Yellowstone in winter is truly a wonderland. A quiet solitude, the result of few park visitors and the muffling effect of deep snow. Vast sparkling snow landscapes that feel disorienting and measuring snow depth in feet defines winter here. Last autumn we visited Porcelain Basin, one of two basins at Norris Geyser Basin. Today we will marvel at the basin in its winter glory–White Porcelain this time of year! Welcome to Yellowstone’s most acidic and hottest hydrothermal area and one of the most active earthquake areas in Yellowstone.
Before heading down into the basin, let’s look around a bit. Our snowcoach is the only vehicle in the entire Norris area. I like this kind of “crowd.” There are different types of snowcoaches that cruise Yellowstone, most operated by tour companies outside the North, West, East, and South Entrances to Yellowstone. Today we have a Ford van outfitted with state-of-the-art Mattracks from our Gardiner-based tour company.
Although it looks like a pretty simple switch from tires to Mattracks, each of these tracks weights 480 pounds and must be fitted only on heavy-duty 4×4 vehicles. The recommended speed is 25mph, but if you don’t mind the noise and the bumps, we can do up to 40mph. Today we are taking a slower ride, at times plowing through new snow drifts on the road. At every stop our tour guide takes a rubber mallet and shatters away ice that collects on metal surfaces. Luckily today is a warm Yellowstone winter day. It was about 7° at 7am this morning but now, two hours later, it is up to 15°. Almost balmy compared to the double-digit below zero temperatures that are common, reaching -40º and sometimes colder.
Our walk down to the basin looks like a Christmas card. The park rangers pack down the trails, but new snow last night sits atop everything giving the landscape a fresh sparkle.
The entrance to our trail is through the Norris Museum, closed until the spring/summer season.
Down we go. Our walk will be through acidic, mineral rich mist and steam from the many fumaroles (steam vents), geysers, and hot spring in the basin.
Black Growler Steam Vent continually spouts a huge plume of steam, making a roaring sounds that is dampened by the snow and ice. The hot steam hitting the fallen snow makes for an interesting ice-lined collar around the vent. What a beautiful aqua color. It is all about light absorption and snow depth. Remember asking, “Why is the sky blue?”
The trees in the path of the steam are covered with rime frost and those further away may have hoar frost crystals. I never knew there were different types of frost, not to mention freezing fog and ice fog. Growing up back east we had frost on the windows and everything else we called snow. Now a little more enlightened, I recognize the events, but exact identification is still not always easy. Then again, it is so beautiful, let’s just enjoy.
It’s nice to be out of the steam and mist for a minute. Scummy Pool shows its lovely blue color that is the result of minerals suspended in the water. It’s all about hydrothermal activity, chemistry, and constant change.
Be sure to protect your gear. The steam, silica, and acidic water can reek havoc on our optics–glasses and camera lenses. Keep them safe.
There are many small geysers in the basin. The larger ones have names but many others are unnamed. We were surprised by Fireball Geyser, but with so much steam we can barely see the water which can spew to twelve feet high.
The far side of the basin is a quiet walk with a few small fumaroles and hot springs. It also offers an opportunity to look all around at the amazing thermals without being encased in steam ourselves.
Looking left we see Black Growler as well as the steam from Ledger Geyser, Valentine Geyser, and Dark Cavern Geyser, none of which erupted that we could tell.
One of the hot springs in this area is called Whale’s Mouth Spring. The reflections are beautiful today.
Crackling Lake looks very different this time of year. Summer we see all the greens, yellows, and oranges, but in winter the cooler surface water hides the various thermophile and algae communities from view.
Heading up the hill toward the end of the trail, we take one more look back at the winter wonderland we just walked.
From above Black Growler, we can see the most active part of the basin. Look at the blue ice ringing Growler below us.
A right turn takes us back to the Museum. What a wonderful winter walk.
A winter friend is just checking us out, but decides higher up the tree is a better choice.
Back to the parking lot we go. I sure am glad the rangers pack the trails for us. It would be a long walk if the snow was up to our thighs!
Back on the bus we’ll be heading to Canyon. Time to warm up, catch our breath, and continue our winter adventure. I’ll leave you now and challenge you to explore your own winter wonderland. Until we meet up again to walk the wilderness . . .