When you travel to iconic Yellowstone National Park, it’s hard to know how to tackle this spectacular 2.2-million-acre beloved treasure. My husband Dean and I spent a week there (my first time and his first time as an adult), and it’s the kind of place that eventually has you saying, “so many hydrothermal features, so little time.”
Credited as the first national park, Yellowstone National Park has more than 10,000 hydrothermal features (more than half of the number that exists in the entire world), making many of its sites a must-see. That includes classics like Old Faithful and the perpetually gorgeous Grand Prismatic Spring (my fave), but it also includes the lesser-known but still spectacular Mammoth Hot Springs.
Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why, when you go to Yellowstone, you won’t want to miss this incredible stop.
1. The Springs’ Unique Look
While I’d never say, “Seen one geyser, seen ’em all,” I have heard of people who avoid touring the many Yellowstone geysers on consecutive days. Can it get old to behold a geyser? Does “geyser fatigue” set in?
Not so with Mammoth Hot Springs. During our week in Yellowstone, we didn’t see anything that looked quite like this did. With its series of numerous terraces and springs, I think it’s unique.
One early visitor described Mammoth Hot Springs this way, “No human architect ever designed such intricate fountains as these. The water trickles over the edges from one to another, blending them together with the effect of a frozen waterfall.”
Pro Tip: Visitors are required to purchase an entrance pass to access Yellowstone National Park.
2. The Approach From Grand Loop Road
Everywhere in Yellowstone, something is bubbling, spewing, gurgling, venting, and/or roaring. When you get up close and personal with Mammoth Hot Springs, it has many of these same qualities, but from Grand Loop Road as we approached Mammoth Hot Springs, the view is quite distinctive. It’s a distinct white blob!
We’re from Minnesota and the only thing that looks that white from a distance is a pile of snow. We couldn’t wait to take a closer look.
Pro Tip: Be sure to check current conditions in Yellowstone before you go so you’re aware of any closures due to construction, weather, or wildlife.
3. A Chance To See The Area’s Famous Elk Herd
As we drove into the northern parking lot, we saw two elk — a mama and a baby — strolling across the road into the parking lot. The town of Mammoth (hence, the name Mammoth Hot Springs) is famous for an elk herd that frequents this area.
Later, when we strolled through Mammoth (the namesake of and the location of Mammoth Hot Springs), we saw a bull elk, 14 other females, and youth on the lawn in front of a private residence. Signs told us to stay at least 75 feet away from them and a park ranger was nearby to ensure compliance.
4. Liberty Cap — An Impressive First Impression
At 37 feet tall, Liberty Cap is the first big Mammoth Hot Springs feature we saw, right off the parking lot. It was created by a hot spring that built mineral deposits into a cap-shaped feature. The moniker comes from its resemblance to the peaked, knitted caps from the French Revolution era.
5. The Dramatic Palette Spring And Terrace
The Palette Spring and Terrace were our first chance to see travertine terraces up close. Steaming pools of water flowed over limestone and rock for a color palette of khaki, deep oranges, chocolate brown, and that trademark Mammoth Hot Spring white.
Pro Tip: If there’s no snow, Palette Springs and Canary Springs are wheelchair accessible. The distance from the north parking lot (at Liberty Cap) to the end of the boardwalk at Palette Spring is about 135 yards.
6. Easy-To-Traverse Boardwalks
Since this is a fragile thermal area, a network of boardwalks helped us move safely around the hydrothermal features. We walked up and along various springs that encircled the main terrace: New Blue Spring, Cupid Spring, Grassy Spring, Dryad Spring, and, at the very end of the boardwalk, Canary Spring.
7. Lookout Platforms For Expansive Views
We appreciated various lookout platforms on the boardwalk that allowed us to stop and take in the expansive views along the way.
There was a day when these hot springs were promoted to those seeking relief from various ailments; they could come here for a mineral water soak. Today, soaking in the waters is prohibited.
8. The Vast Array Of Colors
I also loved seeing the variety of colors from microscopic organisms called thermophiles (thermo for heat, and phile for lover). I remembered the concept of this good lookin’ bacteria from our visit to Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.
9. Steam Rising Near Grassy Spring
Once again, being early risers paid off. We got to Mammoth Hot Springs on a September morning at 7:50 a.m., which means we had the place almost to ourselves. The downside of this timing is that we dealt with temps in the 40s until the day eventually warmed up, but we had layers to keep us warm early on and to shed later!
I saw a solitary visitor standing at a corner of the boardwalk enveloped in steam, with Grassy Spring in the foreground. It was a perfect, peaceful place at this time of the morning. What a view!
10. Two Terraces And Two Ways To See Them
There are two sets of terraces: the Lower Terrace and the Upper Terrace Drive. We explored the Lower Terrace in the time we had. The trail from the Lower Terraces to the Upper Terraces includes steep boardwalks and hundreds of stairs, so it’s identified as a strenuous trail.
In the summer season, there are three driving options if the boardwalks aren’t feasible. We didn’t do these drives, but the park website (scroll down to the “Go on a Driving Tour” section of the website) provides more information.
11. The Sweeping View Of The Town Of Mammoth
As we continued along the boardwalk, we loved the panoramic views of the area. From one of the high points on the boardwalk, we could see the little town of Mammoth, now in the distance.
12. Proximity To The Roosevelt Arch
After you’ve toured Mammoth Hot Springs and hopefully seen the elk, drive to the north entrance of Yellowstone (if you haven’t already done so) to see the beautiful Roosevelt arch. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt ceremoniously set its cornerstone in place. During the commemoration, the president offered a speech praising Yellowstone as “something absolutely unique in the world.” Indeed, it is.
Pro Tip: The arch is impressive to drive through. However, don’t miss stopping at the parking areas before or after it to walk through the doorways on either side of the arch. Also, if you’re hungry after all this exploring, we liked lunch at Wonderland Café & Lodge about five miles north in Gardiner. Dean enjoyed a pulled pork sandwich and French fries. I thought my Mexican chopped salad was great.
We loved our time at Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s so unique that I think it’s a “must-see” when visiting Yellowstone. The travertine terraces, steam, colors, and views all add up to an extraordinary experience that reminds me once again what a treasure our national parks are.