Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Mammoth Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs is an appropriate name for this area. These stone terraces are, in fact, mammoth.  They completely cover a hillside. The terraces are made of travertine rock that formed as minerals in the hot spring water were deposited over hundreds of years. A network of boardwalk trails and stairs allow visitors to walk next to the stone cliffs. Various parts of the terraces still have water flowing over them. When air temperatures are cool you can see billows of steam rising from the terraces.

Location:  Mammoth Hot Springs is located in the Northwest area of the park.  The terraces are 6 miles from the North Entrance.

Hiking Distance and Time:  The boardwalk around the terraces is about a mile long. Plan for about an hour to walk around the boardwalk.

Open Season:  The terraces, as well as some of the buildings at Mammoth Hot Springs are open all year. However, the only park road that is open is the road leading from Gardiner, MT.  You can't access the area via any of the other park roads.

Date of Visit: Friday, May 26, 2017

In the summer of 2017 I received a job with Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Yellowstone National Park. I moved there with my husband and our four young children. We lived in a 25 foot RV and spent all our free time exploring the park. This is one of many posts that I will write about specific features within Yellowstone National Park. Be sure to check out my other posts for more tips for your Yellowstone visit.

Mammoth Hot Springs refers to two areas in Yellowstone National Park.  The first is the beautiful stone terraces made of travertine that were deposited by water flowing from hot springs for thousands of years.  The second area is the little village made up of National Park Buildings, old Army housing, and current day accommodations located a short distance to the north of the hot springs.  This post will focus on the terraces

My main memory of Mammoth Hot Springs from when I was a teenager was disappointment.  My family had driven all the way from the Bridge Bay Campground to see Mammoth Hot Springs.  Based on the picture I'd seen in the park map, I was expecting to see water gushing down all the terraces.  Instead we were greeted by mostly dry stone.  The stone was interesting, but in my petulant teenage mind it hadn't been worth the long drive, nor the long walk on a hot July afternoon.

When my husband and I visited Mammoth in 2008 I was hoping to have a better experience.  Our visit was okay, but the area didn't really wow me.  I just couldn't see the appeal of the area.  When I came back to Yellowstone in 2010 and 2015 I just skipped the Mammoth Hot Springs area all together.

When I moved to Yellowstone to work in 2017 Mammoth was one of the first places I visited - not by choice though. I had to check in at Xanterra headquarters in Gardener, Montana which is north of Mammoth Hot Springs. My family and I drove up there early on our second day in the park. I did some employee processing paperwork and was issued a uniform.  When I was done with that I met back up with my family.  We drove back into the park and stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs to see what there was to see.

This ended up being one of the best visits I ever had to Mammoth Hot Springs. Based on that visit and some other visits during my summer in the park I learned how to have an enjoyable time at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Here are five very important things to know about the area before you go.

1. The area is often super crowded
If you drive through Mammoth Hot Springs on a busy day you will notice two things.  1. The Terraces and 2. All the people. And not necessarily in that order.

Many of the other popular areas of the park as good at hiding their crowds from the main road.  The Old Faithful area has a massive parking lot and a boardwalk large enough to accommodate the hoards of visitors that come there. Canyon Village also has a large parking lot as well as roads that are away from the main road.  Mammoth is just as popular as the other two places, but doesn't really have any where convenient to put all the tourists.

There are parking areas for the terraces located on either side of the main road.  Tourists are constantly crossing in front of cars.  Or cars are constantly trying to back out of parking spaces to get back onto the main road.  It's kind of a nightmare during peek tourist times. 

That means that, like much of Yellowstone, if you want to have an enjoyable visit to the Mammoth Hot Springs Area you will want to visit it before 10:00 am or after 5:00 pm.

2. Most of the terraces are dry
Most of the disappointment I felt on my first two visits to Mammoth came from the way Mammoth Hot Springs is marketed.  The map of the park has a picture of a huge travertine formation with water running over it.  The picture gave me the impression that ALL of Mammoth Hot Springs would be full of running water.  That's not the reality.

A few section of the terraces have water flowing over of them.  But most of  the area is made up of features that formed from springs that have gone dry.  The features are pretty, but they are not covered in water.

3. The best time to visit is when the air is cool.
If you are visiting in the middle of a hot summer day (which my family was doing when I was 17) then you will be very hot.  The last thing you want to do is hike up and down stairs near hot rocks without any shade. No matter how interesting the rocks are you will not have a good time if you are fighting off heat stroke.

When I visited with my family in 2017 at the beginning of our summer in Yellowstone, the air was cool so there was lots of steam billowing up everywhere. Even though it was late morning by the time we were walking around it was early enough in the season that the air was still cool.

That steam made all the features look very interesting.

4. You will have to climb quite a few stairs

In order to get the best views of the terraces you'll need to climb several sets of stairs. Be prepared to go both up and down many stairs. This is another reason why it's a good idea to visit the area when the air is cool.

Even if you plan to avoid the areas with actual stairs there are still some steep sections of the boardwalk.

5. You can avoid the stairs by taking a drive on the Upper Terrace Drive

This one way road is located south of Mammoth Hot Springs in an area that is somewhat on top of the hot spring terraces.  You drive your car past several interesting features.  There are a few parking spots along the drive so you can get a closer look at the features.  One notable place to stop is a parking area that overlooks the top of the Terraces and gives you a view of the village of Mammoth.  It's the same view that you could get if you had climbed all the stairs.
When my husband and I visited the park in 2008 we did this drive. It was probably my favorite part of Mammoth Hot Springs on that visit.  I liked that we could see cool features without leaving our car. This is White Elephant Back Terrace.

Okay, now that we've covered those basics we can talk about some of the features you can expect to see when you visit Mammoth Hot Springs.

There are several features of note in the Mammoth Hot Springs Area.  If you are starting from the bottom of the terraces one of the first things you'll see is Liberty Cap.  This is the geyser cone for a long extinct geyser.
This section of the terrace is called Devil's Thumb because of the large grey stone that has been surrounded by the travertine.
 Minerva Terrace is one of my favorite formations in the area.  My kids said it looked like a wedding cake.  When you look at pictures of Mammoth Hot Springs, this is the feature that is often in the pictures.  Don't be fooled though, that large grey area behind the pretty formations is also part of the terraces.  It's a dry section.
The area around Cupid Spring is worth the climb to reach it.  The boardwalk takes you right down to the spring.
Seeing the tops of the terraces is also worth the hike. 
I'm glad that I learned how to enjoy my time at Mammoth Hot Springs.  From now on I'll always make sure to include the area in my plans when I visit Yellowstone. But I'll also make sure I'm visiting when the air is cool enough to make the hike around the terraces worth it.

Recommendation: The features at Mammoth Hot Springs really are remarkable and are worth a visit.  But you have do visit them under the right conditions or else you may not enjoy your visit.

Directions: There really is no missing the terraces once you are in the Mammoth area.  The trickiest part is finding a good parking spot.  If you are travelling from the south DON'T park at the first parking pull out you see. These parking spots are near mostly dead features. Your first impression of the terraces will be of boring rocks. Instead keep going until you reach the parking area at the bottom of the hill.  There is a large parking area near Liberty Cap.  If you start your exploration from this area you will see the best features first.

Places Nearby:  Make sure you include a visit to the historical buildings in the Mammoth Area.  This was an Army outpost over 100 years ago. Many of the buildings were used for military housing. 

Want more Yellowstone Vacation Ideas? Visit my list of Things you can't miss and hidden gems along the way.

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I would love to hear what you think. Did I get it right, or was I dead wrong? What was your experience like?


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