Hiking, Hot Springs, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Waterfalls, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Of Geysers & Waterfalls – Day 4: Artist Point, Norris Geyser Basin, Artists’ Paint Pots, Monument Geyser Basin, and Firehole Lake Drive

Day 4 – August 25, 2020

Today was the day that taught me early mornings are the key to a more enjoyable Yellowstone experience. I’m not talking about extreme early mornings, but getting to places at 7:30am greatly increases the positive visitor experience!

I packed up and headed out of Canyon Campground with a mug of tea and my camera ready. First destination, after stopping to let Mr. Bison walk on by, was South Rim Drive. Here you can see stunning views of both the Upper and Lower Falls. I gathered up my stuff to see Upper Falls and then hoof to it down Uncle Tom’s Trail, but sadly Uncle Tom’s was closed. That left me with the short drive to Artist Point, which is one of the most photographed areas in the park if you ask me.

Just your typical Yellowstone morning traffic
Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River.
Bonus waterfall spotted while at Upper Falls! Crystal Falls can be reached from the North Rim hiking trail
Another look at Upper Falls

Luckily my early morning (it was 7:30am, not too early) meant I got to spend some solitude looking out over the Grand Canyon, with steaming thermal features on the walls, and the Lower Falls in the distance. I sipped my tea and took photos as the sun rose higher in the sky and the lighting changed. By the time I left about 8am, the crowds had thickened, and my solitude was ending.

Rhyolite walls of the Grand Canyon
Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
Steam rising from the canyon walls
Just filling my cup at Artist Point
Finally the sun came up high enough in the sky to light up Lower Falls!
Looking down the Grand Canyon in the other direction

I headed out towards Norris Geyser Basin, but the trip took longer because I kept finding things to stop at. Yellowstone is filled with small hidden gems that the masses overlook as they hurry from major sight to major sight. I drove the one way loop for the Virginia Cascade and stopped at the “Blowdown,” which I must admit I only stopped at because I saw a boardwalk leading into the woods (because that sounds like the start of a good horror movie – she followed the lonely boardwalk into the dense forest…). The Blowdown actually ended up being pretty unique to see, as my photo captions will describe below.

Breakfast time!
Virginia Cascade Drive is one way, but a nice, short detour
Virginia Cascade, the fourth waterfall chased of the day!
In 1984, a 22 mile area of trees were blown down by a wind shear. In 1988, the North Fork fire burned the whole area. A short boardwalk leads to this educational sign.
Burnt trees lay on the ground from the 1988 North Fork Fire, and new tires are growing tall. I’m amazed at the regrowth that occurred over 32 years, considering the altitude! This area was barren and burnt when I last visited in 1991, and now I was standing back in a forest!

Upon pulling into parking at Norris Geyser Basin (which luckily still had plenty of spots – by the time I was done exploring, cars were having to circle the parking lot for spots, or had to park out on the highway and walk in), I noted the sign that my vehicle could be harmed by the minerals from Steamboat Geyser. Hmm. Then I noticed park rangers pulling on car covers, and other vehicles with towels and blankets over the glass and painted parts. So I love my car, so this heightened my concern, so I approached a park ranger who promptly told me if I cared about my paint, I probably shouldn’t park in the lot, as we were in the eruption window for Steamboat. I froze, debating if I should move my car. She then explained I was in the better parking spot, as the trees would block some of the mineral water. I decided to risk it… sorry Mr. Fozzy.

Steamboat Geyser car paint protection!

Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most acidic geyser basin in Yellowstone, which parts of can be visited and are connected by boardwalks (for all that is holy, stay on the boardwalks in this area, a man was boiled alive in 2016 in this area because he strayed from the boardwalk hoping to go hot potting, and they couldn’t recover his body as the acidic waters dissolved his body in Recess Spring). There is a visitor’s center and museum (currently closed in 2020) and bookstore (which handed up pre-stamped papers with the passport stamp for all the stamp junkies like myself). As always, I tried to photograph everything that I could, so sorry not sorry for all the photos in this post.

Norris Geyser Basin lies outside of the Yellowstone Caldera by a few miles, and is believe to be about 150,000 years old, making it the oldest geothermal basin in Yellowstone (the last eruption of the caldera took place 160,000 years ago). The basin displays “seasonal disturbances,” which is an unusual feature, so the area can look different at different times of year. Three faults also meet here. And, to boot, a record temperature for Yellowstone was measured here at 459°F (237°C) just 1,087 feet below the surface. So much geology, so little time!

