In the very northern corner of Yellowstone underground water bubbling up to the surface is depositing minerals as it runs off, forming these amazing travertine terraces with their multiple shades of yellow, red, brown and white. The colours are created by bacteria living in the water, with different bacteria living in different water temperatures.
The terraces are constantly changing, as the build-up of mineral deposits will force the water to change its course eventually, with new terraces forming while others are drying up and turning dull and grey. The mineral deposits have trapped trees, leaving only their dead skeletons after a while, while on the upper terraces volcanic fumes make dead trees appear as ghostly shadows through the fog.
There is a boardwalk across the terraces, up to the higher levels, and I loved going for a walk there early in the morning, when the sun lit up the colours, and there were very few people on the boardwalk, and it was just beautiful and peaceful there.
Well, it was peaceful for a while anyway until I heard a shot. I wondered what that might have been all about, but didn't think much more about it, until I saw a ranger waving his arms wildly to get people to come off the boardwalk. When I reached him he said that there was a black bear on the terraces, so I hoped to get a glimpse of it, but it must have been too far up the terraces, and I didn't get to see it. After 15 minutes or so we were given the all-clear and could go back onto the boardwalk. Very exciting :-).
Mammoth is always changing. The amount of water and where it is flowing changes all the time. Some start and some end with each earthquake. Even though the ones that have stopped are not pretty, those that are running are the most spectacular in the park.
This is an easy walk and a great deal of this can be done in the car.
Picture #3 was amazing to see in real life. The first time I was by there - without my camera - go figure - this spot was dry, right in the middle of the running water. It was like there was a tiny forest of rock built up in that little spot. Amazing is all I can say.
Terraces at Mammoth hot springs cannot be described unless showing pics of this wonderful and stunning nature's artcraft. In the morning can be very cold so that hot springs will produce a lot of fog, which can be very fashinating as well. Actually I raccomend to go there either early in the morning or just before sunset. The path is very easy, some steps, maybe long but absolutely unmissable until the end.
Mammoth is such a great spot. Things have changed and are constantly changing here. The springs move locations leaving what used to be stunning white from the hotel area a dull gray. You have to go to the Upper Geyser area to see the best of the new terraces.
These springs, geologic relics of tavertine rock slowly building due to the deposits from the subsurface water, are eerie and unique. They remind you of a time when the earth was a more primal, primitive place, ruled by the forces of fire and water. But they are also hauntingly beautiful, an alien landscape dropped into Wyoming. The boardwalk exudes various smells as you walk around the different active areas.
Not quite as interesting as the lower terraces - the upper terraces still have their moments. Here, the loop is a one and a half mile paved loop that you can drive through if you're so inclined. Unless you're really long on time, I'd do the drive. The highlight for me is Orange Spring Mound - mainly due to it's pretty coloring. Bacteria and algae create the color on the mound, with a shape the result of water flow and mineral deposits. The final point on the loop is Angel Terrace, which also has some nice coloring in the formation. You can see some more sights in my Mammoth travelogue.
There are two main trails that are used to see the geological features in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. The first is the Lower Terraces trail. Like many of the trails around the thermal areas, this one is a raised boardwalk, although there are many sections where you'll have to do a little climbing up some steps. Some of the features along this trail have very vibrant colors. You'll want to plan to spend time here - the path really isn't a loop, luckily there are a few maps along the way to help you figure out where you are. You can walk up to the main terrace and an overlook, but the views are as impressive as I expected. Among the highlights are Liberty Cap, a dormant 30+ foot cone and Minerva Terrace - which despite its current dormancy, is extremely intricate. You can see some more sights in my Mammoth travelogue.
The Lower Terraces at Mammoth can be seen from the viewpoints on the Upper Terrace drive but are best explored on foot, either from there or from the parking lots on the main loop road below. The main features are the terraces themselves (Mound, Jupiter and Minerva, plus Opal on the other side of the road); a number of springs including the colourful Palette Spring; and the weird Liberty Cap formation, a 37 foot high outcrop said to resemble the knitted caps worn by freedom fighters in the French Revolution – though it looked like something rather different to me ;)
The highlight of our visit to Mammoth was the patient posing of a bull elk on Opal Terrace who allowed us to take loads of photos while he (I suspect) warmed his back-side on what was a rather miserable, damp day.
The Upper Terrace Drive at Mammoth is a one-way loop road about 2 miles in length. It’s very winding and only cars are allowed (i.e. no RVs or buses). It provides access to a number of viewing points overlooking the travertine terraces below, some short boardwalks, and a number of features otherwise hidden from view by the trees.
