The Lower Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs was our first stop of the day. We arrived early morning, just as the big tour groups were hurrying people back into the buses. It was a nice time to explore, it is a fairly large area with lots of boardwalks and stairs, it wasn't too hot out that it would slow us down.
The Springs themselves are travertine terraces made up of mineral deposits. Some of them are active, with water flowing down the terraces. Some of them are dormant, making them look like snow covered steps. The different types of bacteria and organisms in the hot water account for the different colors in the springs.
After hiking around the boardwalks of the Lower Terraces of Mammoth, we took the one way road around upper Mammoth Drive. It's just a little ways down the road from where you park for the lower terraces. This little loop of a road takes you past a few diffrent features such as Orange Mound, Elephants Back and White Angel Terrace. There are pulloffs so that you can stop and take a longer look. The Lower Terrace trail meets up with this road, so you can start down at the bottom and check out both sections of Mammoth on foot if you so choose.
The Hot springs terraces are one of the most accesible and incredible feature of natural wonder in the park. Just close to the Park's headquarter, Mammoth Hot Springs, you can see them from afar as they a patch of white on a dark hill.
A boardwalk trail will take you up, down and close to the springs.
How were they born?
Well... as I said earlier, Yellowstone is in fact living under a magma chamber. When ground water seeps down, it comes in contact with carbon dioxide rising from the chamber. Some of the carbon will dissolve in the hot water and form an mild acidic solution. This mix will dissolves the limestone as it slowly makes its way up through the rock layers as a hot spring. When the steams comes up, the water is released but the limestone becomes solid and makes a deposit forming the terrace travertines we can see today.
Seeing the springs from the first time is quite amazing! Especially when one is active (they are not active all the time, when we were there, the activity was quite low and it can remain like that for years). One of the first thing you will notice is the smell of "rotten eggs" so characteristic for hot springs.
The colours, diversity of formations and eerieness is something to behold. With names such as "Palette, New Blue, Minerva, Jupiter...", this is a place out this world.
We only visited the Lower Terraces as we had to be back home before dark but the higher terraces can be accessed by road.
When visiting, please be careful. Do not get off the boardwalk as you may be scalded by hot water and steam. This is not a joke, some death have been reported.
After doing the one-way loop of the Upper Terrace, we headed into Mammoth Hot Springs Village for a short break. When we got the edge of the village, cars were parked in the middle of the street and people were walking around gawking and taking pictures. We didn't know what the commotion was all about until we rounded the corner and ran head first into a herd of elk.
There were approximately 20 - 30 elk wondering the streets, lounging on the lawn or otherwise just taking in the spectacle of humans with cameras...what a sight to see!!! Of course, people forget the rules of interacting with wild animals and ended up getting to close to the bull elk, so he started to bellow...in the meantime, the park ranger came to the rescue and motioned for people to move away from the animals. No problem, people obeyed and no one was hurt.
In Mammoth the primary rock is limestone. You will see both active and inactive travertine terraces. These terraces are in continual change, old ones become inactive, and inactive ones may once again become active. Changes can even happen over night. Thermophiles, which are heat loving microorganisms live in the hot water that flows down the active terraces, giving them beautiful colors of orange, brown, green, and yellow. Because it is these living organisms that create the beautiful colors, when a terrace become inactive, the organisms die, and only gray, crumbling terraces remain. If they once again become active, the organisms return, and the color once again returns. The Lower Terrace is seen on foot, by walking paths and boardwalks. You will see Liberty Cap, a 37 foot (11 m) formation that was created by a hot spring that is estimated to be 2500 years old, but is now dormant. You will see terraces, and overlooks. Look at the dormant, gray terraces and examine their shapes. Sometimes you may even be surprised to see elk lying on these dry terraces. Admire the beautiful active terraces, and have fun photographing them.
Upper Terrace Drive is a one way scenic drive that winds for one and a half miles past a number of hot springs and terraces. This is a narrow, winding road, so trailers, buses, and motor homes are not allowed to drive this Upper Terrace route. There are a number of small turn offs along the way for you to park and take short walks to various formations on the upper level. Some of these springs can also be walked to from the Lower Terrace, but other terraces and spring mounds can only be seen along the drive. For this reason I recommend doing both. I especially love the Orange Spring Mound, which is only seen from the drive.
After backtracking to the highway across the top of Yellowstone that leads to Mammoth Hot Springs, we were cruising along when I saw this strange sight ahead of us. It took me a few minutes to realize that this is what hydro-thermal pools and the minerals they deposit at the surface look like – we had arrived! Reaching the community itself only a few minutes later, a female Elk (2nd photo) quickly showed us who has the right-of-way in Yellowstone. There were quite a number of Elk either lying on the grass or munching away at various downtown locations and none of them seemed the least bit concerned. After our long day of driving, we decided to just make a quick tour of colourful Palette Hot Springs, the thermal vent closest to town. While standing beside the Spring, we had a good view of the community of Mammoth Hots Springs and the surrounding countryside (3rd photo). It was already 5 PM and we still had to make a short drive to exit Yellowstone by the North Entrance so we could get ourselves booked into our accommodations there in the little town of Gardiner, Montana (nothing available inside the NP when we tried to book a month earlier). We had really enjoyed both getting to Yellowstone and what we had seen so far!
