Yellowstone: Mammoth Hot Springs

Distance: 1.5 Miles
Elevation Gained: 300′
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1:00
Critters: None

– Bizarre and fascinating hot spring terraces
– Good views of surrounding canyons

– Hot
– Crowded


Mammoth Hot Springs sits at the northern end of Yellowstone Park. I’ve been fascinated with it ever since I was kid. My parents have this book that has a lot of pictures and descriptions of the thermal features at Yellowstone, which I think we got on a trip when I was 3 or 4. I’d look at the picture of Mammoth and be simultaneously fascinated and a little creeped out. Here were these bleached white rocks smeared all over by this steaming water and this weird-looking red, yellow, and orange algae. It didn’t seem natural, at least compared to all of the other natural features I’ve seen.

But it is natural. The difference with Mammoth is that it’s a fairly unique formation. Over hundreds of thousands of years, hot springs have spilled forth from the super-heated ground, leaving deposits of calcium carbonate to pile up. Eventually, the huge terraces (some 400 feet high) were formed, and where the springs don’t flow, the terraces are a brilliant, blinding white – not to dissimilar from the moon.

Mammoth lies outside Yellowstones main caldera. The water that spills forth from the terraces actually comes from Norris Geyser Basin. To get here, it travels underground and along a fault line for 20+ miles until it rises up and spills over various points. As the water pours forth, the calcium carbonate collects into what are effectively little dams. The “dams” create a small pool, which will spill over and create another series of “dams.” Eventually, a large number of these “dams” are created, and terraces are formed.

The water flow can be quite variable, changing during a period ranging from days to decades. Minerva Terrace, once the most famous feature at Mammoth Hot Springs, once flowed vigorously, creating the largest and most beautiful terraces. However, an earthquake shifted the course of the spring that fed Minerva Terraces, and now the spring has been diverted to another spot.

My experience of Mammoth was that it was less active and colorful than I expected. I expected a vast network of springs pouring algae-accented water out from a thousand springs. This, of course, is the expectation built off of books read often while young. Mammoth is not quite as active as it once was, largely due to changes in the flow of water to the terraces. Earthquakes, fluctuations at Norris, and probably a bunch of other factors have led Mammoth to something of a less active period. With thermal activity, however, this can change at any time.

Kelly and I got here relatively early, yet still late enough to find that our early morning grace period was over. The trails around Mammoth are boardwalk trails (the travertine created by calcium carbonate) isn’t totally stable, and heated water does lurk below the surface. About 2 miles of boardwalk trail exist, but, due to the heat and the growing crowds, we stuck with 1.5 miles.

Like all of the major features at Yellowstone, this one fills up quick. We encountered a tour group of about 50 people taking up a big chunk of space along the main terrace. This made catching pictures a little difficult due to the need to jockey for position. Customarily, I prefer trails to be wide open and sparsely populated. However, today, I had to affirm several times to myself that everybody had a right to be here and that I wouldn’t get annoyed at all the other people here. Yeah, I know this makes me sound like a dick, but I do cherish getting a natural place in as natural of a condition as possible. Tour buses tend to detract from that.

Kelly and I got to see a lot of wonderous sights on a small scale here. Streams spilled forth, supporting colorful bacteria and algae. The terraces that remain active are beautiful and bizarre. Several pools at the top of Canary Spring, which seemed to be the most active portion, created the illusions that we were actually on another planet – most likely Venus cross-bred with the moon.

It’s a strange place, and even though it wasn’t quite what I expected, I did enjoy it here. We stuck around and enjoyed it as much as we could until the heat, the crowd, the desire for a soda, and the need to go pee drove us away. After we TC’d the B, it was off to Canyon Village to spy us some waterfalls.

July: 35.6 Miles
Year-to-Date: 790 Miles

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