerald green water! It is presently in a dormant phase but several decades ago it erupted with a plume of 70-ft (20-m).
A walk further down the trail showed us that it had good company in the form of Steamboat Geyser (2nd and 3rd photos). I always thought Old Faithful was the world heavyweight champion, but Steamboat Geyser can blow as high as 380-ft (110-m) with a mighty roar when it feels like having one of its rare major eruptions – the last time being in 1991. We did manage to see it ‘burp’ a few times while we were there! We were really feeling the heat beating down by then, but we still had another stop to see before we continued our drive through Yellowstone.
Not far south of Mammoth Hot Springs we drove across this concrete trestle on Highway 89 in Kingman Pass. This has always been the main direct link south for tourists heading out to see Old Faithful, resulting in the need for good transportation links at this choke point. The previous wooden trestle that was built here at “The Golden Gate” (named for the colours of the rocks and lichens, although you would never know it looking at my photo!) was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers under the direction of Lieutenant Dan Kingman in 1883.
Several miles beyond the Golden Gate we reached 7,400-foot Roaring Mountain (2nd photo), not far north of our destination of Norris, so we stopped for a look at this mountain with steam coming out of its side! The mountain is made up of volcanic rock from an eruption that took place between 12-30 thousand years ago and is located in one of the areas of hotter magma in Yellowstone NP, partly because the magma is only about 2 miles below the surface. The result is that water from rain or snow trickles down into the mountain cracks and becomes heated past the boiling point by the acidic magma , rising upward again as a fumarole and emerging from the mountainside as acidic steam. The acid brought to the surface tends to leave a lunar like landscape (3rd photo). By the way, the difference between a fumarole and a hot spring is that the water in a fumarole turns to steam before it reaches the surface.
When we went to the park in 1948, we were given some kind of schedule with the locations of the geysers and their normal schedule. We tracked some of them down and then waited for them to erupt.
This time, we drove around the parks to the various sections and my grandson got out and walked the trails and photographed the geothermal features. We also bought a map with the features and trails around the Old Faithful Inn and he walk around and saw those.
The Norris Geyser Basin was our first exploration into Yellowstone's noted geysers due primarily to the fact that Norris Campground was our next place to pitch the old tent. We found out later we could have hiked to the basin on a one-mile trail from the campground, something to remember for next time. As it was, there is a loop trail around the more scenic Porcelain Basin that is a mere half mile. The connected Back Basin is only 1.5 miles so doing the entire figure eight is 2 miles.
There were some very lovely steamy emerald pools in the Porcelain Basin area as well as bubbling pools and fumaroles venting steam like kettles. We found this to be a very pretty walk though it might have been because it was the first one and were not “all geysered out” at that point.
The Grand Pragmatic Spring would probably be the park's main attraction if helicopter rides were free. It is the largest in the United States and third largest in the world. This immense hot spring is 300 feet across and 150 feet deep with its hottest water toppling 188 degrees Fahrenheit! This is obviously too hot to support any living thing but along the pools edges where the water is not quite so hot, heating-loving bacteria live in colonies and make for a very colorful contrast to the deep blue of its very pure center. It must be stunning sight if seen from above. It was pretty amazing just walking around it on the boardwalk path in the Midway Geyser Basin near Old Faithful. It was, however, one of the rare times, I wish I was up above.
Roughly 27 kms from the Old Faithful area on the south loop road lies the West Thumb basin on the banks of Yellowstone Lake. More pools here than geysers although a worthy one to see is Twin. Nice boardwalks take you around to the different areas and very close to the lake.
Biscuit is part of the Old Faithful area, on the other side of the road and a fair walk if you don't use the car. It can be visited before Old Faithful, if you're travelling down from Madison.
Jewel Geyser is one of the most interesting for visitors as it has the reputation of frequent eruptions, every 5/10 mins for about a minute although rarely more than 6 metres high.
Geyser Hill is situated diammetrically opposite the arrival point at Old Faithful, and is worth the time if you have to wait for the next eruption of the main geyser. From the hill you can also keep an eye on things at the site of Old Faithful. Up here are a variety of geysers and hot thermal pools.
The Midway geyser basin is home to the fabulously coloured "Grand Prismatic Spring", that has been featured in many a magazine and adorns covers of many coffee table books. It is also Yellowstone's largest hot spring. Unfortunately the view from the boardwalks don't let you see the full extent of its beauty. (See off the beaten path tips for a better view).
There are also the Excelsior and Turquoise pools with also some superb colourations.
When leaving the parking lot to cross the river look up into the trees to your right. You may see the Osprey nests and if lucky the Osprey themselves.
This was our first real sighting close up of the geysers and bubbling mudholes. The fountain paint pots and some terrific colours at every turn. Of course the boardwalk makes things easier to get around to the different pools. Please stay on the boardwalks as you can damage the "thermophiles", the microorganismes that create the superb colouring.
The Red Spouter pictured here didn't actually exist 50 years ago, but due to an earthquake 40 kms from here the geyser was born. Even today the Red Spouter changes all the time : with the spring run-off it spouts hot muddy water, in summer just bubbling mud, and then in Autumn the spring is virtually dry and is just a steam vent. The Clepsydra geyser further round on the boardwalk is in an almost permanent state of eruption and is a lovely sight.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in Yellowstone and considered the 3ird largest in the world behind 2 in New Zealand. The spring overflows on nearly all sides and has several terraced areas around it. A boardwalk will get you very close to it however.
The spring is between 147 and 188 degrees F (64-87 Celsius) and has the signature colored algae that Yellowstone’s thermal features are famous for. It is somewhat difficult to appreciate the hot spring from the boardwalk since it is usually shrouded in a dense steam cloud. A better view (aerial) may be had by following the trail which leads to Fairy Falls and making your way up the hillside opposite the Grand Prismatic Spring.
This is a rather small geyser basin, but it contains one of the most amazing pools in all of Yellowstone, the Grand Prismatic Spring. Aerial views of the spring show a pool the size of a small lake, with a bright blue centre, which slowly turns greenish closer to its rim, and is surrounded by a yellow border, from which many orange/reddish streams carry any overspill from the spring into the surrounding area.
From the boardwalk on the ground you will not be able to appreciate the full colour display in all its glory, but you can still see how the colour changes towards the middle of the spring, and steam from the spring is hovering over it like a blue cloud.
The area around Old Faithful has the largest concentration of geysers in the world, and a boardwalk through the Upper Geyser Basin from Old Faithful to the Morning Glory Pool will lead you past springs, pools and geysers in an amazing array of colours, shapes and sizes.
The colours are created by heat-loving bacteria living in the pools, with different bacteria living in different temperatures, and the colour therefore gives an indication of the water temperature. The Morning Glory Pool offers the most stunning colour display with its blue centre. However, as some people can't contain themselves and keep throwing things into the pools, it has become contaminated, water circulation was reduced and water temperatures changed, leading to the blue colour to recede further and further.
For many of the geysers the estimated eruption times are posted on boards in front of the geyser, but as none erupt with Old Faithful's regularity, you may be in for a long wait if you want to see one particular eruption. Even the estimated times for the geysers that erupt on a daily basis may give you window of a couple of hours during which it may (or may not) erupt.
But even without seeing an eruption this is a spectacular place to visit, and you should plan to spend maybe two hours in this area, with the walk from the visitor centre to the Morning Glory Pool and back being a round trip of ca. 4.5 km and looots of things to see and photograph on the way!
Having stayed right next door in the Old Faithful Inn overnight I was lucky that I could do this walk first thing in the morning before the day visitors arrived, as the boardwalk started to get more crowded by the time I got back to Old Faithful.