Although Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin  are more famous, many visitors to Yellowstone find Norris Geyser Basin equally interesting. Norris sits atop the junction of several major fault lines, providing conduits for heat from the molten lava below. Because of this, it is apparently the hottest geyser basin in North America, if not the world; a scientific team found temperatures of 459°F at 1,087 feet underground and was forced to quit drilling when the pressure threatened to destroy the drilling rig!
Because of considerable sulfur (and hence sulfuric acid) in the springs and geysers, the water at Norris is acidic; most of the world’s acid geysers are here. The acidic water kills lodgepole trees in the basin, creating an open, nearly barren place. Norris Basin has been around at least 115,000 years, making it Yellowstone ’s oldest active geyser basin. It is a constantly changing place, with small geysers seeming to come and go on an almost daily basis.
The paved trail from the often crowded parking area leads to Norris Geyser Basin Museum and Information Station (307/344-2812, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. late May-Sept.), built of stone in 1929-1930. The small museum houses exhibit panels on hot springs and geothermal activity. Be sure to pick up the detailed brochure ($0.50) describing the various features at Norris. Ranger-led walks are given several times a day in the summer, and there’s usually a ranger in the area ready to answer your questions.
A little bookstore is housed in a nearby building. From the museum, the Norris Basin spreads both north and south, with two rather different trails to hike. Take the time to walk along both. The Norris Campground is only a quarter-mile from the geyser basin.
Just behind the Norris Geyser Basin Museum is an overlook that provides an impressive view across the always-changing Porcelain Basin. The path descends into the basin, passing hissing steam vents, bubbling hot pools, and small geysers, including Constant Geyser, with frequent and sudden bursts to 20 feet or more. Whirligig Geyser is another one that is often active, spraying a noisy fan of water. (Watch your glasses and camera lenses in the steam; silica deposits can be difficult to remove.) For an enjoyable short walk, follow the boardwalk around the mile-long loop through Porcelain Basin. Stop to admire the bright colors in the steaming water, indicators of iron, arsenic, and other elements, along with algae and cyanobacteria.
A mile-long loop trail takes you to the sights within the Back Basin south of the Norris Geyser Basin Museum. Before heading out, check at the museum for the latest on geyser activity. Most people follow the path in a clockwise direction, coming first to Emerald Spring, a gorgeous green pool with acidic water just below boiling. A little way farther down the path is Steamboat Geyser. Wait a few minutes and you’re likely to see one of its minor eruptions, which may reach 40 feet. On rare occasions, Steamboat erupts with a fury that is hard to believe, blasting more than 300 feet into the air—more than twice the height of Old Faithful —making this the world’s tallest geyser. Eruptions can last up to 20 minutes or more, enough time to pour out a million gallons of water, and the explosions have been heard up to 14 miles away. Steamboat’s unforgettable eruptions cannot be predicted; a 50-year span once passed between eruptions, while several eruptions may occur in one year. If you ever see this one erupt, consider yourself incredibly lucky!
The path splits just below Steamboat; on the right is Cistern Spring, whose deep blue waters are constantly building deposits of sinter and have flooded the nearby lodgepole-pine forests, killing the trees. If you turn left where the trail splits, you’ll come to Echinus Geyser (pronounced e-KI-nus). The name—Greek for “spiny”—comes from the pebbles that lie around the geyser; resembling sea urchins, they are a result of sinter accumulation. Sometimes Echinus settles into a regular pattern with frequent eruptions, but in the last decade or so they decreased, and it may stay dormant for weeks or months. When Echinus does erupt, the geyser sends explosions of acidic steam and water (pH 3.5) 40-60 feet. These generally last 3-5 minutes but sometimes continue for much longer. Unlike Old Faithful, this is one geyser where you can get up close and personal. Bench-sitters may get splashed, although the water is not hot enough to burn.
