Porcelain Beauty

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The western side of Yellowstone offers an otherworldly experience of fumaroles (steam vents), hot springs, mudpots, and geysers . Here our wilderness walks are on boardwalks with brief excursions through hearty pines standing tall as they resist heat, steam, acidity, and constant sometimes violent change. Today we walk the volcano’s edge in northeast Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and most acidic geyser basin in Yellowstone. Welcome to  Porcelain Basin.

The acres of geyserite (siliceous sinter) and acid-leached lava give this area the texture and colors of fine porcelain china. As we venture down the path, we will take a closer look at what is creating the beautiful milky blue, yellows, orange, and greens washing this landscape. We will be walking through the steam of Black Growler Steam Vent. One of the highest temperatures ever recorded at the surface of any thermal feature in Yellowstone was in Black Growler’s steam, measured at 284°F (140°C). We’ll get a better view from the other side of the Basin.

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The east loop of the basin, to our right, takes us through a solfatara, a very dangerous and barren landscape of escaping sulfuric acid, gases, and steam. Many times scalding mud and steam are barely covered by hot, crumbling, decomposed rock. Be sure to stay safely on the boardwalk.

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Porcelain Terrace’s thermal activity is extremely intense and unpredictable. The primary mineral brought to the surface by hot water is siliceous sinter, a silica rock that is a primary change agent in the area. After the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, fractures formed on top of the terrace creating pools filled with sulfuric acid. This is causing the sinter terrace to disintegrate. Today, however, we can stand in awe of its unique beauty.

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Porcelain Springs, the flat below the terrace, has many vents, pools, and geysers but changes constantly due to the siliceous sinter. As the sinter flows across the area carried by hot water, it creates a “sheet” across the ground as the water flows away and the mineral settles out. If the mineral seals off a hot spring or geyser, the hot, pressurized water may flow underground and blow through another weak area. In the larger pools, the silica suspended in the water creates the milky blue color.

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Oops! When the wind picks up across this landscape, the steam blows and so do your belongings. Never a good idea to step off the boardwalk–dangerous and unstable ground all around. This boardwalk we are now walking was entirely replaced last spring. This acidic environment is not kind to many “intruders”, but some creatures thrive.

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The beautiful emerald greens, yellows, browns and oranges speak to extraordinary life–thermophiles which are microorganisms that thrive in heat. This bright green algae thrives in the acidity of thermal runoff channels across the basin.

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On the far side of the walkable basin we enter into the evergreens offering shade and rest from the steam and heat. There’s a bench up ahead. Let’s rest a bit and enjoy this area.

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From our seat we zoom in on Black Growler Steam Vent in the middle of the very active hillside where we entered the basin. Just listen to that roaring gush of steam.

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The small spring known as Whale’s Mouth Spring is a beautiful aquamarine color. Do you think it looks like a mouth with teeth? That’s a stretch for me.

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With lots of runoff coming from the basin, we see it here passing under the boardwalk where it heads north to join Tantalus Creek. Tantalus Creek consists almost entirely of water from all the thermal features at Norris Geyser Basin. Ultimately Tantalus Creek flows into the Gibbon River which heads south to meet the Firehole River forming the Madison River near Madison Junction. About 10 miles north we see Mr. Holmes gracing the skyline.Crackling Lake edged by Crackling Spring got that name in the 1960s for the popping noise made by the many bubbles boiling up in this large, hot lake. As with so many thermal features, changes may have resulted in less dramatic bubbling so the popping is no longer obvious, but . . .

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. . . the water is certainly still boiling and bubbles are obvious. Silica coats the debris that finds its way into the water.

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Well, here we are at the steep but shady path to the start of this loop.

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Let’s get one more look at Black Growler. With the steam blowing south, we can see a bit of the vent itself. What a unique gushing, roaring noise telling its tale of power.

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We should also visit the museum at the top of hill. What a glorious afternoon at Norris Geyser Basin.

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Until we walk again, enjoy the wild in your part of the world.

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