I particularly liked the short stroll to Canary Spring which is great for capturing those bleak landscape photos (dead trees, haunting colours), and offers a glimpse of how the terraces are being constantly created. More fantastic colours can be seen on Orange Spring Mound, one of the features on the back road.
Mammoth Hot Springs area is the place to visit if you want to get a good sense of the way in which the geological formations of Yellowstone are being continuously created and shaped by the power of the forces below. Here the travertine formations create a series of white terraces and ledges, as seen on many images of Yellowstone. Apparently these formations change much more rapidly than others in the park and consequently the experience can be different for each visitor. As the park website warns:
"the location of springs and the rate of flow changes daily, "on-again-off-again" is the rule, and the overall volume of water discharged by all of the springs fluctuates little."
I confess I was a little disappointed in the terraces' overall appearance as on our visit so few had water in them or running through, so they looked fairly lifeless – an impression strengthened by the gloomy weather that day. Nevertheless this area is still a must on any tour of Yellowstone precisely because it is so different. And our day was made by the sighting of a bull elk posing patiently for those tourists who’d braved the showers.
There are two areas of Mammoth to be explored: the Upper Terraces which you can tour on a one-way loop road, with several good stopping places, and the Lower Terraces, best seen on foot. As there is so much to see I’ve written separate tips on each of these.
Mammoth Hot Springs is quite a bit different from the other thermal areas within Yellowstone National Park. Every other area in the park with thermal activity is located in a more or less flat section, usually in a river valley. Mammoth, on the other hand climbs up a steep hillside and is terraced. Another difference is the very changable look at Mammoth. Everywhere else, even if a geyser isn't erupting, it is usually steaming or hissing, and the pools are always colorful. At Mammoth the thermal activity changes and moves frequently, so it's rather hit and miss what you will see. Sometimes the terraces will be alive with color and activity. Other times it will appear dried up and a chalky white.
There is a system of boardwalks and stairs that climb up and down criss-crossing the terraces. When there is a lot of activity, it's worth climbing all the boardwalks. At other times, mostly what you'll get is 'snow blindness' from the bright white terraces. When we were there in July 2006, the only active area was Palette Spring, which is located at ground level, not far from the rest rooms. If you don't feel like climbing through the terrace, especially if it looks inactive, you best bet would be to head south on the highway to the Upper Terrace Drive. From there you are at the top of the terraces and can look down at them. Plus, when you continue along the one way road you'll come to some other non terraced thermal areas that were active when we visited, such as Orange Spring Mound.
Mammoth Hot Springs is near the north entrance of Yellowstone. Personally, I found this area a little disappointing, compared with the other thermal areas. There was hardly any water flowing out of the springs, and they did not look all that impressive.
( Note: we did see signs that said the amount of water fluctuates , depending on the time of the year).
Canary Spring can be accessed most easily by taking a short footpath that begins at the Upper Terrace Drive overlook parking lot. The path leads down to the edge of the hillside. There are two platforms which are usually shaded from the sun. The first platform is being overrun by the cascading water. Its build up has enveloped the trees plants and even the platform itself. As each living object is covered by the travertine formations they die as their roots are choked from water.
The Terraces that have been built up in the area are so other worldly that during the late 1970's the producers of Star Trek wanted to use it as a backdrop for the planet Vulcan. As a whole the hot springs in this area leech about 2 tons of travertine (Calcium Carbonate) limestone every day and about 500 gallons every minute. The most attractive feature of the terraces aside from their unusual formations is their color. Similar to the pools and springs in the Old Faithful area they contain an array of differently colored bacteria.
Mammoth Hot Springs are a vibrant array of color and a testament to the beauty of nature. The town at their base is often overlooked, but have a lot of history and other attractions to offer.
In the late 1800's it was the Base Camp for soldiers with the US Cavalry. The architecture and overall appearance of the town still reflect the old style. There is a Museum and a visitor's center as well as a hotel, restaurant, store, gas station, and even a post office.
The other spectator drawing pastime of Mammoth Springs is the heard of Elk that frequents the town. On the day I visited the male Elk were chasing each other around town while the females shaded themselves under a tree.
Minerva Terrace was inactive when I visited the park, but as recently as 1997 the spring was flowing over the Minerva Terrace. Without any heated water flowing over the terraces it just looked like a bunch of white steps. Even without the colorful algae that accompanies the heated water of an active spring, this terrace is impressive for its size.
It has a rather shallow slope in comparison to the others in the area. If I understand the nature of these springs that would suggest that the water flowing from this spring was flowing at a much higher volume than springs like Orange Mound Spring or even the New Blue Spring.
In its active periods though it is one of the more beautiful features and it was given its name for that reason. Minerva refers to the Roman goddess of art. These features as they say look almost like they were sculpted but they are all naturally occurring.