Norris sits on the intersection of three major faults. The Norris-Mammoth Corridor is a fault that runs from Norris north through Mammoth to the Gardiner, Montana, area. The Hebgen Lake fault runs from northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana, to Norris. This fault experienced an earthquake in 1959 that measured 7.4 on the Richter scale (sources vary on exact magnitude between 7.1 and 7.8). These two faults intersect with a ring fracture that resulted from the Yellowstone Caldera of 600,000 years ago. These faults are the primary reason that Norris Geyser Basin is so hot and dynamic. The Ragged Hills that lie between Back Basin and One Hundred Springs Plain are thermally altered glacial moraines. As glaciers receded, the underlying thermal features began to express themselves once again, melting remnants of the ice and causing masses of debris to be dumped. These debris piles were then altered by steam and hot water flowing through them.
Madison lies within the eroded stream channels cut through lava flows formed after the caldera eruption. The Gibbon Falls lies on the caldera boundary as does Virginia Cascades.
Walk the Boardwalks at Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone's thermal areas. The highest temperature yet recorded in any geothermal area in Yellowstone was measured in a scientific drill hole at Norris: 459°F (237°C) just 1,087 feet (326 meters) below the surface! There are very few thermal features at Norris under the boiling point (199°F at this elevation).
Norris shows evidence of having had thermal features for at least 115,000 years. The features in the basin change daily, with frequent disturbances from seismic activity and water fluctuations. The vast majority of the waters at Norris are acidic, including acid geysers which are very rare. Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world (300 to 400 feet) and Echinus Geyser (pH 3.5 or so) are the most popular features. Take our online tour of the basin.
The basin consists of three areas: Porcelain Basin, Back Basin, and One Hundred Springs Plain. Porcelain Basin is barren of trees and provides a sensory experience in sound, color, and smell; a 3/4 mile dirt and boardwalk trail accesses this area. Back Basin is more heavily wooded with features scattered throughout the area; a 1.5 mile trail of boardwalk and dirt encircles this part of the basin. One Hundred Springs Plain is an off-trail section of the Norris Geyser Basin that is very acidic, hollow, and dangerous. Travel is discouraged without the guidance of knowledgeable staff members. The area was named after Philetus W. Norris, the second superintendent of Yellowstone, who provided the first detailed information about the thermal features.
Listen to the Hissing of Roaring Mountain
Located just north of Norris on the Norris-Mammoth section of the Grand Loop Road, Roaring Mountain is a large, acidic thermal area (solfatara) that contains many steam vents (fumaroles). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the number, size, and power of the fumaroles was much greater than today.
Fly-fish Gibbon River
The Gibbon River flows from Wolf Lake through the Norris area and meets the Firehole River at Madison Junction to form the Madison River. Both cold and hot springs are responsible for the majority of the Gibbon's flow. Brook trout, brown trout, grayling, and rainbow trout find the Gibbon to their liking. The Gibbon River is fly-fishing only below Gibbon Falls.
Take a Scenic Drive by Virginia Cascades
A three-mile section of the old road takes visitors past 60-foot high Virginia Cascades. This cascading waterfall is formed by the very small (at that point) Gibbon River.
Observe How the Norris-Canyon Blowdown Has Changed
This is a 22-mile swath of lodgepole pine blown down by wind-shear action in 1984. It was then burned during the North Fork fire in 1988. This is the site where a famous news anchor said, "Tonight, this is all that's left of Yellowstone." An exhibit tells the story. See Inside Yellowstone - Along the Road Between Canyon & Norris for a short video.
Tour the Norris Geyser Basin Museum
The Norris Geyser Basin Museum is one of the park's original trailside museums built in 1929-30. It has always been a museum. It is an outstanding example of a stone-and-log architecture. The Norris Geyser Basin Museum is located 1/4 mile east of Norris Junction just off the Grand Loop Road. Built in 1929-30, it is National Historic Landmark. Its distinctive stone-and-log architecture became a prototype for park buildings throughout the country known as "parkitecture" (Fishing Bridge Museum and Madison Museum date from the same time period and are of the same style). New exhibits on geothermal geology, Norris Geyser Basin features, and life in thermal areas were installed in 1995. These exhibits replaced old ones from the 1960s with similar subject matter. There is no auditorium in this building, and it consists of two wings separated by an open-air breezeway. An information desk in the breezeway is staffed by National Park Service interpreters. An adjacent old restroom facility of matching architectural style houses a Yellowstone Association bookstore.
Talk to a Retired Ranger at the Museum of the National Park Ranger
The Museum of the National Park Ranger is housed in the Norris Soldier Station, located at the entrance to Norris Campground. The Norris Soldier Station was an outlying station for soldiers to patrol and watch over Norris Geyser Basin. It was among the longest occupied stations in the park. An earlier vstructure was built in 1886, replaced after fire in 1897, and modified in 1908. After the Army years, the building was used as a Ranger Station and residence until the 1959 earthquake caused structural damage. The building was restored in 1991. This building was one of the original soldier stations, built in 1908, as an outlying station for soldiers on patrol. The building has been completely rebuilt, using original materials where possible and staying true to the original floorplan. The original building was taken down on site and rebuilt. Exhibits depict the development of the park ranger profession from its roots in the military traditions through early rangers and to the present array of National Park Service staff specialized duties. A small auditorium shows a laser-disc production of the 25-minute movie, "An American Legacy," which tells the story of the development of the National Park Service. There is no Yellowstone Association sales outlet in this museum. The staffing is done primarily by retired National Park Service employees who volunteer for short periods of time. Many of these employees retired as superintendents, chief rangers, regional directors, and from various positions in the Washington Office.