Whether or not you want to visit Mammoth Hot Springs depends on a lot of things. First, if you’re looking for short, easy hikes, this is a good one: going over all of the boardwalks will likely take you less than two hours, even if you stop to read every single sign and look at every single formation along the way. Second, you need to have some time on your hands because it’s located well outside of the “main stream” rest of the park (this doesn’t keep people from visiting, however; expect to see crowds of others along the boardwalks, especially near the parking areas). Third, the water needs to be flowing for it to be worth the trip. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that you can control. Last time I visited (last summer), I was in for a bit of a shock: All the terraces I’d expected to be flowing with color were now just dry, white powdery rock, while other parts had become living, flowing, steamy terraces of rainbow colors. So, in this post I’ll tell you where the best colors were when I visited. If you can see these, it’s well worth driving up to the Mammoth area.
We parked in the parking lot near Juniper Terrace. Not that Juniper Terrace had much going on, but we walked up to it, and around it, before continuing upward toward Canary Spring. On the way, we passed Mound Spring, which was steaming and had some nice color to it, especially in the stream running down from the terraces. Before we reached Canary Spring, we turned right toward Cleopatra Spring. Again, this spring had some fairly colorful terraces, as did Palette Spring, which we could see below us.
We couldn’t walk down directly to see Palette Spring because the trail was closed (for good reasons, we saw later…the terraces are expanding right across the trail!). So, we turned right to go around Minerva Terrace. This was a bit of a let-down in terms of color, but it was also fairly awe-inspiring: above you are the huge, chalky remains of terraces that were quite colorful the first time I visited the park in the mid-90s. The immensity of the spring is the interesting part; otherwise, it reminds me of a dead coral reef.
At the first possible place, we turned left, then continued left at the next boardwalk. Soon we were confronted with the Liberty Cap. This was once a spring with a fair amount of pressure; the hot, mineral-rich water came out of the top, poured over the edges, and created the large (at least 10-foot high) cone. It’s dormant now, but it’s still worth noting.
As we approached Palette Spring, we began to notice more water and more pretty colors. These were nice, but they were just a foretaste of what was to come. Palette Spring lives up to its name and seems to be the best spring alive in Mammoth Hot Springs. The hot water cascades gently over gold, tan, brown, green, and pure-white terraces, often sending clouds of water vapor, steam, and gases into the air around the terraces. This is the place to be! I’ve included the link below to a video I took of the spring.
Return to your vehicle via the boardwalks.
If you’ve not quite had enough activity, try the driving or walking the Upper Terrace Drive, just south of the main area, also known as the Upper Terraces Area. (You could also walk back up to Canary Spring and follow the signs for going up above the spring. This will take you right up to the road and you could walk it…we didn’t want to take that kind of time since we were in a hurry to get down to the Table Mountain area the same day). There is a significant amount of activity along this loop; nothing as spectacular as Palette Spring, but quite interesting none-the-less. The most exciting thing I saw was a formation similar to (but bigger than) the Liberty Cap. Hot water still flows over this bulky formation, creating pretty colors on its sides. Fun!
So, if the water is flowing and you have the time, Mammoth Hot Springs is a great place to go…and if not, you can always go to the Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful area) instead!
By the way… http://www.everytrail.com/guide/mammoth-hot-springs-yellowstone-national-park/map has a great map of the features, although it doesn’t include all of the boardwalks I mentioned in this post. So, I’ve included a map below. Please note that this map is from the mid-90s, so it’s not very up to date!
Some of the Lower Terraces (the boardwalks) are wheelchair accessible. Paved trails and boardwalks without stairs lead past Liberty Cap and to Palette Spring, at the very least. There is wheelchair accessible parking spots in the third parking area (near the visitor center) and along the Upper Terraces Drive.
Getting to Mammoth Hot Springs:
From Norris Junction (Norris Geyser Basin, etc.), drive about 20 miles north to Mammoth Hot Springs area. Park in any of the parking areas; these fill up quickly in the summer so you may have trouble finding a parking spot. The good news is that it doesn’t take too long to view the springs, so someone will likely leave soon. If you’re coming from Tower/Roosevelt Junction, drive 18 miles west to Mammoth Junction; turn left to get to the parking areas. All of these junctions are well-marked, so you can mostly just follow the signs. A map of the park can be found at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/upload/YELLmap1.pdf
Key GPS Coordinates for Mammoth Hot Springs:
Mammoth Hot Springs Parking area: 44.969480N / -110.702147W (44N 58’ 10.1274” / -110W 42’ 7.7286”) (this is where we parked; there are two more parking lots further north).
Mound Spring: 44.970121N / -110.705854W (44N 58’ 12.435” / -110W 42’ 21.0744”)
Cleopatra Terrace: 44.971070N / -110.707335W (44N 58’ 15.8514” / -110W 42’ 26.406”)
Minerva Terrace: 44.971332N / -110.704859W (44N 58’ 16.7946” / -110W 42’ 17.4918”
Palette Spring: 44.972661N / -110.705455W (44N 58’ 21.5796” / -110W 42’ 19.638”)
Upper Terrace Drive entrance: 44.965322N / -110.707946W (44N 57’ 55.1592” / -110W 42’ 28.6056”)
Round Trip Trail Length: Less than 4 miles if you walk the entire thing (boardwalks, Upper Terrace Area Road, etc.); we walked at most 1.5 miles (it sure felt like less!)
Facilities: Almost everything you could imagine between the parking areas and the small town of Mammoth; restrooms, snack bar, information, etc. (in the visitor center near the Liberty Cap), post office (in town), camping (just south of the Mammoth Hot Springs area), hotels (in the town), and even picnic tables throughout the town.
Fees: $25 fee to enter Yellowstone National Park, valid 7 consecutive days in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. America the Beautiful (Interagency), Senior (Golden Age), Access (Golden Access), Volunteer, Military, and Yellowstone/Grand Teton Annual Passes also accepted.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
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Wed Oct 18
Chance of Rain
Showers possible early. Lows overnight in the upper 30s.
Thu Oct 19
Partly cloudy skies. High 51F. Winds SW at 10 to 15 mph.
Fri Oct 20
Rain diminishing to a few showers in the afternoon. High 52F. Winds WSW at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 100%. Rainfall around a quarter of an inch.
Sat Oct 21
Chance of Rain
Light rain early…then remaining cloudy with showers in the afternoon. High 41F. Winds NNW at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 70%.
Sun Oct 22
Partly cloudy skies. High 42F. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph.