During the Summer of 2020, Nicole & I were given the opportunity to do a workamping assignment in Island Park, ID just a few miles west of Yellowstone National Park. Though we had both been to Yellowstone on separate occasions before, those shorter visits just couldn’t compare to being able to spend four full months making frequent visits on our days off, which really gave us a deeper perspective of this surreal and majestic piece of nature.
As the Summer began to wind down and we prepared to move on toward our next great adventure, we began to reflect back over all we had seen and done and learned from the area and found ourselves trying to decide on which activities or experiences had the deepest impact or left the greatest impressions upon us, which we both found to be very difficult to do! However, there was one site in particular that seemed to resonate with both of us as being “one of our favorites” and ironically, was one of the attractions that neither of us had seen nor even had heard of before and that was Mammoth Hot Springs.
Though there are many iconic landmarks that are better well known like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring and Yellowstone Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs deserves a rank and place right up there among them. Neither Nicole or I new what to expect before arriving, but the very first impression when it comes into view is the over-all magnitude of it’s size, which from what I have learned is how this impressive landmark got it’s name.
There are many hot springs to be found scattered all throughout the park each with their own unique features and characteristics but Mammoth sets itself apart in that, unlike most other springs in the park, It contains a whopping total of 70 official thermal features 50 of those features are named hot springs which altogether comprise this very active thermal monument. Mammoth Hot Springs has been continually growing, shifting, and receding over the course of unimaginable time and to see it in person is like catching a glimpse through an ancient window at earth’s early childhood.
The springs are somewhat split into three generalized sections, which are the Upper, Main & Lower terraces and there are several designated parking areas for access to each of these sections, though the walking paths are such that you can easily access all of the areas from any one of these. In fact, the entire monument has a combination of approximately 3 miles worth of boardwalks and stairs that lead you all throughout the entire site giving you excellent, up-close and personal views of the many many wonderful features that make up this enormous site.
The Lower and Main terraces are mostly accessible by the 1.75 mi. of boardwalks and stairs while the upper terrace provides a one mile narrow, one-way paved access road that will let visitors have the option of hiking or, if you prefer, to drive the scenic loop to view the stunning features from the comfort of their own vehicle. However, please note that this road is not accessible by RV’s or buses as it is just too narrow and winding for larger vehicles. Both upper and lower sections have their own uniqueness and character and If you have the time to do it we highly recommend that you do both. It is estimated that you should expect to spend a total of about 1.5 hrs. give or take, to hike both upper & lower sections of the site.
When we arrived, we were both in need of a bathroom break and were happy to find that there are public bathrooms located near the parking area at the lower section of the Hot Springs. From there you can easily begin your hike along the well-marked pathway. There is also a convenience store located a few blocks further into Mammoth Village where you can grab some water and snacks to take along with you if you so desire.
The very first structure that you come to and will not be able to miss, is the very impressive 37 foot tall column known as Liberty Cap, which was formed from an ancient water flow that deposited minerals over an extremely long period of time forming the cone tube that is present today. The name comes from a resemblance to the peaked hats worn during the French Revolution.
Continuing on from that is Palette Springs, a breathtaking natural architecture of brilliant white, orange, and pinkish colored stalactites and terraced pools with a thin layer of boiling hot spring water gently flowing out of the terrace pools and down the tooth-like stalactites in a continual mesmerizing display of nature. This one feature in particular caught my immediate attention and made me realize how much I had underestimated what I would find at this treasure of a site!
Once you have gathered enough pictures of Palette, you will be led back toward the direction that you came and further on circling around and just below the main feature of the Lower Terrace to your right known as Minerva terrace. This ever changing thermal feature has cycled on and off in recent years due to various ongoing seismic activity which plays yet another vital role in the creative forces that make up this special environment. This portion of the Terrace is currently cut-off from the flowing springs but the beautiful formation that makes up this section is still just as stunning and draws the attention of many avid photographers looking to capture this spectacular scene.
Coming around the front of Minerva Terrace you will see the boardwalk turning to stairs and making a climb toward the upper terraces crossing between the upper portion of Minerva and the face of the Main Terrace on your left. Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that the total elevation gain from lower to upper Mammoth via the boardwalks is about 300 feet, which is quite a few stairs to climb especially if you are not fully adjusted to the 6,700′ elevation, but not to worry as you will find there are many places to stop, catch your breath and take in the expanding views of Mammoth Village down below.
The village, which is the only area of Yellowstone that remains open year-round, is just a few miles south of the North gate entrance to the Park near the town of Gardiner, Montana, and home to the Albright Visitor Center. Other amenities in the village include Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge & Cabins, post office, dining facilities, and a gas station.
It is also an excellent place to catch some up-close views of Elk as they graze throughout the village lawns especially in the earlier morning or at dusk. Just remember to stay alert and keep a safe distance between you and these magnificent, but totally wild animals.
If you continue to climb the stairs until you reach the top you will find yourself coming into the upper terrace parking lot area where the trail system forks and you can choose to walk along the upper terrace drive or to walk the remaining boardwalk path along the upper portion of the Main Terrace. Here you will get to view: New Blue Spring, Cupid Spring, Grassy Spring, Dryad Spring, and another one of my favorites, the spectacularly beautiful Canary Spring.
As you can see, there is a significant number of things to see and do at Mammoth Hot Springs and I have, for the most part only covered the Lower and Main Terrace areas. The Upper Terrace drive is equally as impressive with numerous features and topography that put it into, yet again, it’s own unique experience and because of this, I chose to cover it in a separate post dedicated solely to the Upper Terrace Drive.
If you get the opportunity to explore this amazing area, and I truly hope that you do. We would love to hear what your experience was like by coming back to this article and leaving us your comments below. Hopefully, we have provided some information that will help make the planning of your visit to Mammoth helpful.