Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

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Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal wonders aren’t limited to the area inside the ancient volcanic caldera, which encircles much of the central and southern areas of the park.  It’s true, in the north, mountains are more plentiful and hot springs are fewer, but there is one gigantic exception to that rule: Mammoth Hot Springs.

Even before you arrive, you know that Mammoth Hot Springs is going to be large, based solely on the name.  But when you come upon it, it’s still an amazing sight.  An entire mountainside is bathed in white calcium carbonate.  There are many tiers, or terraces, to this impressive display, and surprisingly, they exhibit a lot of individual character.  For example, above you see Minerva Terrace in the foreground.  It’s made up of dozens of small steps, with colors ranging from white to dark orange.

Behind Minerva is Mound Terrace, a larger, less ornate structure.  There are boardwalks that sprawl out in several directions, from a couple of trailheads at the edge of the Grand Loop Road.  Some dead-end, others loop, so keep an eye on the posted maps.

Exploring the lower side of Mammoth Hot Springs requires a lot of effort.  There are dozens, if not hundreds of stairs to climb and descend, as you navigate from one terrace to the next.  It was also quite cold and windy when I visited: windy, because the terraces are on the side of a mountain, and cold, because the sun had already started to set behind the hot springs, putting most of the walkway in the shade.

Once you’ve made the climb, you get great views of the Mammoth area, as well as the mountains to the north…

… and some hot, bubbling cauldrons.  This one is known as Palette Spring.

After walking back down to the parking area, I checked out one more landmark, Liberty Cap — a now extinct hot spring cone that stands 37 feet high.

Liberty Cap received its name in 1871.  Members of the Hayden Survey Party believed the cone looked like peaked caps worn during the French Revolution.

Before exploring the upper portion of Mammoth Hot Springs (which is much easier to access, thanks to a scenic loop road), I drove down into the complex of buildings that serve park visitors.  Yellowstone’s park headquarters are also here, housed in the buildings of old Fort Yellowstone (the U.S. Military administered the park from 1872 to 1918.

You will find Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel just below the springs.  In addition to regular hotel rooms, it also has cabins.  The hotel is open almost year ’round — but it does close for a few weeks in the fall and spring.

Actually, I found the restroom to be quite average in size.

Notice the “Danger” sign — these were posted everywhere.  Autumn is time for the elk rut, meaning the big creatures are not only in the mood for love, they may also be looking for a fight.  Keep your distance any time during the year, but especially when these signs are posted.

After picking up a souvenir in the general store, that’s part of the visitor complex, I drove up to the Upper Terrace Drive.

Just after you turn onto the Upper Terrace Drive, there is a parking area, and some more boardwalks, which provide a good spot to view the Main Terrace.  This area is a wide, flat plateau, where several hot springs still bubble and steam.

Continue on around the narrow one-lane loop road, and the pavement takes you around this large, colorful formation.  During my visit, water was trickling down the sides of this spring, and flooding the edge of the road.

A bit further, you get a close-up look at a terrace known as the “White Elephant Back”.

I think the loop road saves the best for last.  Just before you reconnect with the main road, the loop passes by Angel Terrace, a very active hillside where water still pours across the landscape, creating a cloud of steam in the process.

The trees that used to live here now appear to be quite dead, and somewhat scorched by the heat.

The cloud of steam provides opportunity for plenty of spooky pictures.

Since I didn’t have reservations inside the park (in fact, the closest room I could find was in Bozeman, 84 miles away), I decided it was time to leave the park.  I would be back the following day, for a few more hours in Yellowstone, before returning to Salt Lake City for the flight home.  I wasn’t thrilled with all the extra driving I would have to do, just to get to my motel this night, but at the same time, I had always wanted to drive US 89 north from the park, and now I had an excuse to do it.

Mammoth Hot Springs is a few miles south of the park boundary.  On your way out, you will not only cross into Montana, but you’ll also pass over the 45th parallel — placing you exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.  A few miles further, and you’re out of the park and in the nice little tourist town of Gardiner, Montana.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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