We had already done some exploring of the lower sections of Mammoth Hot Springs the day before, so decided to take a little drive around Upper Terrace Road to see what surprises it had in store for us. The first thing we came across was New Highland Spring in an area of intermittent geo-thermal activity. This one turned out to be relatively modern, with hot flows of 160°F bursting into activity in the early 1950s and explaining why there are still dead trees held in the grasp of this growing travertine hill. This one-way drive on Upper Terrace Road also provided a good view back toward Mammoth Hot Springs nestled below in its valley (2nd photo).
Just around the next turn we came to Orange Spring Mound (3rd photo), thought to be a much older formation based on the amount of minerals deposited there. It was found to be a much cooler spring than most at Mammoth Hot Springs and we found it to be a very nice attraction. We got out for a closer look and even managed to capture its small eruption of hot water (4th photo).
We had only scratched the surface at Mammoth Hot Springs the day before, so this time we tried to give it our best shot in the limited time available. Starting out in the Lower Terrace area, it was impossible not to be impressed by the 45-foot tall Liberty Cap! Named after a type of soldier’s hat worn at the time of the French Revolution, this hunk of rock was formed by caldera pressurized hot water flowing to the surface from deep below. The minerals in the water leached out at the surface and gradually built this cone as long as the water continued to flow. Eventually a geological change of some sort cut off the water flow, leaving this mineralized core as its legacy to the world.
Turning around and looking the other way, we were standing beside the still active Palette Hot Springs (2nd photo) with its very nice looking combination of flowing water, limestone and heat – just like a great landscape painting. There are things to see everywhere you look, including a trickle of hot water flowing over another geological formation still building itself (3rd photo).
The Upper Terrace Loop Drive is a 1.5 mile one way road which gives easy access to the Lower Terrace Overlook as well as a few other formations. I found this a bit of an overkill with regard to accessibility, especially considering the Lower Terrace was not wheel-chair accessible. We walked up to the Lower Terrace Overlook and would have liked to continue on walking the Upper Terrace Loop but did not want to walk on the road. The entire walk would be 2.5 miles and if it was all wheel-chair accessible it would be great. It would get people out of their cars and walking, one of the things I feel national parks should encourage. We did not even do the Upper Terrace as I did not want to have to start and stop the car every tenth of a mile, get in and out of my car, and basically see a few more of similar formations as I just saw in the Lower Terrace. If I was walking, I would have gladly done it.
Mammoth Hot Springs is one of Yellowstone's most popular areas due to accessibility and its colorful travertine formations. If arriving from the north, this is likely your first stop and its terraces are high on most visitors lists of things to see. Travertine deposits are initially white but change color due to bacteria and are in constant state of flux. The walk through the Lower Terrace is mostly on a boardwalk to protect the formations and visitors from potential injury due to negligence in keeping a proper distance from the fragile landscape. It can be disappointing for return visitors to find personal favorites no longer looking quite as impressive but that is part of this ever changing ecosystem. The Upper Terrace is a one-way short drive. You can walk from the Lower Terrace to the overlook generally visited while driving the Upper Terrace Loop.
The Lower Terrace Trail is predominately a boardwalk stroll that does involve a few steps to climb if you want to get all the way to the Lower Terrace Overlook but along the way you will pass quite a few colorful formations along its approximate one mile length. Unfortunately, it is not entirely wheel-chair accessible which I found odd considering all the work put into laying all the boardwalk. While the Liberty Cap, a 37 foot hot spring cone, and Opal Terrace are a disappointing start to the walk, things heat up literally once you get into the meat of the walk. Both the Minerva Terrace and Palette Spring were particularly colorful with great hues of orange, green, and brown which result from bacteria reacting to the hot temperatures of the springs.
This time you really need to take the car up to the Upper Terrace area where can either park up or drive the car round the loop road. It is a fairly stiff climb up from the Lower Terrace area. Driving round the loop doesn't stop you parking up for photo-ops, as there are pull-outs here and there on the way round. You can even stop by the overlook for a view down onto Main and Minerva Terraces.
The New Highland Terrace is another example of a spring created late (1950) and has already become inactive.
A little further along on the road to Norris is the Lower Terrace area, where you'll find Main and Minerva Terraces and other springs and terraces. There are 2/3 different parking lots or you can walk up from Libert Cap.
Very close to the North entrance and thus to Gardiner, which makes it handy if you're staying in the area. These travertine and limestone terraces are like living sculptures. Some are changing all the time, others are dry and haven't moved for years. "It is a solution of carbonic acid that dissolves the calcium carbonate, the main compound of limestone, which is then deposited in the form of travertine rock".(Taken from the Mammoth Springs trail guide). The thermophiles, the heat-loving organismes are the things that make the different colours, some prefrring cooler water and others warmer, so the colours can change with the seasons.