Map of the area. I recommend picking up one of the $1 trail guides to carry while exploring so you know where you are, plus more features are noted in the trail guide.
I started with the Porcelain Basin, then worked my way around Back Basin to Steamboat Geyser
Porcelain Springs, which has to be one of my favorite thermal features! Standing here listening to the power of the earth was quite too amazing for words! The blue coloring is from silica (see, we have our own Blue Lagoon in Wyoming, and it’s natural, you just can’t swim in it!)
The smoke had significantly cleared on this day, so finally the mountains of the park could be seen!
In geothermal bliss, don’t mind me!
Porcelain Springs
Looks like the Jupiter to me!
I’ll still always be amazed at the trees and plants that end up growing in a barren, hostile place like this
Hurricane Vent
Colloidal Pool looking a bit mucky
Boardwalk winding over this extremely hot spot
Scummy Pool
Cerulean Pool in foreground, Sunday Geyser in background
Constant Geyser

I’ve thought of this several times over the course of my trip thus far, but can you imagine being the first humans to stumble upon Yellowstone?! What a frightening discovery! The early white explorers were often not believed when they returned home with stories of Yellowstone, and I completely understand why!

Whirligig Geyser
Runoff from Pinwheel and Whirligig Geysers. The bright green is acid tolerant thermophiles, which includes Cyanidioschyzon. The rust color is from iron oxide
A little spouter
I believe that is Guardian Geyser in the middle
Yellow Crown Crater
Whale’s Mouth
Crackling Lake
Bacterial mats make the world go ’round
Another view of Crackling Lake
Milky Complex. Scaled sinter is apparently quite rare
Looking back at the Porcelain Basin

Porcelain Basin explored, I turned my sights to the Back Basin. The Porcelain and Back Basins are all part of the same thermal system, they just separate things due to the loops boardwalks.

Forgotten Fumarole… but not forgotten by me and my camera!
Never throw stuff into geysers, it can kill them off 😦
Minute Geyser with its clogged vent
Monarch Geyser was active in the 1880s with huge eruptions that created a crater. Now it’s just hanging out.
Fearless Geyser. A couple of other visitors and I took to heckling this geyser. Not sure why, but it was fun. My best insult was, “You’re not even listed in the trail guide!” You have to admit, that was a good one!
Corporal Geyser
Veteran Geyser
Another angle of Veteran Geyser. Loving the wide angle lens on my iPhone in cases like this! Much better than swapping out lenses on the Nikon.
Veteran Geyser
Vixen Geyser close up
So the boardwalk hasn’t always taken the same path. In 2003, the area around Pearl Geyser became so hot the boardwalk got a bit too hot for comfort, and the area was spewing acidic, hot mud onto the trail. A reroute was performed. A reminder that thermal areas are ever changing.
Pearl Geyser
Porkchop Geyser exploded in September 1989, sending rocks 200 feet. Now it’s just quiet hot spring
Yellow Funnel Spring
Blue Mud Steam Vent
Green Dragon Spring. There’s a cave in there behind the steam, I swear! I think the cool temperatures this morning made things a bit extra steamy.
Green Dragon Spring with the Gray Lakes in the background
Black Hermit Caldron
Puff ‘N Stuff Geyser wins the award for best name!
Yellow Mud Spring
Mud Spring… being quite transparent!
The unnamed NBBNN025
Arch Steam Vent
Root Pool
Crater Spring
Echinus Geyser is the largest known acidic geyser on the planet, with eruption pH of 3-4 (about the same as vinegar). Eruptions have become rare.
Echinus Geyser run off
Black Pit next to the stairs of the Echinus viewing platform
A final look at Echinus Geyser
Cistern Spring

Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest geyser, but can be very unpredictable, going quiet for decades and then erupting again. There was quite a crowd camped out, waiting for the next eruption… literally, people practically camp out waiting for it (geysers have some hardcore enthusiasts, which is a total retirement goal of mine now!). Though it would’ve been lovely to see, I didn’t have days to spend sitting on the boardwalk. Turns out, Steamboat would erupt the next day – luckily for my car’s paint, ha!

Oh hi there Steamboat Geyser, please don’t hurt my car’s paint!
Steamboat Geyser spewing a bit of water and steam.
A closer look at Steamboat’s vent
Emerald Spring is near boiling in temperature

Whew, what an amazing 2.6 mile walk! I grabbed my passport stamp from the bookshop, made my way through the crowded parking lot filled with cars circuling trying to find a spot, and headed out. My geothermal dreams weren’t over yet, as just down the road was Chocolate Pots, an oft ignored roadside thermal feature on the banks of the Gibbon River. I don’t believe it is marked, but it is on Google Maps, and there is a large pull out where you can safely park.

Chocolate Pot
Chocolate Pot and the Gibbon River

Artists’ Paint Pots, a glorious hill of bubbling mud pots and geysers was the next stop. This is a popular stop, and the parking lot is small so I think I had to do about three or four laps before I was able to snag an open parking spot. Ahhh, the joys of Yellowstone at peak hours! Nevertheless, I was soon on my way to all the bubbling mud goodness! Seriously, mud pots are some of my favorite things ever in the world!

