Trip report #14 – Yellowstone – Norris Geyser Basin and Artist Paint Pots

Having been near Yellowstone National Park for three weeks, we had pretty much seen most of the highlights. Very deliberately, however, I had saved one of my favorites – the Norris Geyser Basin – for the latter part of our visit, and on a crisp less-than-40-degree morning we headed out to see it.

Norris sits atop the junction of several major fault lines, providing conduits for heat from the molten lava below. This results in it being the hottest geyser basin in North America. In fact, a scientific team found temperatures of 459 degrees Fahrenheit at 1,087 feet below the earth’s surface and was forced to quit drilling when pressure threatened to destroy its drilling rig!

This geyser basin is also one of the most acidic hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone, and visitors are warned about the toxic gases present in this area and encouraged to leave if they begin to feel ill.

There are two primary regions within Norris. We decided to explore both and started with the smaller loop around Porcelain Basin.

As we walked out onto the boardwalk, we got our first glimpse of the eerie landscape that defines this part of Norris. The most striking difference between this area and that surrounding the Upper Geyser Basin near Old Faithful is the lack of vegetation. Due to the acidic nature of the features here, trees are nonexistent or stunted and oddly colored.

The Porcelain Basin

Scott likened it to Mordor, the dark and evil land made famous by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Based on what we saw, I thought it was a good comparison.

Note the milky blue pool in this photo. It is one of several in the basin and is saturated with silica, the primary component of glass.

Pinwheel Geyser was particularly interesting. The brilliant green color in its runoff channel is comprised of acid-tolerant thermophiles. These organisms can only exist if the water cools to 100-126 degrees. The rust-red color is created by iron oxide.

Pinwheel Geyser

Whale’s Mouth is named for the formations within the pool that resemble the baleen keratin sheets found within some species’ mouths that allow them to filter food.

Whale’s Mouth

Just beyond it, Crackling Lake is alive with the sound of popping vents.

Crackling Lake


Black Growler burps forth a steady column of steam. Watching it, we found it hard to keep our glasses free of mist and were careful to keep our camera lens covers on when not actively shooting as the silica deposits can be extremely hard to remove.

Black Growler Steam Vent

Upon finishing our walk of the Porcelain Basin Loop, we sat in the truck a bit, sharing a snack and warming up. Little by little the sun’s rays began to peek through the clouds and we started our 1.5-mile walk of Back Basin, Norris’ other region.

Here the thermal features are more isolated and scattered among small groves of lodgepole pines.

The magnificent color of Emerald Spring comes from the blue of the water combined with the yellow of the sulfur-coated pool. The water in this 27-foot-deep pool is close to boiling and only the most heat-tolerant thermophiles can survive here.

Emerald Spring

Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest active geyser, throwing water more than 300 feet high. Its full eruptions are entirely unpredictable and while we weren’t lucky enough to witness one, we did see frequent bursts of water and the resulting runoff to the basin below.

Steamboat Geyser

Echinus Geyser is named for its deposits which resemble the spines of sea urchins. It is the largest acidic geyser known, its pH level near that of battery acid! For safety purposes, it is surrounded by the boardwalk which is fenced in this area.

Echinus Geyser

Cistern Spring is linked underground to Steamboat Geyser and empties after each major eruption. Otherwise, it is a beautiful blue pool with constant overflow, and its silica-rich water is slowly killing the trees surrounding it.

Cistern Spring

Puff ‘n Stuff Geyser chugs and grunts, throwing water just a few feet.

Puff ‘n Stuff Geyser

Part of this basin became so hot that its features began to damage the boardwalk structure over it, and visitors’ feet were overheated. A new thermal feature also began to throw scalding, acidic mud onto the trail. The boardwalk was rerouted, and temperatures in this area continue to exceed 200 degrees, the boiling point of water at this elevation.

Pearl Geyser can spray water 8 feet high, but it is most beautiful when inactive.

Pearl Geyser is serene and beautiful when inactive.

Vixen Geyser gurgles below the surface, rarely erupting.

Vixen Geyser

On our way back to West Yellowstone, we pulled off the main highway to view Artist Paint Pots, a feature neither I nor Scott had seen. The mile-long hike quickly climbs and provides a marvelous view of the colorful hot springs for which this area is named. Even more interesting – and amusing – are the boiling blue and white mud pots. Were they not in the ground and steaming, you’d swear you were looking into gallon cans of house paint.

Our view of Artist Paint Pots from the trail above


Not long before we left the park boundary, we saw a small group of elk just off the road. Around the next bend, this guy made his presence known but generously posed for my camera. I didn’t even have to exit the truck.


  1. Tammy
    Oct 12, 2012

    Loved these Janie. The pearl really does look like a pearl. I recall that when I visited (many years ago), this was my favorite part.

  2. Terry D
    Oct 15, 2012

    Love this post Janie…so interesting, esp. since I’ve not been there.

  3. Janie
    Oct 16, 2012

    Terry – I’m thinking we need a girls trip to Yellowstone! You absolutely have to see these natural wonders – there is nothing like Yellowstone!

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