Continue along this trail beyond Echinus to see many more hot springs and steam vents. Porkchop Geyser was in continuous eruption for several years, but in 1989 it self-destructed in an explosion that threw rocks more than 200 feet, leaving behind a bubbling hot spring.
From Norris Geyser Basin to Canyon, the park road cuts across the center of Yellowstone on the high Solfatara Plateau, an area scorched in the 1988 North Fork Fire. The lodgepole pines had been uprooted in a wild 1984 windstorm, and four years later the wind-whipped fires arrived, creating a holocaust. Now, more than two decades later, the lodgepoles are a lush thicket of green.
Virginia Cascades Road is a 2.5-mile-long, one-way road that circles around this blow-down area and provides a view of the 60-foot-tall Virginia Cascade of the Gibbon River. Stop at the shady picnic area for lunch or to head across the meadow to fly-fish. Back on the main highway heading east, keep your eyes open for elk and bison as the road approaches Canyon. Also note the dense forest of lodgepole pines that was established after a fire burned through in 1955.
The park road between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs  provides some interesting sights, although much of this country burned in the 1988 North Fork Fire. Just beyond the highway junction is the Norris Soldier Station. Built by the army in 1897 and modified in 1908, it is one of just three stations still standing in the park. The attractive log building now houses the small Museum of the National Park Ranger (307/344-7353, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. late May-late Sept.), with displays and a video on the history of park rangers.
Just up the road is Frying Pan Spring (named for its shape), where the water is actually not that hot. The bubbles are from pungent-smelling hydrogen-sulfide gas. Roaring Mountain is a bleak, steaming mountainside four miles north of Norris. In 1902, the mountain erupted into activity with fumaroles that made a roar audible at great distances. It is far less active today and is best seen in winter, when the temperature difference results in much more steam.
A stop at Obsidian Cliff offers an opportunity to see the black, glassy rocks formed when lava cooled rapidly. One mountain man (not, as many sources claim, Jim Bridger) told tall tales of “Glass Mountain,” where his shots at an elk kept missing. When he got closer, he found he had actually been firing at a clear mountain of glass. The elk was 25 miles away, but the mountain was acting as a telescope to make the animal appear close. Obsidian Cliff was an important source of rock for Indians in making fine arrowheads and other tools. Obsidian from here was of such value that Indians traded it extensively; obsidian points made from this rock have even been found in Ohio and Ontario. (It is illegal to remove obsidian; leave it for future generations to enjoy.) North of here the countryside opens up along Obsidian Creek at Willow Park, one of the best places to see moose, especially in the fall.
Approximately 13 miles north of Norris, the park road passes Indian Creek Campground (one of the quietest in the park) and the basalt columns of Sheepeater Cliff, named for the Indian inhabitants of these mountains. North of this point, the country opens into Swan Lake Flats, where you get a fine gander at 10,992-foot Electric Peak nine miles to the northwest.
At Golden Gate the road suddenly enters a narrow defile, through which flows Glen Creek. Stop to look over the edge of Rustic Falls and note how the road is cantilevered over the cliff edge. If you’re acrophobic, however, do not stop here. Instead, have someone else drive, close your eyes, and say three Hail Marys.
Bunsen Peak is an 8,564-foot inactive volcanic cone just south of Mammoth. Any chemistry student will recognize the name, because Robert Wilhelm Eberhard von Bunsen not only first explained the action of geysers but also invented the Bunsen burner. Parts of Bunsen Peak look like a chemistry experiment run amok. The North Fork Fire of 1988 swept through this area in a patchy mosaic, leaving long strips of unburned trees next to what are now just blackened telephone poles.
North of Golden Gate, the main road soon passes the Hoodoos, a fascinating jumble of travertine boulders leaning in all directions. The rocks were created by hot springs thousands of years ago and toppled from the east face of Terrace Mountain. Just before Mammoth, turn left onto Upper Terrace Drive, a 0.5-mile loop road providing access to the upper end of Mammoth Hot Springs . (No trailers or large RVs permitted.)