Trail map. It’s a short loop around Artists’ Paint Pots, but it can get quite steep as you ascend Paintpot Hill
Moss. Yellowstone has moss and it makes me oh so happy! It might not be my fluffy Icelandic moss, but it’ll suffice!
Nearly all the features at Artists’ Paint Pots are unnamed. I think this one is brilliant, thought!
How is this even real?!
Yessss, the thick, gloppy mud of my dreams!
The mud pot on Paintpot Hill. As summer wears on, the mud becomes very thick and can get flung pretty high in the air – in fact, I was hit with a piece of it while on the boardwalk! Luckily it was not very hot. During the wetter months, the mud will be a lot soupier.
I can watch this all day long if given the chance
Taking 200 photos of bubbling mud was worth it.
So freaking happy and excited to be hit by mud spewing out the earth!
This was such a cool spot to stand as you could hear a deep thumping sound under the ground.
Looking down from Paintpot Hill
I also like ferns, so Artists’ Paint Pots gave me bubling mud, moss, geyesers, and ferns!!!
Blood Geyser viewed from Paintpot Hill
Another one of those “this can’t be real on earth?!” moments
Hey, look, more moss!
Another view from Paintpot Hill, with Blood Geyser
Flash Spring. The bubbling is caused by carbon dioxide, not temperature.
Blood Geyser is one of my favorites!

As I walked back to my car at Artist Paint Pots, I realized I couldn’t see my car keys in the usual pocket of the small bag I carried. Anxiety heightened as I checked the pocket again again, and then the pockets of my shorts. I hustled to Fozzy, peering in his windows to see if I could see my keys on the seat. Then I checked under the car. I frantically told the guy parked next to me what was going on. I walked to the bathroom. I turned around. Arghhh. Then I checked by bag again… Turns out I put then in a different pocket of my bag than normal, but whew, what panic! There’s no cell service here and my other spare key was 8 hours away. That could’ve been a disaster.

I was only back in the car a short while before arriving at the trailhead for Monument Geyser Basin. This is a short hike, but crazy steep, which makes it seem like a lot more than two miles. Because I had cut out a hike from this morning’s itinerary, I felt like I had to do something, so off I set.

Trail map for the Monument Geyser Basin hike. My GPS registered 2.5 miles round trip with 757 feet of climbing. Leave your llama at home. Oh and this is considered a backcountry trail. Be smart, be bear aware!
As the trail follows the Gibbon River it is mostly flat
A little clearing with a view o the Gibbon River
Climbing complete, I was rewarded with this view!
A hillside fumarole
Monument Geyser/Thermos Bottle Geyser and other sinter cones, and a gorgeous view to the mountains
A closer loop at the mostly inactive sinter geyser cones

Monument Geyser Basin offered great views, but I found to be kind of underwhelming in terms of the actual thermal features. You couldn’t get close to the features (understandably as they didn’t build boardwalks up here and thin crust is always a danger in thermal areas), and it’s not a highly active thermal area. Still good if you’re looking to get away from crowds (I think I shared the area with six others) and want to get in your stair climbing for the day, or want to see some spectacular views of the surrounding area and mountains.

Why is the trail flat in this photo? Ugh… heading back down the steep stuff. Because I hiked in my trail running shoes, I actually ran the descent as it was easier on my knees.

I ate a roadside sandwich, and then continued on. As I drove west the stops continued coming, with Beryl Springs, Gibbon Falls, and Terrace Springs all coming up quickly. Beryl Spring I feel like couldn’t get any closer to the highway if it tried, so it was an easy stop to make.

Beryl Spring
A photograph with the Adventure Dinos at Beryl Spring. I should’ve tried to recreate my 1991 photo, but this was more fun!
In case you wanted to see what Beryl Spring looked like in 1991, here you go!

Gibbon Falls is a very popular stop, and has a large parking lot, and is created by the Gibbon River flowing over a wall of the Yellowstone Caldera. There’s an upper view point, but walking a bit down to the lower viewpoint is well worth it, and is much easier to take photos from. Fifth waterfall of the day, and it was a good one! (At least I can count the waterfalls I chase, the geysers and hot springs are hopeless to keep track of!)

Gibbon Falls on the Gibbon River, from the lower view point
The falls flow over the Lava Creek tuff formation
Gibbon Falls from the upper viewpoint

I was edging closer to my campground, but I had to stop at the little known Terrace Springs. None of the springs appear to be named, and there was one other car in the parking lot. A small boardwalk went around a couple of springs. Not a whole lot to see, but you know, gotta chase all the hot springs!

Terrace Springs area is in a pretty meadow
Unnamed pool at Terrace Springs
Bubbling pool at Terrace Springs

My home for the next three nights was the Madison Campground. This is a large campground, but I found it wasn’t too bad – campers policed other campers in terms of noise and what not. Bears frequent the area since it is right on the Madison River, so I got the rundown about bear precautions at check in. I preferred the surroundings of Canyon better with the trees, but Madison is so perfectly located to many places (and does have that mighty nice river next to it). I found my assigned site (#E184), which wasn’t in the tent only area so I was mixed in with camp trailers, and took to setting up my tent and cooking some food.

My home for the next three nights at Madison Campground! A word to the wise, don’t leave your hammock up unattended, you’ll get a note telling you that you’ve been naughty!
Cooking up my dinner! Repeat of one from earlier in the trip – potatoes, rice, sweet peppers, and steak stirred together. It’s one of my favorite camping meals to make.

I got a bit bored of sitting around my campsite after dinner, so I decided I could check out some stuff in the Lower Geyser Basin since it was close. First I drove Firehole Canyon Drive, stopping to take some photos of Firehole Falls. One of the two legal swimming spots in Yellowstone is located here on the Firehole River, but they had the swimming spots closed for COVID reasons (which… I don’t get. Crowd 500 people around Old Faithful and that’s okay, but can’t have two dozen in a thermal river?? Also the campgrounds had their shower facilities closed… because hygiene isn’t important during a pandemic, and you can’t use portable showers at your campsite because of attracting grizzlies…)

Small rapids I found on the Firehole River
Firehole Falls
Firehole Falls
Are those basalt columns I spy in Firehole Canyon?!

Since I had daylight left and nothing else to do, I continued south, and turned onto the Firehole Lake Drive, another one way loop that takes you to some awesome geothermal features. My mood perked up, and once again the sunroof was opened, wind blowing my hair around, and I had a huge smile. I mean, how often can I get a photo of Fozzy with a geyser in the background, or a pretty blue hot spring?! Also, since it was evening, there was not a lot of traffic so I was able to have some peace and quiet, unlike in other areas.

Looking towards Fountain Geyser from the highway
Dead trees, which I’m guessing is due to thermal activity
Lemon Spring, which is known to slowly change its temperature, so the colors can vary as different thermophiles grow at different temperatures
Under the water at Lemon Spring, showing the different temperature gradients
Selfie with Lemon Spring
Firehole Spring
Firehole Spring, with an appropriate name since the bacterial mats look like flames
Surprise Pool
Surprise Pool has the most charming bubbling action going on!
Great Fountain Geyser
Great Fountain Geyser against the sun
White Dome Geyser erupting! I was at Great Fountain Geyser still when I saw this, so I scrambled towards it.
White Dome Geyser at the end of its eruption
White Dome Geyser’s large cone suggests that it has been erupting for hundreds of years
Great Fountain Geyser erupts! OK, I’m more than tickled that I got a photo of my previous Mr. Fozzy with a geyser going off in the background! Subaru, feel free to call me to shoot unique ad campaigns anytime!
Great Fountain Geyser putting on a show for me wayyy ahead of the predicted eruption time written on the sign! (Maybe the sign hadn’t been properly updated?)
Why am I so excited about my car getting its picture taken with a geyser?! Haha, life is good!
Cave Spring
Pink Cone Geyser
Runoff from Shelf Spring, which can’t be seen from the road
Young Hopeful Geyser on Firehole Lake. Honestly, I love little geysers so much! I spent a long time watch this one, which continuously spouts
Artesia Geyser on Firehole Lake
Steady Geyser on the shore of Black Warrior Lake
Looking over to Hot Lake
Steady Geyser
I love the sometimes literal names in Yellowstone
Another view of Hot Lake
Hot Cascades, which is formed by Black Warrior Lake flowing into Hot Lake. The boardwalk bridges over this area.
Deposits in Black Warrior Lake

Because I still didn’t want to go back to the campsite, I ended up driving all the way south to Old Faithful. Here I had cell service, so I used the opportunity to call my parents while I sat at Old Faithful watching a bison with dozens of others. I had just missed an eruption, but I hung out for awhile, enjoying some cell service and grabbing some photos. I decided I didn’t want to wait the 90 minutes to catch Old Faithful at sunset, as I had this whole geyser basin on the itinerary in two days, so I grabbed some gas (which was reasonably priced, much to my surprise for being in a remote national park and all) and headed back to my campsite.

A backlit, steaming Old Faithful
Ahhh, the joys of a telephoto lens! Keeps you safe, but brings the wildlife closer to your eye.
Old Faithful’s vent

Whew, what a day of scalding hot water sprinkled with a couple of waterfalls! Another early bedtime awaited me with an early wake up.

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